Taliban deny reports of ceasefire with US

But experts expect truce agreement to emerge as both sides work towards peace deal

FILE - In this May 28, 2019, file photo, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, second left, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow, Russia. U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 the first official talks with Afghanistan's Taliban since last September when President Donald Trump declared a near-certain peace deal with the insurgents dead. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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The Taliban on Monday rejected reports of a ceasefire in Afghanistan, although analysts said a truce appeared to be only a matter of time.

"The fact is that the [Taliban] has no decision on a ceasefire," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

"The Americans have demanded a reduction in violence and the [Taliban's] internal consultations on this specific issue are ongoing."

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman at the Taliban's office in Qatar, wrote on Twitter that any truce would be announced to the public.

But close observers of developments in Afghanistan remain cautiously optimistic that US and the insurgents could agree on a truce in the near future as negotiations for a permanent peace deal advance.

“The ceasefire will happen but the Taliban still have a lot of homework to do, and such a ceasefire has to be nationwide,” said Hekmatullah Azamy, deputy director at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul.

The Taliban would prefer a limited ceasefire, Mr Azamy said.

“From what I understand, the Taliban would be more open to discussing reducing violence in certain provinces rather than a full ceasefire, considering they already believe to have control over vast swathes of Afghan territory,” he said.

Such a deal would also require a process to measure and monitor the violence, Mr Azamy said.

“The Taliban don’t trust the US to stick to their deal, especially since talks were halted on at least three occasions by the US, the most recent being the announcement by President Trump in September this year,” he said.

While the Taliban continue to attack US targets, they also claim they have been attacked by American forces.

Mr Azamy said that if a ceasefire or agreement to reduce violence were reached, it would not be made public because that would make it harder to establish.

He said the insurgents might also want to keep a complete ceasefire for bargaining with the Afghan government in talks expected to follow a peace deal with the US.

“This could be the only thing they could give to the Afghans rather than the US,” Mr Azamy said.

For more than a year, the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has led negotiations with the insurgent group to end what has become America's longest war.

But after eight rounds of meetings, the talks were called off in September by US President Donald Trump after an American soldier was killed in a Taliban attack.

Mr Trump said a deal was close to being struck with the Taliban, who had been invited to Camp David, that would result in the estimated 14,000 American troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan.

The invitation was rescinded after the attack.

The talks picked up again in late November, although there had been little information on progress made until reports of a ceasefire emerged on Sunday.

“Many groups are putting pressure on the Taliban to agree but they still haven’t reached consensus within the group,” Mr Azamy said.

While most Afghan government officials refrained from commenting, a senior official with Ministry of Peace said the government’s position on a ceasefire was unchanged.

The Afghan government has repeatedly called for an unconditional ceasefire before direct talks with the Taliban could take place.

The only ceasefire in the war took place between Afghan forces and the Taliban during three days of Eid last year, raising hopes for the start of negotiations between the two groups.

But the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government, raising concerns about the legitimacy of any deal.

“The current conditions for ceasefire is more for the US and lesser for the Afghan government," Mr Azamy said. "The latter wants to test Taliban’s commitment and their internal unity with this ceasefire."

The US is keen “to avoid criticism from the Afghan government and the international community for agreeing to only a Taliban-US ceasefire”.