Nato's top civilian representative in Afghanistan has urged the Taliban to come to the negotiating table, saying an unprecedented ceasefire in June shows that the group can win political recognition and bring an end to the group's 17-year conflict with the government and western forces.
In an exclusive interview with The National, Ambassador Cornelius Zimmermann, the military alliance's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said there is a genuine chance of peace, given a sweeping desire among ordinary Afghans for an end to fighting.
The three-day Eid truce in June opened up the potential for political acceptance of the Taliban, once thought highly improbable, he said, and consequently the insurgents and other parties must capitalise on this.
"There is an overwhelming and universal demand for peace among the Afghan public. Afghans have suffered enough and the ceasefire showed that peace is possible," he said.
"Now, the Taliban must show that they are genuinely willing to play their part to ensure lasting peace and security for the benefit of all Afghans.
"They must understand that they cannot win on the battlefield, but that they can gain a place in Afghan society and politics at the negotiating table."
The months that have followed the end of the ceasefire have been typically bloody, particularly in recent weeks when the Taliban laid siege to the southern city of Ghazni, killing hundreds and burning marketplaces and government premises.
The group's fighters have also attacked other areas of the country and captured several rural districts, while rival militant faction ISIS targeted the capital, Kabul.
Yet Mr Zimmerman believes the initial, breakthrough truce has signalled a change and a unique opening for lasting quiet in the country.
“Afghans no longer just yearn for peace, they believe in it and have actively begun working for it,” he said. Just one example of that grassroots peace movement was the march by dozens of Afghans to the capital. They walked 700 kilometres from Helmand, Kandahar and Herat to Kabul in a peace march that coincided with the ceasefire in June and which captivated the country.
Several key developments this year could all contribute to peace. President Ashraf Ghani has offered the Taliban unconditional talks and United States officials have reversed posture, meeting Taliban figures face-to-face for the first time, in Qatar, where their diplomatic mission is hosted. In another first, the militant group said it would send emissaries to Moscow for Russia-backed talks, despite US and Afghan refusals to attend.
The Eid Al Fitr ceasefire raised hopes of progress after Taliban fighters entered Afghan cities and, in astonishing scenes, were pictured mixing with government soldiers in a spirit of peace.
There was no violence, making it the first ceasefire to hold since the 2001 US invasion of the country that removed the Taliban from power.
The revival of Taliban attacks since June has dimmed prospects of talks again, after the last round broke down in 2015. The militant group now controls more than 60 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and President Ghani has drawn criticism for his failure to stem the insurgency.
Despite offering a second, conditional truce to mark the Eid Al Adha holiday, the Taliban has yet to accept. It has said it would first formally negotiate with the Americans – a long-sought aim – over the "illegitimate" Afghan government.
Adding to President Ghani's woes, his national security adviser quit last week and he rejected the resignations of his intelligence chief, interior and defence ministers over recent attacks.
But Mr Zimmermann, who directs Nato’s political objectives in Afghanistan, says the president is a "visionary" who has lifted the peace agenda to "unprecedented heights".
"Making peace is vastly more challenging than making war," he said. "That is why President Ghani should be applauded for his courage and supported in these efforts."
Despite his optimism, difficulties remain. A widespread buy-in across the political spectrum, from the government, militant groups and civilians – both men and women – will be essential, he said.
“What I would caution is that expectations need to be carefully managed. The ceasefire was only a first step towards confidence-building. The peace process is still very much in the nascent stages. Peace processes are also inherently combustible and chaotic. There will be setbacks and hurdles."
One pervasive obstacle is support for the Taliban from countries opposed to US and Nato's aims in Afghanistan.
Russia and Iran have both been accused of providing support to the militant group and of undermining American and alliance peace efforts. Mr Zimmermann said those playing both sides in the conflict must stop.
"It is an unfortunate fact that some neighbouring states feel the need to have ‘hedging strategies’ whereby they provide support to the Afghan government whilst maintaining contact and even support to other non-state actors such as the Taliban," he said.
"We will get there much quicker if we work together and not at cross-purposes to one another."
To that end, he welcomed the UAE’s continued role in supporting the Nato mission in Afghanistan. Abu Dhabi was officially inaugurated into the training, assistance and advisory mission at the alliance’s Brussels summit in July, at which funding for the Afghan security forces – specifically Kabul’s special forces and air force – was extended until 2024.
"The inclusion of the UAE and other Muslim states in the Resolute Support Mission illustrates the widespread desire that exists for peace in Afghanistan," he said.
"It is clear that lasting security in Afghanistan does not only benefit the stability of this country, but also – and more broadly – regional and international stability."
Afghanistan has spent almost the entire 21st century at war. But for peace to happen, Mr Zimmermann is clear that those spearheading the protracted war must now take heed of the voices that matter the most: Afghan men and women.
"The people have spoken," he said, "and leaders on both sides must recognise this."