Rare Eid al-Fitr ceasefire in Afghanistan offers a chance to reconnect

The reports were scattered at first. On June 15, the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, pictures began surfacing on social media of Taliban fighters embracing Afghan security forces during the first ceasefire in the nearly 17 years of recent conflict.

A week earlier, in response to an edict by about 3,000 religious scholars, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had declared the unilateral eight-day ceasefire, beginning the final days of Ramadan and including Eid. Ghani has called it a “bold experiment.”

Soon after the government’s announcement, the Taliban declared a ceasefire of its own, for just three days over Eid. Neither ceasefire was absolute: the government’s only extended to the Afghan Taliban, not to any other militant group such as ISIS, and the Taliban ceasefire was only for Afghan forces, not international ones. The commander of U.S, and NATO  troops in Afghanistan agreed to abide by the government ceasefire.

Little by little the ceasefire was tested, first in villages and outlying areas, then Taliban fighters and supporters began coming into the city. By Saturday afternoon, the second day of the ceasefire, a convoy of cars flying the white Taliban flag, arrived at the edge of Kabul. They had come from Wardak province, to the west of the capital, where clashes between the Taliban and Afghan police and security forces are almost commonplace. As it does elsewhere, the Taliban has a shadow government there. During the ceasefire, it seemed all that was forgotten.

Afghan forces shake hands with Taliban fighters

At the gate to the capital, Afghan forces took photos with the arriving Taliban fighters. At one point a soldier traded weapons with a fighter for a picture. They then passed the weapons back to each other and shook hands.

Habibullah — a soldier who, like many Afghans, goes by just one name — was on a checkpoint nearby when the Taliban arrived.

Men hug each other after Eid al-Fitr prayers outside of Shah-e-Dushamshera mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 15, 2018. The Taliban had announced a three-day ceasefire. (Massoud Hossaini/The Associated Press)

“Today’s a celebration,”  he said. “We are happily gathered with our previously unhappy brothers. I’ve been here since the early morning, but I don’t feel stressed or tired because I am so happy. I could stand here all day.”

Nematullah, a Taliban fighter, said his heart nearly burst with joy when he heard that he could come into the city without harm. “My only message is there should be peace in our country, the fighting should end. There should be no war,” he said.

Zia ul Haq, a civilian, heard the news that the Taliban were here and left the traditional family Eid gathering to come see for himself. He carried his young daughter, a toddler, in his arms.

“We hope for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, we must be proud of this peaceful moment and we hope it will last forever.”

Old bonds rekindled

The peace was shattered by a suicide bomber in eastern Afghanistan, who detonated a car bomb among a gathering of the Taliban and Afghan forces and civilians. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack that killed more than 30 and injured dozens more.

But the bombing didn’t stop the hundreds of encounters between the Taliban, security forces and civilians to continue around the country.

In the centre of Kabul, the Taliban posed for photos in Massoud Circle, named for the monument to Ahmed Shah Massoud, who fought the Taliban for years, and was assassinated by al-Qaeda on Sept. 9, 2001, just before the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. The monument is outside high blast walls a few hundred meters from the American Embassy. A number of Taliban asked passersby about the best place to find ice cream. In the upscale Qale Fatullah neighbourhood in the centre of the city, several carloads of Taliban arrived for lunch with a relative.

The younger men were outside in the garden, older men in white turbans were seated inside, on traditional cushions, eating raisins and nuts and waiting for lunch to be served.

Their host, Mohammad Agul Mujahid, said he had invited them to his home to celebrate the holiday. Many were cousins and friends he had not seen in years. The ceasefire offered a unique opportunity.

The men were from the Ghorband Valley, to the northwest of Kabul, on the road to the province of Bamiyan. They said they had not been in the capital for more than 15 years and that they hoped the peace would continue, but that it was not entirely up to them. They would wait to see what happened.

The Kabul they returned to is vastly different than the one they left, with new high-rise apartment buildings, paved roads, shops and restaurants and a population that has swelled by an estimated five million people.

‘A quest for inclusion’

Before the end of Eid, the government extended the ceasefire unilaterally. The Taliban did not. It explained in a statement that its ceasefire was not in response to the government’s but only for the goodwill of the people. It said its success showed the Taliban was unified and cohesive.

Ghani wrote in the New York Times that the ceasefire “proved the wisdom of the Afghan people over all other assumption” and that “imagination and a quest for inclusion are more potent than bullets and bombs.”

The rare ceasefire allowed people on opposite sides of the conflict to reconnect. (Massoud Hossaini/The Associated Press)

Less than a week after they were embracing their government counterparts, the Taliban in Wardak kidnapped 80 security forces and took over a number of checkpoints after days of fighting.

The Taliban denies there have been any reconciliation talks by any of its representatives. Gen. John Nicholson, the head of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan said in Pentagon briefing in May that “a number of channels of dialogue have opened up between the various stakeholders in the peace process.”

“You see mid-level, senior-level Taliban leaders engaging with Afghans,” he said in the statement. 

Ghani says he’s willing to talk to the Taliban anywhere, any time.

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