WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - The Afghan Taliban has declared its first-ever ceasefire since the U.S. invasion in 2001, but it makes one important exception: it doesn't apply to U.S. forces.
Taliban forces will cease offensive operations against Afghan forces over the Muslim Eid holiday, which runs from June 14-17 in Afghanistan. It is separate and distinct from a unilateral ceasefire declared by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday which will run until June 20. U.S. forces will also observe the Afghan ceasefire, though they will continue counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
"With the ceasefire announcement, we epitomize the strength of the Afghan government and the will of the people for a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict," said Ghani on Twitter after the announcement.
It was the first unilateral ceasefire Ghani has declared since winning the presidency in 2014. The Afghan government and its American allies hope that it will bring the sides closer to peace discussions in the future. Their ultimate goal is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and seek a diplomatic resolution to a conflict that has raged for more than 16 years.
We are firmly committed to a political solution to the conflict with the Taliban. Our unconditional peace offer is comprehensive and we are pleased that for the 1st time the Ulema of Afghanistan have provided the total religious justification as to why the conflict should cease.— Ashraf Ghani (@ashrafghani) June 10, 2018
"The Afghan government’s offer of a temporary ceasefire underscores its commitment to peace as both a national and religious responsibility," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement. "We stand with the Afghan people as they lay the foundation for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process."
The two ceasefires come after a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, from Afghanistan's Ulema, or religious scholar council, condemned the violence in Afghanistan which continues to claim thousands of lives each year. That influence likely had a large part to play in both ceasefire declarations, but the fact that there are two ceasefires to begin with reflects the massive division between the two sides, noted Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, in an interview.
"We want the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government, that's the goal ... and then the Taliban can join the government," said Roggio. "The Taliban, first of all, don't want them. They view the government as a puppet, they are un-Islamic, they are puppets of the West."
But U.S. officials believe their strategy of grinding the Taliban down to force them to negotiate may be working, despite the discord. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has pointed to an open letter released by the Taliban government addressed to the American people as showing that the group is possibly interested in talks.
"I think there's a couple reasons this occurred," Nicholson told NATO TV in April. "One is the increased military pressure that the U.S. south Asia policy puts on the enemy on the battlefield. Secondly, though, is the diplomatic pressure."
Combined with the internal pressure from Afghan citizens who are fed up with more than a decade and a half of fighting, Nicholson believes the Taliban will be forced to come to the table. But Roggio believes the letter is being misinterpreted.
"What the Taliban said in this letter is U.S. forces ... withdraw from Afghanistan, and once that happens then the Taliban will talk peace," said Roggio. "That's not a peace plan, that's you leave and we win."
Peace negotiations in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion have generally failed. One particular escapade in 2010 included months of talks with a man who was believed to be a high-level Taliban commander. He turned out to be an imposter who fleeced the coalition for what one Western official described to the New York Times as "a lot of money."
That said, the Taliban isn't opposed to negotiations outright.
"They'll negotiate with the United States, but the terms of those negotiations are the U.S. ends its occupation and then we will settle the conflict in Afghanistan," said Roggio.
It all comes back to the idea that the Afghan government is an American "puppet," noted Roggio. Taliban leaders believe it's Washington that really holds the power in Kabul, so they prefer to deal with U.S. officials -- with the caveat that U.S. forces leave first, of course.