Afghanistan Awaits Taliban Response to Truce Offer
Afghanistan was Monday awaiting the Taliban's response to President Ashraf Ghani's proposal for a three-month ceasefire, an offer welcomed by the United States and NATO after nearly 17 years of war.
Ghani unveiled the offer during an Independence Day address late Sunday, saying police and troops would observe the truce from this week -- but only if the militants reciprocated.
The move followed an extraordinarily violent week in Afghanistan that saw the Taliban storm the provincial capital of Ghazni -- just a two-hour drive from Kabul -- and press the fight against security forces across the country, with estimates suggesting hundreds of people may have been killed.
It also came just hours after regional army spokesman Mohammad Hanif Rezaee said an airstrike against a Taliban convoy in the north of the country killed around 100 militant fighters.
The president said his office had cleared "all obstacles" to peace with the announcement following consultations with religious scholars, political parties and civil society groups.
The proposal was warmly welcomed by both NATO and the U.S., with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on the Taliban to take part.
It is not yet clear if U.S.-led NATO forces will participate in the ceasefire.
The truce offer was also welcomed by the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto, who added it was important "to seize all opportunities for a negotiated end to the conflict".
The Taliban did not immediately respond to Ghani's proposal, but vowed to release "hundreds" of "enemy prisoners" to mark the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday that starts this week.
It was not clear which prisoners they were referring to.
A senior Taliban member based in Pakistan told AFP the leadership had yet to issue a formal response to the ceasefire, but suggested fighting may be restrained during Eid even if no announcement is made.
The president's spokesman later slammed reports the Taliban may reduce fighting without formally declaring a truce.
"Any unofficial ceasefire or restraint in some parts of the country is not a ceasefire. If they announce it officially, we will hold it as long as they continue," Haroon Chakhansuri told reporters, adding that military operations were continuing in several provinces in the absence of a deal.
There have been no major reports of fighting between security forces and the Taliban since Ghani's speech.
- 'Looks desperate' -
Analysts were mixed over the proposal, with some saying the government's move was a sign of desperation after recent heavy bloodshed, while others said the trust-building measure was integral to paving the way for negotiations.
"After Ghazni City and everything else, this looks really desperate," tweeted Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Kabul-based military analyst Ateequllah Amarkhail however said the war had ground to a stalemate, and the Taliban needed to respond positively to open dialogue.
As anticipation mounted over a Taliban response, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish confirmed that some 140 people had been briefly kidnapped then set free in Kunduz early Monday.
He added that authorities did not know who was behind the abductions, which are common in the province. Local officials also could not confirm the culprits. Some media outlets reported that the Taliban may have been involved.
- Respite? -
If the militants accept the ceasefire, it would be just the second nationwide truce since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
The first, for just three days in June, saw thousands of insurgents pour into cities across Afghanistan, eating ice cream and posing for selfies with security forces to celebrate.
The brief respite spurred hopes that a new path was opening to peace talks.
Prior to Ghazni there had been tentative signs that diplomatic efforts to initiate peace negotiations were starting to bear fruit.
In June Washington indicated a shift in its longstanding policy that negotiations must be Afghan-led.
Last month Taliban representatives met U.S. officials for talks in Qatar, militant sources have told AFP.
Afghan security forces have suffered enormous losses since U.S.-led NATO combat forces withdrew in late 2014.
But it is ordinary Afghans who been suffered the most in the relentless conflict, especially in Kabul, which the U.N. has said is the deadliest place for civilians in Afghanistan.