Friday, June 22, 2018

A "Remarkable" Afghan Ceasefire

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: The U.S. and Afghanistan have an opportunity to advance their strategic goal of negotiating an acceptable settlement with the Taliban, but not all Taliban members are reconcilable. The Taliban faces a potential rift between its leadership and rank-and-file militants in Afghanistan that threatens the Taliban’s cohesion. Large numbers of rank-and-file militants expressed their support for peace during unprecedented joint celebrations alongside Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during a nationwide ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr on June 15 - 17. The ceasefire’s events exposed rifts amongst Taliban leadership concerning reconciliation. The U.S. and the Government of Afghanistan could exploit these apparent rifts in order to advance their strategic goal of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. The new momentum towards peace could nonetheless generate additional pressure for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan amidst the scheduled 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections. ISIS - Wilayat Khorasan could also exploit these rifts in to bolster its recruitment of hardline Taliban militants and expand its operations in Afghanistan.

What Happened 

The Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) engaged in “remarkable scenes” of joint celebration during a three-day ceasefire observed by both the Taliban and the ANSF. The Government of Afghanistan estimated that up to 30,000 Taliban militants entered government-held cities across the country during the three-day truce in honor of the end of Ramadan.[1] The gatherings reportedly occurred in several regions that have seen intense fighting during the Taliban’s 2018 Al-Khandaq Offensive including Faryab, Farah, Ghazni, and Kunduz Provinces as well as traditional Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Even “senior” leaders reportedly met with government officials in Zabul and Logar Provinces. Taliban fighters interviewed by the media repeatedly expressed their fatigue with continued violence and their growing desire for peace.

The ceasefire could validate President Ghani’s strategy to achieve a negotiated settlement. Ghani offered the Taliban full political reconciliation in exchange for a ceasefire and the resumption of peace negotiations on February 28. The Taliban refused to acknowledge the offer officially, although multiple U.S. officials have claimed that elements of the Taliban including “senior-level leaders” are “clearly interested” in talks with the Government of Afghanistan since Ghani’s peace offer. Ghani later unilaterally announced the ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr on June 7 despite ongoing operations by the Taliban that threatened at least seven provincial capitals around Afghanistan. The Taliban bowed to public pressure and announced their own nominally-unrelated ceasefire on June 9. Ghani has attempted to leverage the apparent success of the truce to spur further political progress. Ghani announced a unilateral ten-day extension of the ceasefire - until June 30 – on June 17. He also stressed that his government is open to negotiations with the Taliban on “issues of mutual concern” including the “presence of foreign forces” in Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership has thus far rejected further extension of a ceasefire and has resumed its attacks in some remote locations. The Taliban spokesperson stated that the group has “no intention to extend the ceasefire" on June 17 and resumed offensive operations throughout Afghanistan including on June 18. Taliban militants conducted significant attacks in Faryab, Badghis, and Farah Provinces since their ceasefire’s expiration. The Taliban may intend to exploit the government’s extended ceasefire to amass fighters and launch a coordinated operation against vulnerable provincial capitals in Faryab or Farah Provinces. The Taliban also executed smaller attacks in many provinces where joint celebrations occurred such as Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, and Helmand.


The Taliban faces a potential rift between its leadership and rank-and-file militants in Afghanistan that threatens the Taliban’s cohesiveness. Taliban militants repeatedly violated a formal directive from their leadership to avoid government-controlled areas on June 16. Taliban fighters also demanded an extension to the ceasefire in parts of Paktika Province controlled by the hardline Haqqani Network. The Taliban released an official post-ceasefire statement stressing the organizational cohesion and control demonstrated by the “successful implementation” of the truce despite the clear violations of leadership orders.[2] The Taliban leadership also allegedly considered a ten-day ceasefire for late 2018 due to growing pressure for a negotiated settlement within the Taliban. The Government of Afghanistan and the U.S. could attempt to exploit the apparent divisions within the Taliban to split rank-and-file fighters from their leadership if the Taliban refuses to engage with Kabul.

The Taliban also faces a power struggle within its ruling Quetta Shura. The ceasefire could exacerbate a rift between Taliban leaders who are open to reconciliation and hardliners unwilling to negotiate a settlement. The joint celebrations reportedly surprised and angered some Taliban leaders including Taliban Second Deputy Leader Mullah Yaqoob.[3] Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada – a reported moderate - may use widespread support for peace amongst the rank-and-file to consolidate his control within the Quetta Shura vis-à-vis hardliners such as Mullah Yaqoob and First Deputy Leader Siraj Haqqani. This power struggle predates the ceasefire. Akhundzada reportedly reshuffled multiple shadow governors and senior leaders to increase his control over the movement in February 2018. Rumors of additional post-ceasefire leadership changes may further demonstrate shifting dynamics in favor of Akhundzada. The weakening of hardliners like Haqqani - who maintains close ties to al Qaeda and Pakistan - in favor of Akhundzada could open space for peace-inclined factions of the Taliban to pursue a negotiated settlement. Hardline elements are likely to continue the fight against Kabul.

The U.S. could exploit these apparent rifts in order to advance its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. The U.S. intends to use military and diplomatic means to pressure the Taliban to negotiate a peace settlement with the Government of Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is “prepared to support, facilitate, and participate” in peace negotiations that would include “a discussion of the role of international actors and forces” in Afghanistan on June 16. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells reaffirmed the willingness to participate in negotiations but reiterated the established U.S. position that the Taliban must negotiate directly with the Government of Afghanistan on June 20. Incoming U.S. Forces – Afghanistan Commander Lt. Gen. Scott Miller has also testified that a political settlement must end the War in Afghanistan.

The U.S. nonetheless must remain cautious that the peace process does not jeopardize its access to Afghanistan. Members of the both houses of the Afghan Parliament have criticized the U.S. role in Afghanistan since May 2018. Some members of the upper house have called for the review or cancellation of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the U.S. and Afghanistan.[4] Meanwhile, peace protesters marching from Helmand Province to Kabul to encourage reconciliation with the Taliban have also demanded a specific timeline for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Taliban sources have also claimed that a clearly-defined timeline for withdrawal could have persuaded Taliban leadership to accept a ceasefire extension after Eid al-Fitr. These converging demands for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan could begin to spiral into a widespread populist movement ahead of the scheduled 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections and 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections. The U.S. must not depart abruptly or under a fixed timeline but rather through a gradual drawdown after setting and testing the conditions for sustained peace in Afghanistan.

ISIS could also exploit the ceasefire and possibility of a negotiated settlement to expand its operations in Afghanistan. ISIS’s Afghanistan branch, ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, claimed two separate attacks that targeted joint celebrations between the Taliban and ANSF in Nangarhar Province during Eid al-Fitr. The statements noted that the attacks targeted gatherings of both the ANSF and “the apostate Taliban Movement.” The Taliban later released a post-ceasefire statement arguing that the Taliban is the only movement leading “jihad across the country,” and adding that “multiple parties [are] not participating in this jihad.”[5] The statement - while directed against the U.S. assessment of a fractured jihadist movement in Afghanistan - may also highlight the Taliban leadership’s concern that the ceasefire will harm their credentials as the leaders of the jihad in Afghanistan. ISIS could position itself to recruit dissatisfied hardline members of the Taliban if Taliban leadership begin openly pursuing a peaceful settlement with the Government of Afghanistan.

[1] The Government of Afghanistan initially announced a unilateral eight-day ceasefire from June 12 - 20 before extending it to June 30. The Taliban’s “unrelated” ceasefire only lasted from June 15 - 17.
[2] “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding end of three day Eid ceasefire,” Voice of Jihad. June 17, 2018. https://alemarah-english(.)com/?p=30455%5C
[3] Mullah Yaqoob is the son of the Taliban’s founder – Mullah Omar.
[4] Including Mohammad Alam Ezedyar – the First Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament and a “leading” member of Jamiat-e Islami
[5] “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding end of three day Eid ceasefire,” Voice of Jihad. June 17, 2018. https://alemarah-english(.)com/?p=30455%5C