AFGHANISTAN AND optimism does not tend to go hand in hand, so the atmosphere of silent anticipation in the country in recent days has been striking. Afghans hope that America and the Taliban insurgents, who have been fighting for over 18 years, will sign a peace agreement on February 29. This, in turn, depends on whether the “reduction in violence” of a week promised by both parties is continued until then. Even if the agreement is effectively signed as planned, peace remains far away.
The partial truce began on February 22, the fruit of more than 18 months of negotiations between the Taliban and America in Qatar. The two sides have not made public exactly how much they expect peace, and America and its allies NATO did not disclose the number of violent incidents. Afghan reports indicate that the Taliban should spare towns and villages, as well as military bases and highways. The Taliban leadership told its fighters to “remain defensive vigilant” but to “strictly refrain from entering enemy territory”. Afghan and American forces, for their part, said they would only fire in self-defense, although they also promised to continue fighting the Afghan wing of ISIS.
Both parties seem to stick to these terms. According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group, a typical February in recent years has seen an average of 57 peace violations each day. Afghan journalists estimate that since the start of the truce, clashes have fallen by more than 90%, to three or four a day. Although some Afghan soldiers and civilians were killed, there were far fewer deaths than usual, and no recrimination on either side. General Scott Miller, the commander of NATO on February 25, spoke of a “downward trend in violence”, “excellent for Afghanistan”.
The logic of reducing violence is twofold. First, the lull is a measure of confidence, to show that the Taliban are serious about peace, even if they are not ready to accept a complete ceasefire. Second, the calm is intended to demonstrate that militants can control their fighters – a subject in some doubt, as the greatest conflict encompasses all kinds of local conflicts and tribal rivalries.
As The Economist went to press, it seemed likely that the truce would continue and that the signing of the peace agreement would continue as planned in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The outline of the agreement remains unchanged in September, when President Donald Trump brutally halted talks of anger at the continued Taliban attacks. America will quickly reduce its troops in Afghanistan from around 12,000 to around 8,600. In return, the Taliban promise not to host foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, and to enter into negotiations with civilian politicians. and other community leaders on how Afghanistan should be run. During these negotiations, America will further reduce its garrison. The ultimate goal is a kind of power-sharing agreement between Afghan politicians and the Taliban, the end of all hostilities and the withdrawal of all, or almost all, American troops.
U.S. officials deny that Trump is rushing to the door. Troop withdrawal will be “conditional,” insists Defense Secretary Mark Esper. But what exactly are these conditions – and what happens if they are breached – has not been revealed. The Taliban also tried to convince skeptics of their sincerity. Sirajuddin Haqqani, their dreaded deputy chief, best known for ordering blind car attacks, used the opinion pages of the New york times to declare their desire to end the violence and to create an inclusive government.
However, forging a political agreement between the Taliban, the government and the many warlords and power brokers in Afghanistan will be extremely difficult. A symptom of the difficulties is a bitter feud over who should be president. After a five-month count, the electoral commission recently said that Ashraf Ghani was re-elected in a vote that took place in September. His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, disputes the results and says that he forms his own government.
“It is time to focus not on electoral politics, but on steps for lasting peace,” the US State Department said in a statement on February 25. Ghani has agreed to postpone his inauguration, US officials said, likely to allow time to resolve the dispute.
Bigger arguments are looming. “What kind of political system will there be and which will take over most of the government or authority,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a Taliban official who has become a peace activist. “It will be the realm of competition.” On the one hand, Afghans who want the Taliban to accept the current democratic constitution, with its protections for women and minorities. But some Taliban extremists see the status quo as the product of the American occupation and want to reimpose the Islamic “emirate” that the Taliban ruled in the 1990s.
Whatever happens next, the Afghans welcome the current respite. In some war-affected areas, it was celebrated with spontaneous sports matches and dances. The mobile phone service has also been restored in a territory where it is frequently cut by activists. “We are thirsty for peace,” said Muhammad Ehsan, a politician from Kandahar. “It is a priority for us.” The country is holding its breath. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Can it be?”