KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban and the Afghan government announced a cease-fire for the three days of the Islamic festival Eid al-Fitr, which starts on Sunday in Afghanistan, offering the war-torn nation a rare respite from violence that has been intensifying.
The insurgents, in a statement late Saturday, said they had instructed their fighters to attack only if their positions were hit. Hours later, President Ashraf Ghani, who recently ordered his troops to move into offensive operations amid increasing Taliban attacks, said Afghan security forces would comply.
“I welcome the cease-fire announced by the Taliban, and last evening I have ordered the security and defense forces to comply completely with the cease-fire and to remain on the defensive,” Mr. Ghani said.
This is only the second brief cease-fire that both sides have agreed to during the nearly two decades since the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001. The first cessation of violence, during Eid in 2018, was widely celebrated across Afghanistan as a rare glimpse of what the country could look like without war. Eid al-Fitr is an Islamic holiday that signifies the end of Ramadan, the holy month of daytime fasting.
The announcement of the latest cease-fire was widely welcomed by the United Nations, NATO and other allies of Afghanistan who have been urging the Taliban to stop the bloodshed, which has been threatening to derail a fragile peace process.
UNAMA welcomes Taliban & #Afghanistan government statements of a 3-day ceasefire over Eid. The Afghan people deserve a respite from violence. The UN urges parties to respect the halt to fighting & urgently look to make it permanent. Intra-Afghan peace negotiations need to start.
— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) May 23, 2020
In February, the insurgents and the United States signed an initial peace deal that lays out a phased withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, and the next steps of a process to end the war in a political settlement — including an exchange of up to 6,000 prisoners that will pave way for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides.
All of those steps have since hit obstacles, and the Taliban over the past couple months have intensified their attacks on Afghan forces even as they have left U.S. troops alone.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghan peace who has been shuttling around the region again in recent weeks despite Covid-19 travel restrictions, welcomed the cease-fire, which many hope can reset a bogged-down peace effort.
“This development offers the opportunity to accelerate the peace process,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “Other positive steps should immediately follow: the release of remaining prisoners as specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement by both sides, no returning to high levels of violence, and an agreement on a new date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
The Afghan government initially dragged its feet on the release of Taliban prisoners. The United States agreed to the Taliban’s demand for the release, but those talks did not include the Afghan government, which is holding the prisoners.
Would you like recommendations for more stories like this?Yes
After much pressure, the government said that it would release 5,000, though in a phased manner. Mr. Ghani had said that 1,500 would be released unconditionally as a good-will gesture, and the rest if the insurgents reduced their attacks.
More than two months later, his government has released only 1,000 prisoners, and Mr. Ghani halted the process after the insurgents intensified their attacks. The new cease-fire appears to be the compromise the president was seeking.
“As a responsible government, we will take another step — I announce that we will expedite the release of Taliban prisoners and serious steps will be taken,” Mr. Ghani said after the Eid prayer on Sunday morning.
Najim Rahim contributed reporting.