Afghan president announces holiday cease-fire with Taliban
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday announced a weeklong cease-fire with the Taliban to coincide with the holiday marking the end of Ramadan next week.
A statement sent from the president’s office on Thursday says the cease-fire will begin on 27 Ramadan, or June 12 on the Western calendar, and last through the Eid al-Fitr holiday, until around June 19. It says the cease-fire does not include al-Qaida or the Islamic State group.
There was no immediate comment from the Taliban, who have steadily expanded their presence in recent years, capturing a number of districts across the country and carrying out near-daily attacks, mainly targeting Afghan security forces.
Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, the army chief of staff, told reporters that Afghan forces would be on standby throughout the cease-fire and respond to any attacks. He also said the army would continue to battle “international terrorists,” apparently referring to al-Qaida and IS.
Ghani’s statement referred to a gathering of Afghanistan’s top clerics on Monday in which they issued a decree against suicide attacks and called for peace talks. A suicide bomber struck just outside the gathering as it was dispersing, killing at least seven people and wounding 20 in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
The Taliban had denounced the gathering, insisting that its jihad, or holy war, against foreign invaders was justified. It instead urged the clerics to side with it against the “occupation.”
The U.S. and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, but the U.S. still has thousands of forces based there in a support and counterterrorism role. The Trump administration has sent additional troops to try to change the course of America’s longest war.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the U.S. welcomed the cease-fire and that it indicates the Afghan government’s commitment to try to end the conflict.
“The United States and our international partners look to the Taliban to honor the ceasefire and demonstrate their respect for the people of Afghanistan who have long called for a reprieve to the Taliban’s campaign of violence,” he said.
In a statement, the U.S. forces said that they too would observe the ceasefire with the Taliban, but that it would not affect their counterterrorism efforts terrorist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida.
“We will adhere to the wishes of Afghanistan for the country to enjoy a peaceful end to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and support the search for an end to the conflict,” said Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and head of the NATO-led Resolute Support training mission.
“President Ghani’s peace offer was universally supported by the international community and the ceasefire represents another bold initiative for peace and is for the benefit of all Afghans,” Nicholson added.
The U.S. has said it is open to an Afghan-led peace process. Nicholson said last month that some elements of the Taliban are showing interest in peace talks.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the announcement and urged the Taliban to reciprocate the temporary cease-fire and accept Ghani’s peace offer “to commence direct talks to bring an end to the long suffering of the Afghan people,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the move and called on the Taliban to lay down their arms.
“The Taliban will not win on the battlefield,” he told reporters at a meeting of defense ministers. “The only way for them to achieve a solution is to sit down at the negotiating table.”
NATO has led international security efforts in Afghanistan since 2003. It wound down its combat mission in 2014 but its Resolute Support mission comprises almost 16,000 troops from around 40 countries. The conflict has been at a stalemate for several years, and NATO’s best chances of leaving lie in the Taliban agreeing to peace talks and eventually joining the government.
In the meantime, the insurgents have continued to carry out attacks. On Wednesday, the Taliban attacked a police post in the eastern Ghazni province, killing three police and wounding five others, according to Ramadan Ali Mosseny, the province’s deputy police chief.
In the eastern Khost province, a drive-by shooting at a mosque on Wednesday killed four people and wounded 15, said Talib Mangal, spokesman for the provincial governor. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the shooting, and it was not clear who the target was.