Afghanistan's violence reduction a fragile step toward peace

Elise BLANCHARD
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The Taliban and the United States have agreed to a "reduction in violence" in Afghanistan, but analysts say the attempt to stem the bloodshed is fraught with complications

The Taliban and the United States have agreed to a "reduction in violence" in Afghanistan, but analysts say the attempt to stem the bloodshed is fraught with complications (AFP Photo/THOMAS WATKINS)

Kabul (AFP) - Now that the Taliban and the United States have agreed to a "reduction in violence" across Afghanistan, hopes are high a comprehensive peace deal will eventually follow.

Though the move marks a historic step, analysts warn the attempt to stem Afghanistan's bloodshed is fraught with complications and could fail at any time.

Or, worse still, they say warring parties could exploit a lull to reconfigure their forces and secure a battlefield advantage.

"This is a really precarious situation and spoilers on all sides are already manoeuvring to upset the balance," Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, told AFP.

Pentagon chief Mark Esper said Thursday an agreement was in place for a "conditions-based", seven-day reduction in violence.

It was not clear when it may start -- a Taliban official said it was imminent, President Donald Trump said Thursday a full peace accord was "very close" and a US official said Friday it would begin "really soon."

- 'Everyone is hungry for peace' -

The United States has for more than a year been in talks with the Taliban for a deal to end a war that started after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Though the Afghan government was largely sidelined from negotiations, acting interior minister Massoud Andarabi told AFP the partial truce would also include national security forces, who are doing almost all the fighting on the ground.

Highlighting the fragility of the situation, he warned that if the "Taliban continue attacking, we will respond and the US will also assist us in responding to Taliban attacks."

A reduction in violence would show the Taliban can control their forces and demonstrate good faith ahead of an agreement that would see the Pentagon withdraw many of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.

The Taliban did not respond to requests for comment, but Mohammad Qasim, a deputy police chief in the southern province of Kandahar, which is largely under Taliban control, said the insurgents are ready for peace.

He said he had spoken to Taliban commanders via radio, and the interactions had been "positive".

"We did not have any attacks, blasts or clashes between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban in our entire district," Qasim said Friday, following news of the partial truce.

"Taliban fighters are also tired from the ongoing war. There is no benefit for them continuing the war -- everyone is hungry for peace to come," he added.

But Jackson warned a truce could leave government forces, already in a weak position in many provinces, even more vulnerable to insurgents.

"What I do worry about is that (the Taliban) see this as an opportunity to claim control," she said.

- 'Long talks and continual fighting' -

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said talks between the US and the Taliban had "made real progress" in recent days.

"We hope we can get to a place where we can get a significant reduction in violence not only on a piece of paper but demonstrated, the capability to actually deliver a serious reduction in violence in Afghanistan," he told reporters.

Despite the talks, Afghanistan's war has raged on, with the number of clashes jumping to record levels in the last quarter of 2019, according to a recent US government watchdog report.

The only other time there has been a Taliban ceasefire since 2001 was in 2018, during the first three days of Eid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

It invoked moving scenes such as Afghans sharing ice cream with Taliban fighters and snapping selfies with locals. But afterwards, the violence resumed.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said many players in Afghanistan's war would be happy to see the reduction in violence fail.

She said the Afghan government is deeply unhappy about the prospect of any deal between the Taliban and the US that would require talks with the Kabul administration, which would likely leave the Taliban with at least some share of power.

"Afghan history is one of long talks and continual fighting," Felbab-Brown said.

"Give it a few weeks. I would be surprised if violence stays at the level that the reduction period is supposed to demonstrate."