Afghanistan’s need for peace is a realization that has been dawning on one diehard Taliban fighter ever since the United States and Taliban leaders signed a withdrawal deal Feb. 29.
The stocky, bearded Rahmatullah has done his part to keep up the pressure on government forces. Just last Friday, he says, he led an attempt to destroy his local Afghan National Army base, southwest of Kabul.
That attack failed, leaving one jihadist dead and three wounded.
Yet while that battle in Taliban-controlled Wardak Province adds one more datapoint of violence nationwide, it comes amid broader changes – in the thinking of some frontline fighters, like Rahmatullah, as well as among top leadership on both sides – that could finally yield progress toward peace.
For reasons for cautious optimism, analysts point to a new coalescing of political calculations that are focused by renewed U.S. pressure and leavened by the recognition that there may be a limit to leverage gained by protracted violence.
After five months of delay and waffling – marred by the killing of more than 4,300 Afghan soldiers and civilians alone – President Ashraf Ghani announced Tuesday that the government would soon complete a mass release of 5,000 prisoners, and that direct talks would start in a week. The Taliban stated Thursday it would complete its own release of 1,000 prisoners before starting a three-day cease-fire to mark the Muslim Eid holiday, which begins Friday.
In keeping with steps laid out by the U.S.-Taliban deal, such releases pave the way for direct intra-Afghan talks, which were meant to begin in March, lead to a more durable cease-fire, and eventually a peace agreement.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been in Kabul and Doha, Qatar, as part of a five-nation tour to pressure all players to move quickly. He is reported to have suggested extending the cease-fire.
For its part, the U.S. had by mid-June already withdrawn several thousand troops, bringing forces levels down to 8,600, as specified in the deal, with further reductions dependent on lower levels of violence and the Afghan talks.
That has meant a virtual stop to U.S. airstrikes against Taliban targets since March 1 – removing a threat that has made Rahmatullah reconsider his earlier commitment to permanent war.
“If we think logically, we really need peace,” says the veteran Taliban fighter, whose nom de guerre of Mullah Sarbakhod means one who rushes forward wildly, helter-skelter.
Before the U.S.-Taliban deal, “our life was like an animal’s life, we didn’t have a specific address, didn’t have enough food for us and our children,” says Rahmatullah, interviewed in the Wardak provincial capital of Maydan Shahr. Now he “feels good positive changes” and that he can “achieve my goals” because he can move freely and work on his land. He is digging a well in his garden – a task impossible before the easing of U.S. air strikes, he says.
“In these five months, we feel we should work for our community and stop war, because war will never bring prosperity,” says Rahmatullah. “Now I am thinking about my kids’ future; we should do something for them.”
The Taliban fighter’s talk of peace today is far from the hard-line position he articulated in late February, on the eve of the U.S.-Taliban deal. At the time he told The Christian Science Monitor he rejected peace attempts as “useless, because our Prophet, our fathers, our grandfathers ... were always in jihad, so that’s our only way, to continue jihad.”
Even today Rahmatullah says he will keep fighting as long as American forces are in Afghanistan. “I am still against that [U.S.-Taliban] deal, but I will agree and be optimistic when intra-Afghan dialogue becomes successful.”
Reaching that point will be the test of the upcoming three-day cease-fire – the third official cessation of hostilities since June 2018 – and what comes after. It is not clear how many Taliban fighters may have recently shifted their thinking about peace, much less accepted the view that their “victory” over the U.S., NATO, and Afghan security forces may yield, at the negotiating table, only a power-sharing deal with a Kabul government they deem as “un-Islamic.”
U.S. exit strategy?
“The Taliban are building a huge PR out of the cease-fire, by highlighting it as the greatest favor they can give to people, that they won’t kill civilians and target Afghans, again,” says Orzala Nemat, the Kabul-based director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank.
“What is more important here is to see any serious step toward kicking off the intra-Afghan dialogue,” says Ms. Nemat. “Any single day that we delay this process is making anyone in charge responsible for losses of human beings on either side. The Taliban and the government, they become the owner of any life we lose because of violence.”
And that price is high. President Ghani said this week that 3,560 members of the Afghan security forces and 775 civilians had been killed since signing the U.S.-Taliban deal. Afghans “are increasingly seeing the continuation of carnage instead of a peace dividend,” he said.
First Vice President Amrullah Saleh berated the Taliban’s Eid message, saying on Twitter that the jihadist cease-fire meant “no killing” for three days only, then required Afghans to “surrender to a medieval way of life or face bloodshed.”
What the United States has gained so far is more exit strategy than real peace, Ms. Nemat says. “It’s nothing close to peace, because where is the sign of peace?” she asks. “Releasing killers and suicide bombers is not peace, it’s a deal.”
The Taliban have nevertheless been making adjustments – such as the recent inclusion of four arch-conservative members in their negotiating team in Doha, Qatar – that appear designed to ease concerns among lower level commanders and fighters that their interests may be sold out by leaders they accuse of preferring luxury over the trenches.
At the same time, the Taliban are “giving a longer leash to the most aggressive Taliban commanders to keep fighting,” says a Western official based in Kabul, who asked not to be further identified. One young fighter in eastern Afghanistan told the Washington Post earlier this month, for example, that the Taliban would “only accept 100 percent of power” in the country. His commander claimed the goal of talks was “complete destruction” of the government.
“Victory for all Afghans”
The Taliban are used to simultaneously talking and fighting, but this time are carefully calibrating the scale of violence by mounting constant attacks while taking little new territory.
The result is they are keeping up pressure, “but not putting so much pressure that things might break,” says the official. “Right now, if they wanted to, they could overrun several districts, but they have held back.”
Those conducting such attacks include a Taliban deputy district chief, Suleiman Roostami, who a week ago led strikes against a string of small bases in Wardak Province, killing nine Afghan police and detaining seven others.
He told the Monitor last February how tired he was of the war, and how constant fighting often had little result.
“There are not changes in our life ... every day fighting, every day conflict, the only change is before we targeted U.S. forces, but now we target only Afghans,” the young-faced militant and father of four says now. He notes that Taliban fighters have become “very strong” during the past five months of training without the fear of U.S. airstrikes.
An American departure would be a “big victory” for the Taliban and worthy of celebration, he says. But he also hopes for national reconciliation.
“Personally, I want peace because I am really tired of this bad condition,” says Mr. Roostami. “If peace comes that will be a big victory for all Afghans, not only the Taliban, because all Afghans need peace, and we will enjoy our life.”
Reporting for this story was contributed by Hidayatullah Noorzai in Maydan Shahr, Afghanistan.
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