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In Afghanistan, ceasefires will amount to little in a war that has raged for years

Afghanistan’s temporary ceasefire is better than none, but likely represents little more than a brief interlude in a war poised to continue for many years

Michael Kugelman
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The Afghan government and the Taliban have announced separate temporary ceasefires to mark the end of the Ramadan holiday.

This is no small matter. It’s the first time in the history of the nearly 17-year war that either side has declared any type of truce.

Unfortunately, however, not much good – and certainly not a peace process, much less peace – is likely to result from the ceasefires. Despite the hopeful precedent that’s been set, it’s best to keep our expectations firmly in check.

The Afghan government hopes the Taliban will view Kabul’s unilateral truce as a goodwill gesture that prompts the insurgents to stop fighting for an extended period, either now or later on.

Given the fact that the Taliban can’t be defeated militarily, extending olive branches makes good sense. But it’s a strategy that, in the end, won’t work. Indeed, in an ominous sign, the Taliban launched a new offensive in Ghazni province, in southeastern Afghanistan, on Tuesday, the day the government’s ceasefire took effect.

Simply put, the Taliban continues to believe it’s winning its war. And so long as it believes it’s winning, it will have zero incentive to stop fighting.

In reality, the Taliban – which tends to exaggerate its achievements – isn’t about to overthrow the government and seize control of the country. But it continues to score tactical victories that keep it emboldened, confident, on the offensive, and wholly opposed to stepping off the battlefield.

Just a few weeks ago, the Taliban briefly seized some government facilities in the provincial capital of Farah, in western Afghanistan – far from its traditional strongholds in the south and east. This is an insurgency that, according to the most credible estimates, controls or contests between 40 to 50 percent of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts.

So if the Taliban is determined to keep fighting, why would it reciprocate Kabul’s brief truce with its own?

First, it’s an opportunity to project itself as a responsible actor to its fellow Afghans – particularly in rural Afghanistan. In Kabul and many other urban spaces, the Taliban mostly blows things up. But in rural areas, where it enjoys actual influence and control, it seeks to project itself as a population-friendly insurgency.

Second, several days off from fighting gives the Taliban an opportunity to regroup and reload – and therefore strengthen its battlefield capacities.

All this said, even the harshest critic can’t deny that a temporary ceasefire has its advantages. The obvious benefit is humanitarian. Few nations in the world have faced conflict as relentlessly and endlessly as has Afghanistan. Last year, according to the United Nations, more than 10,000 Afghans were killed or injured. Any lull in fighting, no matter how fleeting, is a good thing.

Another positive of a brief ceasefire is that it underscores the future possibility, no matter how remote and how far down the road, for some type of reconciliation process between Kabul and the Taliban. Over the years, there have been several failed backchannel efforts and other false starts toward peace. But until now, there had never been a moment when both sides decided to stop fighting for even the briefest period of time.

Still, if there’s any chance of the Taliban going beyond brief truces and agreeing to negotiate an end to the war, Kabul and its American partner will need to pull off one of three feats. Unfortunately, none of them is likely anytime soon, if at all.

The first option is to intensify the battlefield pressure on the Taliban until it starts feeling the heat and concludes fighting no longer makes sense. This is the very outcome that the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy hopes to achieve. However, given that U.S. troops couldn’t pull this off during the height of the surge, with 100,000 forces in place, they certainly won’t do it now with less than 20,000.

The second option is to make the Taliban an offer it simply can’t refuse – such as formally ceding Taliban-controlled territory to the insurgents if they agree to stop fighting. As desperate as Kabul is for peace, such an outright capitulation to the Taliban would be unthinkable.

The third option is for Washington to put together a formal reconciliation strategy that includes honoring a longstanding Taliban demand – direct talks with the insurgents. However, Washington has repeatedly indicated it won’t agree to direct talks, and it’s quite possible the Taliban would keep fighting even if Washington agreed to them. Additionally, the U.S. government – particularly a State Department marginalized by the White House and hamstrung by multiple unfilled senior South Asia-focused posts – lacks the bandwidth to craft a negotiating strategy in Afghanistan.

A temporary ceasefire is better than no ceasefire. Sadly, however, the one playing out in Afghanistan likely represents little more than an all-too-brief interlude in a war poised to rage on for many more years to come.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Follow him on Twitter: @michaelkugelman.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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