The Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire during the Eid al-Fitr holiday starting Sunday in a surprise move following months of bloody fighting with Afghan forces after the group signed a landmark agreement with the United States.
President Ashraf Ghani swiftly welcomed the insurgents’ offer and ordered his forces to also comply, while the US envoy to Afghanistan hailed the deal as a “momentous opportunity”.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement posted on social media that the group’s “leadership instructs all the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate to take special measures for security of the countrymen, and conduct no offensive operation against the enemy anywhere.”
The statement, which announced a halt to hostilities “during the three days of Eid”, instructed Taliban fighters to refrain from entering government areas and also said that Kabul forces were not allowed to enter territories under their control.
Since the US invasion in 2001 there has only been one other pause in the fighting – a surprise three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and Kabul marking the religious festival of Eid in 2018.
That ceasefire call was given by Ghani, which the insurgents had accepted.
During the brief lull in fighting at that time, Afghans responded joyfully, with Taliban fighters, security forces and civilians hugging, sharing ice creams and posing for selfies in previously unimaginable scenes.
Ghani was quick to accept the Taliban ceasefire offer Saturday.
“I welcome the ceasefire announcement by the Taliban,” he said on Twitter.
“As commander-in-chief I have instructed ANDSF (Afghan National Defence Security Force) to comply with the three-day truce and to defend only if attacked.”
The announcement comes just days after the Taliban’s leader Haibatullah Akhundzada urged Washington “not to waste” the opportunity offered by the deal the militants signed with the United States in February that set the stage for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the agreement… and urges the other side to honour its own commitments and not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste,” Akhundzada said in a statement, using the Taliban’s name for Afghanistan.
The signing of the deal between the United States and Taliban was preceded by a so-called “reduction in violence” but not an official ceasefire.
US Special Representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered the deal, said on Twitter Saturday that the United States welcomed “the Taliban’s decision to observe a ceasefire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government announcement reciprocating and announcing its own ceasefire.”
He urged the Taliban to continue to abide by the agreement, calling the halt in violence “a momentous opportunity that should not be missed” while pledging that the United States would “do its part to help”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also welcomed the ceasefire, urging all parties to “seize this opportunity for peace, for the benefit of all Afghans”.
US pushes for peace
The US-Taliban deal is aimed at paving the way for the insurgents to hold direct peace talks with Kabul.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has made it a priority to end the war in Afghanistan, and in a bid to pull out foreign forces US officials have been pushing the Taliban and government leaders to hold peace talks.
Analysts however say the Taliban have been emboldened by the deal with the US, and Afghan government officials have reported more than 3,800 attacks since it was signed, killing 420 civilians and wounding 906.
But Khalilzad has maintained that the insurgents have kept up their end of the bargain – even if recent violence violated the spirit of the accord.
“The Taliban have implemented their agreement not to attack the coalition forces,” he said earlier this month.
The remarks come after a horrific attack against a maternity hospital in Kabul that killed dozens – including mothers and infants – and a suicide bombing at a funeral.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attacks, but President Ghani blamed them and the Islamic State (IS) group for the bloodshed.
Following that attack and another suicide bombing in the country’s east the government ordered security forces to switch to an “offensive” posture against the Taliban.
The Taliban responded by vowing to increase attacks against government forces.
The group has carried out regular attacks against Afghan forces in recent days, and earlier this week even tried to enter the northern city of Kunduz.
Afghan forces, however, managed to repel the Taliban attack on Kunduz, a city which had fallen to the insurgents twice before.