Ghani Extends Truce for 10 Days to Push Taliban Toward Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has extended a rare ceasefire with the Taliban for another 10 days after his initial truce prompted an extraordinary response -- militants hugging soldiers and civilians across the war torn country.

The armed Taliban -- many on motorbikes -- appeared on the streets of towns and cities including the capital, Kabul, during the weekend ceasefire. Locals rushed to welcome them and take selfies, while for the first time since 2001, militants joined Afghan civilians and military officers to offer Eid prayers in the mosques and celebrate in residents’ homes.

However the Taliban, which halted fighting from June 15-17, rejected Ghani’s call for an extended truce. The group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in a text message operations across the nation had already resumed late Sunday. He repeated the pre-conditions for peace talks -- they will only negotiate directly with the U.S. and insist foreign forces must leave Afghanistan.

The group’s refusal to extend ceasefire is “certainly a setback and a disappointment, but not a surprise,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “Given battlefield considerations, the Taliban won’t want to quit when it believes it’s ahead and certainly not on the request of Kabul.”

Already in control or contesting 50 percent of the country, the Taliban in April announced a new operation against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after rejecting Ghani’s offer in February of unconditional talks.

Peace Caravan

The ceasefire coincided with the arrival in Kabul of dozens of peace activists from southern Helmand province, which is largely controlled or contested by the Taliban.

They’d traveled more than 300 miles on foot during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, demanding peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government to end a 17-year old war that killed or wounded more than 10,000 Afghans last year alone.

The Afghan High Peace Council -- the group responsible for negotiating the truce -- remained positive about the recent developments, describing the ceasefire’s extension as an important step toward confidence-building. “We are hopeful that the ceasefire could pave the way for the face-to-face negotiations between the government and Taliban under the leadership and sovereignty of Afghanistan,” it said in a statement.

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