Men and youth dance as they celebrate the first day of 'reduction in violence' agreed between the Taliban, US and Afghan forces in Kandahar province on February 22, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Kabul: The United States and the Taliban started the clock early on Saturday on a plan to end America’s longest war after more than 18 years, beginning with what they hope will be seven days of greatly reduced violence in Afghanistan.

If the weeklong, partial truce holds, the two sides have agreed, they will meet on February 29 to sign an agreement laying out a timetable for the US to withdraw its troops.

The pact is also meant to clear the way for peace talks involving the Taliban and the government in Kabul, and US officials point to the reduction in hostilities as the first link in a fragile chain of events that could deliver peace in Afghanistan after more than four decades of conflict.

Can the Afghan government deliver?

The Afghan government is deep in a political crisis after a bitterly disputed presidential election in which the opposition candidate claimed victory despite President Ashraf Ghani having been declared the winner. With rival claimants to legitimacy, it is unclear who would negotiate with the Taliban, whether they would be prepared to enter talks while struggling to control the government, or what kind of mandate they would have.

US negotiators demanded the seven-day reduction in violence, which went into effect after midnight Saturday, as a public show of the Taliban’s good faith and its ability to control its fractious and scattered forces. Now it is the government in Kabul whose cohesion and command are more in doubt.

“I call on all Afghans to seize this opportunity,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter on Friday.

A previous attempt at finalising a deal between the Taliban and the US fell apart on the verge of completion in September, with President Donald Trump citing a new outbreak of violence, and the same risk hangs over the latest try.

So is it the end of war?

Even if the carefully choreographed roll-out of the agreement does presage the end of the American phase of the war, the plan might not spell the end of the war itself. Trump is determined, one way or another, to reduce US involvement in Afghanistan to a minimum, and the Taliban’s long-term commitment to compromise and power-sharing remains open to question.

Cyclists race during the Peace Cup contest, on the first day of reduction in violence, in Jalalabad yesterday. Image Credit: AFP

Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief US negotiator, recently arrived in Kabul to prepare for the announcement of an agreement, to find a government that was threatening to split apart. He has been shuttling in a convoy of armed vehicles between the heavily guarded homes of the divided elite in Kabul, trying to keep the peace.

Who won the Afghan presidential polls?

In September, Afghanistan held a presidential election marred by Taliban attacks and allegations of fraud and mismanagement. It was not until Tuesday — after nearly five months of delays, acrimonious disputes and a partial audit of the results — that the election commission declared that Ghani had won another five-year term.

His main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, also declared victory, accusing the election body of favouring the incumbent, and called on his supporters to form their own government.

The US government still has not acknowledged Ghani’s victory. The only public comment it has made on the results hinted at concern that the electoral mess might make matters worse.

“It is likely that these developments could add to the challenges Afghanistan faces, including the challenges of the peace process,” Molly Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy in negotiations, said Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace, a government-funded policy group in Washington. “Our priority, and what we believe to be the priority of most Afghans, remains peace and the peace process.”

Since US officials couldn’t persuade Ghani to postpone the election, the yearlong talks with the Taliban, primarily in Doha, Qatar, became a race against Afghanistan’s political calendar. Election after election has been so tainted that US diplomats were essentially trying to rush through a peace deal with the Taliban before Afghanistan’s latest political crisis could complicate the equation.

They almost finalised a deal with the insurgents last summer that would have pushed back the election, but Trump called off the talks on the eve of the signing, and the vote went ahead.

The political showdown pits technocratic Ghani and his circle of young advisers against some of the most hardened figures of recent Afghan history, survivors of years of battle and deal-making. One of Abdullah’s key supporters is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been accused of an array of violent acts, and until recently served as Ghani’s vice president.

What do analysts say?

Analysts said the conflict was unlikely to affect the first steps of the peace process, as US officials had made it clear to everyone that their priority was starting the violence reduction. But the high-stakes political showdown would make it difficult to move on to the next phase, when a unified negotiating team that includes the Afghan government is expected to sit across from the Taliban.

“The US has clearly put its weight on the peace issue, and that message is clear to all sides — with President Ghani agreeing to reduction of violence — there is a consensus among the parties,” said Omar Sadr, an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan.

“But the election issue has created a huge gap between the political sides and that needs to be bridged in a very short time for this process to move forward,” he added. “And I don’t know how that can happen without Khalilzad and the US stepping in.”

Sadr said the Americans remaining quiet on the election results gives them “manoeuvre room” to broker a settlement to the political crisis — which could provide leverage to make sure the peace process doesn’t fall apart.

The seven-day violence reduction being rolled out closely resembles a ceasefire, barring some exceptions, officials said.

The Taliban has agreed to hold back attacks on cities, highways, and major security outposts throughout the country. In return, Afghan government forces and the US military, which has stepped up air strikes in the last year, have agreed to hold back their operations.

How will the situation be assessed?

In preparation for the start of the violence reduction, Ghani has been meeting all provincial security and political leaders in recent days. He told one group that the Taliban currently carry out about 80 attacks a day, and that a reduction to about 10 attacks would be seen as a successful implementation.

“Our brave security and defence forces will only act in defence of themselves and the honourable people of Afghanistan,” he said in a televised address late Friday.

Taliban leaders scrambled to get their message of minimising violence to the lowest units of what has increasingly been a decentralised force.

In private WhatsApp messages, Taliban commanders can be heard taking pains to strike a nuance: they want fighters to hold fire and not attack, but to stay vigilant in their positions and not venture into cities and government territory.

The group has long feared that a full ceasefire could divide its ranks and make re-mobilising difficult if the peace process crumbled and all-out fighting resumed.