The Taliban could offer a limited ceasefire to Afghanistan’s government to enable the warring parties focus on operations against the widening threat posed by the Islamic State (IS), Taliban commanders who have participated in recent internal deliberations told This Week in Asia.
The ceasefire proposal, yet to receive the final approval, is the latest in a series of political initiatives of the Taliban as it seeks to position itself as the first line of defence against the IS, which has set up a government in Khorasan, in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. IS has also established footholds in the neighbouring provinces of Zabul and Ghazni, while its cell in Kabul has subjected the capital to a spate of lethal suicide attacks.
Earlier this year, the Taliban conducted secret talks with Iranian and Russian diplomats on cooperation to prevent the IS from using Afghan territory to carry out attacks in neighbouring states. It offered a similar assurance to China during talks held late last year as part of a failed multilateral effort with Pakistan and the United States to arrange peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Taliban last Tuesday surprised the international community by offering support to billions of dollars worth planned infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. A Taliban statement, issued a day after work began on a railway project to connect Afghanistan to Europe via neighbouring Turkmenistan, said it backed “all national projects which are in the interest of the people and result in the development and prosperity.” It directed its fighters “to help in the security of all national projects that are in the higher interest of Islam and the country”.
Other such projects include the massive Mes Aynak copper reserves located south of Kabul, to be developed by the Metallurgical Corporation of China Limited, and a US-backed pipeline that would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
The statement was issued as Taliban military commanders considered an internal proposal under which it could offer to cease operations against Afghan security forces in areas where IS and rebel factions affiliated with it pose a growing threat.
The proposal was floated by a top Taliban intelligence operations figure known by the nom de guerre Abu Jindal and discussed at gatherings of military commanders active in Afghanistan or based in neighbouring Pakistan last week, several participants told This Week In Asia on condition of anonymity.
“A consensus in favour of the proposal was reached at the end of last week,” said an associate of Abu Jindal based in the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi. Taliban leaders resident in and around the western city of Quetta have been informed of the consensus and will now decide whether to float the proposal through the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar.
The Taliban leadership has been careful not to frame the proposed ceasefire as any kind of peace agreement with the Afghan government because that would be opposed by its military commanders. The group has repeatedly said it will not agree to such a pact while foreign forces remain in the country. About 13,000 Nato troops remain in Afghanistan, including 9,800 US soldiers.
It would also not involve any coordinated military action against IS, but rather an understanding that Taliban and Afghan forces moving against IS would not attack each other. This would expand on battlefield practices already in effect in Nangarhar province since the IS established a beachhead there in late 2014. Afghan and Taliban forces have worked with local tribal militias to contain IS there on different fronts, usually without engaging each other. Similarly, Taliban units there have not been targeted by Nato warplanes and drones carrying out airstrikes against IS militants.