By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday announced for the first time an unconditional ceasefire with the Taliban, coinciding with the end of the Muslim fasting month, but excluding other militant groups, such as Islamic State.
The decision came after a meeting of Islamic clerics this week declared a fatwa, or ruling, against suicide bombings, one of which, claimed by Islamic State, killed 14 people at the entrance to the clerics’ peace tent in Kabul, the capital.
The clerics also recommended a ceasefire with the Taliban, who are seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their ouster in 2001, and Ghani endorsed the recommendation, announcing a laying down of arms until June 20.
Ghani has urged ceasefires with the Taliban before, but this was the first unconditional offer since he was elected in 2014.
“This ceasefire is an opportunity for Taliban to introspect (sic) that their violent campaign is not winning them hearts and minds,” Ghani said in a message on social network Twitter after a televised address.
There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but an international political analyst based in Kabul was unimpressed.
“It’s a one-sided love story,” he said.
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said they would honor the ceasefire.
“We will adhere to the wishes of Afghanistan for the country to enjoy a peaceful end to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and support the search for an end to the conflict,” Gen. John Nicholson, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led Resolute Support commander, said in a statement.
The ceasefire would not include U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against Islamic State and al Qaeda, it said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the announcement which he said “shows the seriousness of President Ghani and the Afghan government”. Both he and the United Nations urged the Taliban to reciprocate.
The United States and Russia also praised the decision.
“The Afghan government’s offer of a temporary ceasefire underscores its commitment to peace as both a national and religious responsibility,” the State Department said in a statement.
But former Afghan army general Atiqullah Amarkhel said the ceasefire would give the Taliban a chance to regroup.
“From a military prospect, it is not a good move,” he told Reuters.
He also said he doubted the Taliban would lay down arms and deny themselves the opportunity of fighting during the holy month of Ramadan, in which attacks have intensified.
The Eid al-Fitr holiday ending Ramadan falls at the end of next week.
Ghani in February offered recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group in a proposed political process that he said could lead to talks to end more than 16 years of war.
Ghani proposed a ceasefire and a release of prisoners among options including new elections involving the militants and a constitutional review in a pact with the Taliban to end a conflict that last year alone killed or wounded more than 10,000 civilians.
In August, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes, aimed at forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, but the Taliban roam huge swaths of the country and, with foreign troop levels of about 15,600, down from 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright victory.
(Additional reporting by Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in Kabul, Polina Devitt in Moscow, Doina Chiacu in Washington and Idrees Ali and Robert Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Robert Birsel)