’s first taste of peace in 17 years is expected to end after the Taliban refused to extend a three-day ceasefire during which civilians, militants and soldiers hugged and danced together over the festival of Eid.
The spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said: “The ceasefire ends tonight [Sunday] and our operations begin tomorrow, inshallah [God willing].”
The Taliban’s decision to take up arms once more comes despite the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, on Saturday indefinitely extending the Afghan government’s own ceasefire and his request that the militant group follow suit to prolong the first countrywide lull in hostilities since the US invasion in 2001. Hopes are nevertheless higher than ever before that an agreement can one day be reached.
On Sunday the Taliban ordered their fighters not to enter major cities after an Islamic State suicide bombing , near the city of Jalalabad. Another Isis suicide attack in Jalalabad on Saturday killed 17.
Isis claims deadly suicide bombing as Afghans celebrate Taliban ceasefire
However, the ceasefire between Afghan forces and the Taliban was scrupulously observed and some analysts said the order to fighters not to enter cities stemmed from concern that they might enjoy peace too much.
“Of course the leadership might fear some of them just stay,” said Thomas Ruttig, of the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN).
Over three days, Afghans witnessed the kind of scenes few dreamed possible. Thousands of Taliban fighters were welcomed into Kabul, Kunduz, Ghazni and other cities. Some posed for selfies with soldiers, some handed out red roses, and in Kabul some sought out a famous ice-cream parlour.
News of the ceasefire’s end came as a blow to many fighters. “I and thousands of Afghan Taliban definitely want the ceasefire extended,” Muhammadullah, 22, told the Guardian. “I went to the city and the mosques were full of people, I did not notice anything against the Islamic rules. After the sweet three days of peace, going back to bloodshed looks strange. How can you even compare peace with war?”
The Taliban senior council met on Sunday to discuss the ceasefire and Ghani’s overture. According to insiders, the leadership was stunned by the jubilant scenes in city centres.
The hardline deputy leader and son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoob, was particularly dismayed. In an audio message obtained by the Guardian, he said there had been “no permission for mixing with Afghan forces”, which he said “totally disobeyed the terms of the ceasefire”.
One senior Taliban member said the leadership, recognising the pressure for peace within the group’s ranks, was considering a 10-day ceasefire over the next Eid festival, in September.
However, he said there was disappointment that Ghani had not been more specific on the subject of US troop withdrawal. “Ghani should have created a timeline,” he said. “That might have created attraction to extend the ceasefire.”
Michael Kugelman, of the Wilson Centre, said a tit-for-tat extension had never been likely. “If the Taliban’s to agree to a reconciliation process, it will do so at a time of its own choosing and not by reciprocating the government’s own moves,” he said.
Progress towards peace is not helped by hardliners’ belief that they are winning the war, a view not contradicted by the latest report from the US watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Reconstruction. It said a surge in bombing raids under the Trump administration had not won back any of the 15% of the country under Taliban control – the highest level on record.
Yet civilian pressure on the Taliban to negotiate is growing. A convoy of 80 civilians on a 400-mile peace march from the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, to Kabul has come to symbolise the stubborn determination of the public to end a war that has brought so much loss.
Conditions abroad have also rarely been as conducive for talks. Pakistan, long thought of as a spoiler, has held an increasing number of bilateral negotiations with Afghanistan since the middle of 2017, partly under pressure from China, its key ally in the region. On 12 June the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Kabul and expressed support for the ceasefire.