In one of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces, cautiously optimistic about a peace deal set to be signed between the United States and the Taliban on Saturday, Karwan and his men thus did something that would have been unthinkable even a week ago: They invited Taliban fighters to lunch.
“We’ll bring a good chicken for you!” one of his soldiers shouted across the rocky farmland of Helmand province, toward a fighter on a motorcycle with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
The lunch offer came on the fourth day of a seven-day period of reduced violence between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban. The Taliban controls or contests more than half of Helmand’s districts, and this once-active front line, like half a dozen others around the province, had fallen almost completely silent.
As of Thursday, Helmand had not seen a single “significant” break of the violence-reduction agreement, according to Lt. Gen. Wali Mohammed Ahmadzai, the top Afghan army commander in the province. He called it a turning point in the conflict.
“This war is just destroying everything,” he said. “We are tired, and the Taliban is tired.”
The same was true across much of the country. Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry has measured an 80 percent decrease in violence since the agreement went into effect Saturday, a senior ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
From farming villages to remote outposts on the edges of tightly held Taliban districts, fighters and civilians here said they were relieved by the pause in violence. But many said they fear more bloodshed after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, which hinges on violence remaining low through Friday.
U.S. negotiators in Qatar insisted on the period of reduced violence as a measure intended to build confidence between Taliban and Afghan government forces. But unlike a cease-fire in 2018, when Taliban fighters freely crossed government lines into provincial capitals and Kabul, this period of relative calm has not afforded fighters complete freedom of movement.
“There is not 100 percent trust on both sides because this is not a 100 percent reduction in violence,” said Karwan, the commander at the outpost on the edge of Marja.
When Karwan’s soldiers offered the chicken meal, the Taliban fighter on the motorbike responded that meeting government soldiers would “create problems” for him, and sped away.
Earlier that day, a group of armed Taliban fighters who approached the outpost said they were under strict orders not to enter Afghan military bases or take selfies with soldiers. Instead, they came just to talk to the men they would normally have been shooting at. Karwan said that the Taliban fighters were curious and that, after 18 years of conflict, both sides are ready for peace.
But Karwan and more than a dozen other Afghan soldiers stationed across Helmand said that no matter how long the reduction in violence lasts, it would never encourage them to trust the Taliban.
At the Marja outpost, soldiers did not stray far from their fortifications, and Karwan said fear of an attack prevented them from walking to the Taliban base just down the road.
They did cross a narrow stream on a half-finished bridge that roughly marks the dividing line between government and Taliban territory, steps that would have prompted a volley of Taliban fire just days before. The men hung around a motorcycle repair shop as traffic whizzed by on the main road.
“We’ve never seen peace for this long in the last 20 years,” said Hekmatullah, a 23-year-old shop owner who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “This feels relaxed,” he said.
But beneath the laid-back atmosphere was an undercurrent of unease.
At another remote outpost just 15 miles away that marked the beginning of the end of government control outside Gereshk, 2nd Lt. Aghagul Afghan said he does not believe that the Taliban fighters in his area will keep their word. He instructed his men to continue conducting patrols outside the base.
“We didn’t receive very detailed orders, just a call on the radio. My commander told me we are not allowed to attack the Taliban, otherwise we will be prosecuted. All they told me is, ‘Don’t make problems for us,’ ” he said.
Less than an hour later, a handful of shots rang out outside the base’s walls. The men inside barely reacted. Afghan said that the Taliban fired the first shot and that he doubted it constituted a violation. But he acknowledged, “I don’t know what this term ‘reduction in violence’ means.”
Just outside his base’s walls, pro-government militiamen and civilians were mingling along the edge of a canal dividing government and Taliban territory, a scenic stretch of road that would have been a deadly place to stand just days before.
“Now you can see people standing here and on the other side; it means they are not afraid,” said Nasibullah Popal, a 20-year-old private, gesturing to Taliban territory just a few yards away. Behind him, a young pro-government militia fighter ambled along the water’s edge, playing Bollywood music on a portable speaker within direct sight of Taliban bases.
Scenes like this could have important symbolic value for any future reduction in violence, said Andrew Watkins, the senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“At different points, all sides of this war — the Taliban, Western military forces and the Afghan state — have viewed Helmand as a focal point, a deadly centerpiece of their war effort,” he said. “If these Afghans can live through a week’s respite of fighting, that might begin to change wider perceptions of whether or not a lasting peace is possible.”
In neighboring Nad Ali district, 21-year-old shop owner Gulwali Balouch said he does not know what peace feels like. He doesn’t remember what Afghanistan was like before the war, and he lives on one of Helmand’s many fault lines, where violence has forced him to flee several times in just the past few years. Once, the clashes erupted so quickly that he was forced to abandon the entire contents of his store.
But, he said, the past few days have allowed him to “imagine what a peaceful life would be.”
Away from the main roads, checkpoints and outposts, a family sipping tea was similarly thankful for the lull in violence but less hopeful about the future. Two brothers and their children sat in the middle of neat fields growing wheat and opium poppy.
“We live between two front lines,” said Sayed Ahmed, a farmer in his 30s. He said his family was accustomed to the daily sound of gunfire, rockets and fighter jets, but once the noise stopped, the atmosphere felt “sweeter.”
The brothers appeared to sympathize with the Taliban but did not indicate whether they were part of the militant group. They said the situation in Marja improved when the Taliban began to retake the area in 2015. Five years earlier, a months-long U.S. offensive to clear out the militants left farming villages here badly battered, stoking frustration with the Afghan government and foreign troops.
Ahmed said his father, who stayed behind to protect the house and animals when the rest of the family fled, was killed in a U.S. airstrike days after the 2010 offensive began.
Ahmed and his younger brother shrugged wearily when asked if they thought the recent calm was a sign of lasting peace to come. “I’m concerned the foreigners will break their promise,” Ahmed said, referring to the provision in the peace deal for the withdrawal of thousands of American troops.
“Tell the foreigners, just sign the agreement,” said Ahmed’s younger brother, Abdulbaqi Atrafi. “Because if they don’t, we are ready to fight for 25 more years.”
Aziz Tassal in Marja and Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.