But suddenly, in the past week, rumors of a possible new truce have flooded the news, striking a rare spark of hope among the war-weary citizenry. International media outlets have reported that a cease-fire is imminent, citing unnamed sources after Taliban leaders held several meetings in Pakistan.
The prospect of a truce, seen as the first step toward a U.S.-Taliban peace deal that would soon be followed by negotiations between Taliban and Afghan leaders, has also sparked a flurry of political activity and controversy over who would lead and participate in such talks.
Spokesmen for the insurgents have adamantly denied the reports of a nationwide truce deal. But they have held open the possibility of accepting a narrower, more vaguely defined period of lessened conflict, with the time frame and territory still in dispute.
“The Islamic Emirate has no intention of declaring a cease-fire,” Zabiullah Mujahid, the main Taliban spokesman, said in a statement, using the group’s name for a religious government. “The United States has asked for a reduction in the scale and intensity of violence, and discussions being held by the Islamic Emirate are revolving solely around this specific issue.”
American officials have said nothing about the conflicting reports; even the main U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, usually a fount of upbeat tweets, has fallen silent since returning to Washington this week after meeting with Taliban and Pakistani officials.
Afghan officials said they have received no word from either side. The Taliban have refused to recognize Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, but he appears to have narrowly won reelection in a September poll and has asserted that the final results will confirm that, giving him a mandate to lead the peace effort.
“We have not heard anything that raises our hopes for a truce,” said Javid Faisal, an aide to Ghani. “We want it to happen, because it will be an important step forward toward negotiations among Afghans. But it has to be a real truce, a complete truce that is guaranteed and assured.”
In the absence of facts, a wave of confusion and commentary has swept media and political circles here. One common theory is that Taliban leaders in Pakistan agreed to a truce but that some field commanders still oppose it, believing they can win the 18-year war and return the country to full-fledged religious rule.
The momentum has also been slowed by the likelihood that Trump may soon reduce the 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 8,600. Previously, U.S. officials insisted that the insurgents had to sign a peace agreement before any major troop cuts would take place.
Other points of contention include whether the fighting pause would last one week or longer, whether it would be confined to certain cities or include rural areas, and whether it would be called a formal truce or a more subjective reduction in violence.
On Wednesday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a new wave of attacks in northern Afghanistan, targeting members of the country’s security forces that killed at least 26, the Associated Press reported, citing local officials.
“The Taliban are under pressure from Pakistan and the U.S. to sign a deal, and they may be putting on an appeasing face to buy time, but their past behavior shows they are difficult to trust,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst in Kabul who helped found Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies. If the insurgents agree to a brief truce during a cold winter, when fighting always slows, he said, “it will mean nothing.”
On Tuesday, comments from Taliban and Afghan officials suggested that mistrust and intransigence remain high on all sides. One Taliban military commander insisted that as long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, there can be no truce. A member of the government’s High Peace Council said both Ghani and the insurgents are being too stubborn; the president, in turn, announced plans to dissolve the entire council.
Since preliminary election results showed Ghani winning reelection by about 10,000 votes, his opponents have filed thousands of fraud complaints that may take months to investigate. But Ghani is racing to form a delegation to negotiate with the Taliban, even as an array of rivals have objected that they are being left out.
“The whole country is keenly interested in peace, but the ground is not being prepared for it,” said Ehsanullah Zia, Afghan director of the nonprofit U.S. Institute of Peace. Even with people dying every day, he said, some Afghans are demanding “red lines for peace. We don’t have the luxury of setting red lines. People need to suppress their personal ambitions for the sake of the country.”
Aides to Ghani insist that the list of peace delegates, kept secret so far, will represent all sectors of society. In April, when Kabul tried to choose a group to meet with insurgent leaders in Qatar, it became so unwieldy that the insurgents canceled the talks.
“These talks will be very inclusive,” said Faisal. “All sides that matter will be included. If the Taliban don’t accept it this time, the blame will go to them.”