NATO, US hope Afghan ceasefire leads to peace breakthrough
US generals and NATO officials hoping for a peace breakthrough with the Taliban after 16 years of war are touting a ceasefire announced by Kabul as potentially decisive and despite scepticism in Afghanistan.
Attacks in Kabul -- the most heavily defended city in the country -- are multiplying and a recent US government watchdog report painted a grim picture of the security situation, saying there were "few signs of progress".
But senior NATO and US military figures have warmly welcomed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's ceasefire announcement, even though it is not at all clear that the Taliban have any plans to respect it.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg hailed the announcement as a "positive step on the path to peace" and urged the Taliban to come to talks the government.
General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, gave an upbeat assessment of the struggle against the Taliban, ousted from power in a US led invasion in 2001.
"I have dealt with this for quite a number of years and personally, I sense a different set of conditions today, and perhaps more potential," he told reporters at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
"They are under greater pressure and you see some splinter in their leadership and their cohesion.
"In the past, the Taliban has been cohesive and one voice about this. Now we are seeing indications that there a those who would like to talk."
- 'Grassroots movement' -
In February, Ghani unveiled a plan to open peace talks with the Taliban, including eventually recognising them as a political party. At the time he suggested a ceasefire would form part of the plan.
The insurgents did not officially respond, but attacks have proliferated since then, especially in Kabul, targeting in particular security forces and police.
On Thursday, Ghani announced the week-long ceasefire to coincide with Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Ghani's surprise ceasefire declaration came on the heels of a fatwa issued by Afghanistan's top clerics branding suicide attacks "haram", or forbidden, and after the Pentagon announced that senior Taliban officials had been negotiating with Afghan authorities on a possible ceasefire.
"I have to tell you, for someone who has been either in Afghanistan or working on Afghanistan for some years now, I am seeing things now that I haven't seen before," one NATO official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Pressed for details, the official mentioned the ruling by the clerics and "social movements for peace", an apparent reference to a march by a small group of activists from Lashkar Gah in Helmand province to Kabul.
The group, which numbers about eight but has been joined by more at times on the route, is demanding both the Taliban and the Afghan government lay down their arms.
The modest size of the march did not stop General John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, from calling it a "grassroots movement" and comparing the current situatoin in Afghanistan to the final stages of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Colombia.
"All wars end. And when you study how wars end, there is usually a period where you are fighting and talking at the same time. I think we are clearly in that period," he said.
- 'No change on the ground' -
But the optimism coming from NATO and the Pentagon has not reached observers in Afghanistan.
Political analyst Haroon Mir, based in Kabul, said Ghani's government had lost the initiative since the offer in February and the ceasefire was a bid to win it back.
"NATO and the US are trying to boost the government and trying to show that the government still has some initiative but this is not the reality unfortunately," Mir told AFP, pointing to the upcoming anniversary of US President Donald Trump's new South Asia strategy as a key milestone.
"In August it will be one year and everybody will talk about the achievements of the US military in Afghanistan (but) unfortunately despite the bombing campaign and high casualties among the Taliban... there is no significant change on the ground," Mir said.
Indeed the Pentagon's own Office of the Inspector General directly undercut claims the momentum of the war was shifting against the Taliban.
In a report in May the watchdog said there had been "little positive change" in the first quarter of 2018, with just 65 percent of Afghans living in areas under government control or influence.
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