Kabul: Taliban militants headed into cities across Afghanistan on Sunday as they continued to celebrate their Eid ceasefire with feasts and selfies, raising questions about what happens when the ceasefire ends at midnight.
President Ashraf Ghani extended a government ceasefire on Saturday and urged the Taliban to do the same, garnering praise at home and international backing, but critics said such overtures have allowed the Taliban to pour into cities unchecked and win the upper hand.
Ghani had committed “a grave mistake” by allowing Taliban fighters to enter government-controlled areas, said Amarullah Saleh, a politician and a former head of the National Directorate of Security.
“We don’t have mechanisms in place to mitigate the breach of ceasefire by the Taliban,” Saleh told Reuters.
Members of parliament opposing Ghani’s move said he had not consulted politicians and would be left with no recourse if the Taliban rejected his impromptu request.
A senior western diplomat in Kabul said Ghani’s decision was “a bold move” but questioned what happens if the Taliban do not extend their unprecedented halt in hostilities against government forces.
“The consequences could be disastrous,” he said.
Over the weekend, ecstatic men and children crowded around the soldiers and Taliban fighters, some of whom had checked in their weapons at the entrances to cities, and urged them to turn their ceasefire into a permanent peace.
Governors and senior government officials hosted small feasts, played music to welcome the militants’ ceasefire, coinciding with the close of the month-long Ramadan fasting season.
“So far, no decision has been made for the extension of the ceasefire, so today is the last day of our three-day truce,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
“Our normal operations will start tomorrow (Monday).”
Ghani’s office has yet to declare a new timeframe for the extended ceasefire.
Members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council supported the decision and urged the Taliban, whose numbers on the streets of Kabul and other cities are impossible to calculate, to extend their ceasefire.
“Good steps for peace have been taken, but more steps have to be taken,” said council chairman Karim Khalili.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, echoing Ghani’s remarks, said peace talks would have to include a discussion on the role of “international actors and forces”.
“Ghani has full blessings of the US administration and it is crucial for the US officials to prove that Trump’s policies are working and talks with the Afghan Taliban are imminent,” said a senior diplomat who met Afghan officials on Sunday to monitor the chance of back-channel talks withTaliban leaders.
US wants Pakistan, which it accuses of harbouring Afghan Taliban commanders, to exert more influence on the group to bring it to the negotiating table.
The only time direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban have been held, in 2015, they broke down almost immediately.
Taliban is fighting US-led NATO forces, combined under the Resolute Support mission, and Ghani’s US-backed government to restore sharia, or Islamic law, after their ouster by US-led forces in 2001. Resolute Support did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Afghanistan has been at war for four decades, ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979.
A car bomb killed 36 people at a gathering of Taliban and Afghan armed forces in the eastern city of Nangarhar on Saturday. Islamic State claimed responsibility.
On Sunday, Taliban insurgents were travelling freely with their flags and meeting civilians despite curbs imposed after the Nangarhar attack.
“In order to prevent our countrymen from being harmed and… we become a reason for that, all officials should ban all mujahideen (Taliban fighters) under their command from participating in such crowds and gatherings,” Taliban spokesman Mujahid said.
The Taliban already 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 government victory.
For now the atmosphere is festive – a story doing the rounds on social media is that one Talib, after hugging Kabul residents, asked for directions to Baharistan, to the west of Kabul.
“I have heard there is very good ice cream there,” he said.