The gunfire and explosions of Afghanistan’s war are to fall silent this weekend for the first time since U.S. troops entered the country nearly 17 years ago. That is because the Taliban leadership has reciprocated, at least partly, President Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral cease-fire declaration, proclaiming their own three-day truce over the holiday of Eid al Fitr. The truce is, effectively, the first clear Taliban response to years of appeals—from President Ghani, Afghan civil society, and the international community—that they join a peace process. So why have the Taliban responded now?

A guard and students in front of the seminary’s entrance
(Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Analysts cite converging pressures, including reported Pakistani intervention with Taliban leaders based in Quetta, and grassroots, nonviolent protests such as the month-long, cross-country “peace march” by activists from Helmand. An important but little-noted catalyst has been an unprecedented campaign by Afghan religious leaders with support from scholars and governments in the Muslim world. Over three months, thousands of Afghan mullahs, religious scholars and teachers forged a cohesive, nationwide appeal that they unveiled at a mass meeting in Kabul 10 days ago. They condemned suicide attacks, rejected Taliban assertions that the insurgency represents a jihad, or just war, and declared that religious duty requires the government and the Taliban to negotiate a peace accord.

This campaign by Afghanistan’s ulema, or acknowledged religious leaders, has received little media attention. But alongside the holiday truce, it offers a new opportunity that the international community should not fail to support: an Islamic moral framework that can help shape a peace process acceptable to both sides. 

For years, Afghan religious leaders who condemned Taliban violence and urged a peace process have been systematically targeted and killed by the Taliban. One count by BBC journalists in 2013 estimated that 800 clerics who opposed the Taliban had been murdered in the preceding decade. This time, religious leaders on the National Ulema Council gathered the widest possible diversity of leaders to make a unified, moral declaration against violence. They used the relative safety of their massed numbers to challenge the Taliban’s justification of the war as a holy undertaking.

The ulema worked for three months, organizing discreet, small meetings in mosques and madrassas, or religious schools. These meetings included not only the 3,000 religious leaders nationwide who are members of the ulema council, but other influential Islamic figures and institutions. Organizers of the campaign report that it consulted more than 5,000 religious individuals or groups overall.

Clerics’ Declaration, Taliban’s Surprise

On June 4 and 5, the National Ulema Council gathered more than 2,000 clerics in Kabul to present the results of this nationwide consultation. They declared that the Taliban’s fight cannot be defined as a jihad, that their tactics violate Islam’s prohibition of suicide, and that religious duty compels the Taliban as well as other Afghans to find a peaceful end to the conflict. “The ongoing war in Afghanistan … is illegal according to Islamic laws and it does nothing but shed the blood of Muslims," said the statement, which was presented as a fatwa—a ruling on Islamic law grounded in the Quran and in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. In summary, the statement’s main points were these:

  1. Islamic law, or shari’a, offers no basis on which to regard the war as a jihad. 
  2. The Taliban and the Afghan government must sit together to find a process to ensure peace.
  3. Suicide attacks are haram—forbidden in Islam—and those who encourage them contravene shari’a.
  4. Everyone bears responsibility to Allah to work toward peace. Whoever opposes peace opposes the teachings of Allah and the Prophet.
  5. Whoever misguides youth by morally or religiously corrupting them commits a sin and must be stopped.
  6. Divisions among Muslims based on language, tribe or sect are against Islam. Those who cause such division should be punished.
  7. Afghanistan’s ulema strongly condemn and oppose individuals, institutions, groups and countries that bring bloodshed in Afghanistan.

While the Taliban were aware of the ulema’s activity before the June conference, they appeared surprised—including in Facebook postings—by the size of the conference and by the declaration that emerged. The Taliban leadership’s immediate response was to denounce the ulema declaration. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid described the meeting as a charade sponsored by the nation’s enemies and asked the ulema to instead align with the Taliban “to remove the calamity of occupation and restore the Muslim nation’s dignity and independence.”  

Pivotal Debate: A Legitimate Insurgency?

Organizers of the ulema conference say its wide consultations and the resulting declaration have undermined the Taliban’s claim of Islamic legitimacy for their insurgency. “This process changed the discourse on jihad in Afghanistan and has shifted the perception of religious justification that the Taliban used to justify their actions,” said a senior cleric who asked not to be named because he is engaged in sensitive discussions on a peace process and is not authorized to speak publicly. “Now, psychologically people are beginning to change their attitudes towards the Taliban’s religious justification of violence,” he said in a telephone interview from Kabul.

Three days after the ulema’s declaration, President Ghani responded by declaring the unilateral ceasefire by government forces from June 12 to June 20. That timing made use of religious symbolism. The start of the truce was the 27th day of Ramadan, astride the celebration of the “Night of Power” (Laylat al-Qadr), when most Muslims believe God first revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Religious tradition holds that good deeds performed at this time will see their impact augmented. Ghani’s truce extends through the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, a time for celebration that is not to be marred by violence.

The Taliban Truce

Two days after Ghani’s truce announcement, the Taliban reversed their initial dismissal of a ceasefire. A Taliban declaration decreed a truce “in order that our countrymen participate in Eid prayers and other festivities with complete confidence during the joyous days of Eid.” 

The Taliban pointedly continued to fight during the first days of Ghani’s longer truce, but made public efforts to ensure implementation of their shorter, three-day ceasefire. While analysts warn that the significant independence of local Taliban commanders could lead to ceasefire violations, Taliban “shadow governors” appointed in various provinces have been shown on social media videos explaining that fighters must avoid firing a shot even in jest or celebration during the holiday.

What Changed?

Two factors may have pushed the Taliban leadership to reverse its initial dismissal of the ceasefire call. 

One was the remarkable breadth and diversity of the religious support for the truce amassed by the National Ulema Council. The council, which links religious figures to the government, maintains a network of councils in each province. In campaigning for the truce, the council reached beyond its own ranks to include subnational networks of ulema and madrassas of various theological traditions. Attendees at the conference included Sunni leaders who identify themselves as traditional Hanafi, Salafists, Deobandis, Azharis, Islamists and Sufis. Participants included a sizeable number of Shia Muslims as well.

Indonesia, Qatar and Pakistan
A second source of pressure on the Taliban came from abroad, including from Indonesia, a country not often prominent in Afghan affairs. With support from Indonesia’s government, the country’s ulema council hosted dialogues with Afghan and Pakistani clerics in recent months—most recently in May. Indonesian envoys, led by former justice minister Abdul Hameed Awaluddin, conducted shuttle diplomacy between the Taliban’s political office in Qatar and the Afghan government.

Qatar also pressed the Taliban for a truce, said Afghanistan’s ambassador to Qatar, Dr. Faizullah Kakar. “On Friday, June 8, the government of Qatar directly contacted the Taliban office urging them to accept the ceasefire,” the ambassador said in a phone interview. “There were a series of conversations back and forth to convince them, offering some incentives.” 

Qatar may have a unique role to play for several reasons. It is the only state to recognize the Taliban as a political entity and has provided the office space and funds for what is the Taliban leadership’s only public representation. Qatar’s ability to withdraw this support is one point of leverage with the Taliban. Qatar’s government also is a viable peace broker because it has functioning relationships with Iran, Turkey and the United States. And Qatar hosts five high-ranking former Taliban prisoners released by the United States from Guantanamo, and the prisoners’ families. Ambassador Kakar says Qatar has created a government office to support a peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government and its allies.

Ulema in Pakistan also issued a declaration against suicide attacks earlier this year, and called the Taliban insurgency un-Islamic. Analyst Ahmed Rashid argues that pressure from Pakistan is the key contributor to the Taliban’s acceptance of a ceasefire. Lisa Curtis, a senior U.S. National Security Council official, said at USIP last week that the United States sees “a constructive role” by Pakistan as an “important component to catalyzing a peace process” and said “we have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating” a process.

Is the Truce a Starting Point?

Merely the reciprocal declarations of a brief cease-fire have triggered discussion of next steps. The day after the Taliban announced their truce, the former Taliban regime ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, told Voice of America that the ceasefire should be extended from three days to three months. That duration—three months for a “humanitarian” truce—is what the grassroots “peace marchers” from Helmand province also urged in their 400-mile walk to Kabul.

“The time seems opportune for all parties to invite a neutral third party to convene a peace process leading to the Taliban joining the Afghan political order as non-combatants,” USIP’s Scott Worden and co-author Anthony Wanis-St. John write this week in The Hill. A mediator designated under U.N. authority could be a next step, they argue.

The longstanding barrier is the disagreement over who should talk. The Taliban reject negotiations with a Kabul government they see as an illegitimate “puppet,” saying they will talk only with the United States. The U.S. government “is ready to participate in the discussion, but we cannot serve as a substitute for the Afghan government and the Afghan people,” Curtis told her USIP audience last week. “A political settlement must be negotiated through a process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”

Given the role of Afghan ulema in achieving an initial step, it is vital that they sustain their effort—as indeed they have—and that they receive support from other advocates of a peace process. 

The June 4-5 conference formed a committee to implement their insistence on a peace process, and groups of clerics are working to mediate conflict in their local areas. The National Ulema Council has formed a delegation to visit the Taliban office in Qatar to press for negotiations. In recent months, this religious leadership has shown the breadth and the Islamic legitimacy to be effective. As the United States, other governments, and international institutions puzzle out how to expand a holiday ceasefire into a sustained peace process, they should take note: Afghanistan’s religious leaders have cracked open a door to a process framed in Islamic morality that is acceptable to both sides. Whatever mechanisms of mediation or dialogue may be considered, the time is ripe to work closely with this religious constituency.

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