A temporary cease-fire between the Afghan government and the Taliban to mark the end of Ramadan may offer an opportunity to pursue a more ambitious political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan, says USIP’s Scott Worden. While there is a chance that the cease-fire—the first since the war began in 2001—will be fleeting, as cease-fires are fragile by nature, it is an important trust-building measure. Combined with Afghanistan’s neighbors recently expressing their desire for an end to the stalemate, the cease-fire could be the first step to a more enduring peace.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Episode Transcript

Host: What is the situation in Afghanistan? A cease-fire that the Taliban has accepted to mark the end of Ramadan. Let's make some sense of it. Scott Worden is joining us on POTUS. Scott is the Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Scott, welcome. Thanks for being here today.
Scott Worden: Good morning, thanks for having me. 

Host: So a cease-fire, and the Taliban says aye. Give us some perspective on this. 

Scott Worden: Well, this is a significant development. The Taliban has not agreed to a cease-fire since they began the insurgency shortly after 2001. We got here because President Ashraf Ghani also somewhat surprisingly announced the unilateral cease-fire last week that would be for five days starting yesterday. There were real questions and doubts about whether the Taliban would accept it. 

Scott Worden: They wound up saying, "Yes, we will accept a cease-fire with conditions for three days that mark the Eid festival at the end of Ramadan. Now I think all eyes are looking to see does this actually happen and does it stick? 

Host: Now, that said, according to a story from Al-Jazeera, that the Taliban has killed a district governor, this despite the truce, I'm not sure how much information you have on that, but that sounds to me like a violation of this agreement.

Scott Worden: Well it certainly could be. I think the facts are still coming in on that. The history of cease-fires, and particularly ones that are not pre-negotiated in advance, this is kind of an offer and then a challenge and an acceptance. The history of those is that they are quite fragile and they're often broken. I think the real question is how do the parties respond to that? 

Scott Worden: This is supposed to be a trust-building exercise. You have a cease-fire not just to save lives, which is of course the most important, but also to show that small agreements can be honored, and then you can move to bigger decisions. So often what will happen is there will be communication between the two sides if there is a violation. "Did you do this? Who is responsible? Do you condemn it? And can you control your forces so that this doesn't escalate and actually break the agreement overall." 

Scott Worden: I think one of the difficult features of a cease-fire is that while it's negotiated at a top political level within the respective movements, any soldier that doesn't agree with it or doesn't get the message can violate it. If they're controlling that and making sure that incidents are limited is the key task during the cease-fire. 

Host: That is an excellent point is that the word has to get out, number one, and everyone has to buy into it. I wonder if you think, or if you could give us some sense, Scott Worden, whether or not the Taliban's influence and power is waxing or is on the wane? 

Scott Worden: That's hard to say. I don't think that it's waning. They have had an aggressive Spring offensive as they promised. There has been attacks in provinces all over the country. Their control of territory seems to remain the same, although those are difficult figures to track. So I think that this is a moment where there is a sense of stalemate, but not a sense that either side is losing.
Scott Worden: Therefore, it could be a ripe moment for discussions of peace. Those will be long, those will be years long, but the hope is that this cease-fire, which is unprecedented in the course of the battle between the government and the insurgency, can be a first step. Maybe it reflects these underlying conditions that have changed. 

Scott Worden: The other thing that I would just mention, while the cease-fire announcement was, I think a surprise, there are conditions that are underlying that show that there's maybe a different moment now in the conflict to look at a political resolution. So you had Ashraf Ghani in February offering a peace talk without conditions to the Taliban, and you also had an international conference a month later in March, where the neighbors, the U.S., Western donors said that they support a peace process. So there are some building blocks here that can be worked on. 

Host: Again, Scott Worden with us, Director of Afghanistan Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, discussing a cease-fire in Afghanistan. The Taliban, it's been suspected that they often get support from Pakistan. Are they in any way, shape or form, still getting that support, and is that affecting the cease-fire? 

Scott Worden: I think they are still getting support. Certainly one of the key elements of the US policy to put increasing pressure on Pakistan to end that support. I don't think there's clear evidence that there has been a significant change in Pakistani policy. However, in this case, I think Pakistan played possibly a constructive role. There are reports about Pakistan and China supported the cease-fire. This is speculation, but I think there would certainly be communications between those countries, and particularly Pakistan and the Taliban saying, "Hey, do we say we're this or not?" The fact that the Taliban accepted, I think shows that ... My read is at least Pakistan doesn't oppose it. 

Scott Worden: But look, Pakistan, I think wants an end to the war as well. They just want it on their terms, or terms that are favorable to Pakistan's interest. You can only get there with the peace process. There, of course, you can get into the issues of who has more strengths and what are the terms, all that comes later. But I think with an opportunity, we see that the region, and Pakistan included, wants something to happen where this isn't just an endless conflict. 

Host: Scott, I wonder, what is still the guiding principle ... I don't mean to make this sound like political race in the United States, usually we talk about voters want something to vote for, but I wonder what the appeal of the Taliban is now and what is their end game? Why is it that they would expect people to buy in to what their mission is? 

Scott Worden: Well, that's a good question. From our perspectives, they don't offer a lot, in terms of governance, but I think their argument, I'm not saying that I endorse it, is that one, they want foreign troops to leave. They consider foreign troops, U.S. troops to be an occupying force and that's against their vision of the country. Second, they want more conservative traditional interpretations of Islam, which I think certainly the broad consensus that that went way too far when they were in control of the country. That is the consensus among Afghans. But it does have appeal to typically more rural, more conservative areas of the country. 

Scott Worden: So their vision is of an independent, without foreign influence, Afghanistan that's more conservative that has limited appeal. I think the other thing that they're arguing against, which helps their cause but doesn't actually mean that people favor them, is that in areas where there is fighting, they offer their version of peace if they can control an area. People are willing to accept that for reduced freedoms. That's in the short-term when they're literally under the gun. 

Scott Worden: But I think when you look to the future of the country, and what Afghans repeatedly say in opinion surveys, and the way they vote when there are elections is that they reject the Taliban's vision of the future in overwhelming numbers. So there again, if you can get to a peace process and you start talking about issues of what should be women's rights, what should be the structure of the government, that's where you'll see where, if you have an inclusive process, which you should, that's where you'll see where public opinion lies. I think you'll be much against the Taliban, rather than for them. 

Host: Well, we gotta wrap up here, but it sounds like an Afghanistan-first protection racket in some ways, is what I hear you saying. Scott, I appreciate you spending time with us on POTUS today. Thanks so much. 

Scott Worden: Thank you very much for having me. 

Host: Scott Worden, Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, joining us to give us a sense of the significance of a cease-fire in Afghanistan that the Taliban accepted to mark the end of Ramadan. As I mentioned a moment ago, there was a story about a provincial governor being killed by the Taliban despite this truce, but they have to work out, as Scott said, the details on that and to see if it's actually been violated, but see where it can go from here. We of course will follow. The Twitter handle is @USIP. 

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