Afghan soldiers test cease-fire with visit to Taliban strongholds
By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 17, 2018
PUL-E-ALAM, Afghanistan — On the second day of unprecedented mutual cease-fires, Afghan soldiers convoyed to a village that for months was deemed too dangerous to visit — the stronghold of the Taliban in Logar province.
Only the brief and unexpected peace between Afghan government troops and Taliban fighters could allow soldiers from the 203rd Corps’ 4th Brigade to journey west to meet with Taliban leaders at their headquarters in rural Tang-e-Wardak, said Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq Safi, the unit’s commander.
The Afghan soldiers' mission to meet Taliban leaders was inspired by the Taliban coming to meet them in Pul-e-Alam, Safi said. Before the mission, Safi met with the Logar provincial governor to discuss ways to ensure peace beyond the three days of the Taliban cease-fire and whether to release Taliban prisoners.
“The Taliban came to our center, so we decided to go to their center,” Safi said. “If we show them trust and confidence, then they will show us trust and confidence."
At around noon Saturday, the convoy rumbled through downtown Pul-e-Alam, where the good spirits of the first night of the cease-fires continued. Men with both the Afghan and Taliban flags climbed on top of military vehicles for impromptu parades.
“All the people are really happy because the Taliban and Afghan government forces are together,” said Shahdaidulla, 16, a local villager who like many Afghans goes only by first name. His grandfather, a village elder, said when he saw the two groups together he cried.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered an indefinite extension to a government cease-fire with the Taliban late Saturday. This followed an announcement last week of an eight-day cessation of offensive operations against the Taliban at the end of the Muslim holy month and Eid holiday.
U.S. and other foreign forces said they would honor the temporary truce, part of a gambit to induce the Taliban to lay down their weapons and enter peace talks to end the 17-year Afghan War.
Without acknowledging the Kabul government’s stand-down, the Taliban said they would observe an unprecedented three-day cease-fire during the Eid holiday, which began Friday. The truce does not extend to foreign fighters, the Taliban said.
On Saturday, a deadly blast killed at least 36 people and wounded 65 others in a stadium in Nangarhar province. A local Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack. Another attack hit a celebrating crowd in Jalalabad on Sunday, killing at least 19.
In Logar province, the Taliban seemed to uphold the cease-fire and “not one bullet was fired,” Safi said Sunday.
“I’m so very happy, Eid is going so well,” said Pvt. Abdul Rashid, an Afghan soldier manning Pul-e-Alam's northern gate.
Once the convoy left the outskirts of the city, the soldiers were in Taliban territory. Motorcycles weaved in and out of the convoy. Jams formed when cars crowded the road, which is normally heavily mined. Townspeople and their children lined the roadside and took selfies of the soldiers. Many waved one or both of the Taliban and Afghan flags.
Almost as if to compete with the many white Taliban flags on the roadside, Afghan soldiers rushed to hand out tiny Afghan flags. They quickly ran out as children mobbed the vehicles. One soldier, Sgt. Maida Gul, juggled driving and assembling tiny plastic flags at the same time.
As the soldiers entered deeper into Taliban territory, they pointed out spots where they had been ambushed. A Taliban convoy, including a truck filled with perhaps a dozen armed men, roared past the convoy in the opposite direction.
The last time the soldiers had come this far west into Baraki Barak district was in January during a raid to clear the area of Taliban and seize their weapons. Since that operation, the Taliban had returned, and the area has been too dangerous to enter for months, soldiers said.
When the convoy arrived in Tang-e-Wardak, where the Taliban house their provincial headquarters in a Friday mosque next to a jail and courthouse, a militia leader told Safi that the Taliban would meet with him.
But the meeting did not go as planned.
“We entered the mosque, but there was no one there,” Safi said.
The soldiers were told to wait there. One person arrived in black clothes, hiding his face with a scarf. A soldier told Safi that he feared the man was a suicide bomber.
After a few minutes, Safi said, he excused himself. He said he had to leave for another meeting.
“We were told that they wanted to meet, but then they did not show,” Safi said afterward. “I think the Taliban were concerned about our trucks.”
Still, Safi said the mission too Tang-e-Wardak was a success. They wanted to announce their presence to the people in the area who still supported the government, he said, and they had delivered cake and cookies to soldiers manning outposts in the area.
“The Taliban themselves saw how much the people are against war,” Safi said. “All Afghans are tired of war … The ordinary people welcomed us.”
But back on base the soldiers under Safi said that, despite the cease-fire, they distrusted the Taliban and that fighting would begin again soon.
Even as the Afghan government extended their cease-fire, a Taliban spokesman told news agencies that Sunday was the last day of their truce.
Many Afghan soldiers said they had only taken selfies so they could identify Taliban when fighting resumed.
“We take photos today, but I expect to be fighting them again,” Sgt. Safi Chenarguls said.
Franz J. Marty contributed to this report.
In Pul-e-Alam, provincial capital of Logar, men flying both Taliban and Afghan flags climbed aboard military vehicles for impromptu parades, took selfies and hugged government soldiers and police officers during unprecedented mutual cease-fires between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the weekend.
J.P. LAWRENCE/STARS AND STRIPES