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Hope dwindles in Afghanistan for end of Ramadan cease-fire

A crowd flying both Taliban and Afghan flags climbed aboard military vehicles for impromptu parades last June in Logar province during an unprecedented truce between the Taliban and the Afghan government.The Taliban have not yet responded to a three-month cease-fire offer by Kabul.

J.P. LAWRENCE/STARS AND STRIPES

By SIOBHÁN O’GRADY | The Washington Post | Published: June 3, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan capital is bracing for a three-day holiday without a cease-fire after a wave of violence in recent days left at least 17 dead and dozens injured.

An unprecedented cease-fire after the holy fasting month of Ramadan last year saw a historic influx of Taliban fighters into urban areas, where they joyfully mingled with civilians, posed for selfies and raised expectations for successful peace talks that would put an end to the country’s drawn-out war.

Despite the spike in violence during this Ramadan, many were optimistic that a similar arrangement would be made this year.

But in recent months, negotiations, including some between the U.S. and the Taliban, failed to result in a truce that would put even a temporary end to the fighting. Violence has surged during the holy month, which Muslims observe with fasting and prayer, leaving civilians on edge as it comes to a close, in what is supposed to be one of the most joyous occasions on the Muslim calendar.

On Monday afternoon, a bomb exploded on a bus carrying government employees in Kabul, leaving at least five dead and 10 wounded.

“Our hope has been broken,” said Ahmad Shoaib Shirzad, 33, a banker in Kabul. “Every second, I fear something will happen in front of me.”

It has been a bloody Ramadan in Afghanistan. On Thursday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a military academy that left at least six dead, as well as several bombings on Sunday that targeted a university bus, killing two people and injuring more than a dozen others.

On Friday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an assault on a U.S. convoy that injured four U.S. troops and killed four Afghan bystanders. No group has yet claimed responsibility for Monday’s bombing.

Last week, a 14-member Taliban delegation visited Moscow, where they participated in talks with a number of high-profile figures from Afghanistan, although no members of the elected Afghan government, whom the Taliban calls U.S. puppets, attended the talks.

Atta Mohammad Noor, an influential Afghan politician, called for a cease-fire to be agreed upon before the end of the three-day meetings. But no deal was reached.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who also participated in the Moscow talks last week, told The Washington Post in an interview at his home in Kabul on Monday that he was not surprised a cease-fire wasn’t agreed upon during the Moscow talks but still hopes “very much there will be at least, if not a formal cease-fire, a lot of reduction in violence.”

“We were arguing for a cease-fire for the Afghan people. That’s what the Afghan people want,” he said of his meetings in Moscow. “[The Taliban] had different ideas. Some of those ideas were concerns that they had, which we understood, but to which our response was, ‘We want a cease-fire, anyway.’ ”

Haroun Mir, an Afghan political analyst, said “people are very suspicious” about Karzai’s role in the peace talks.

“He wants to save his legacy and be the person who is trying to bring peace in Afghanistan,” Mir said. “Is he trying to do something to develop the country or does he want to regain some of his lost influence in the country as a major political leader?”

Karzai insisted he was “trying to help the government” and his only ambition was to bring peace to Afghanistan.

“I tried first as the president, and I’m [now] trying for it as a citizen,” he said.

But after the talks in Moscow last week, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said only that they had “discussed the cease-fire, and we will continue this discussion,” leaving Karzai and other participants returning to Kabul largely empty-handed.

In Kabul, there is widespread disappointment among civilians that there likely will be no repeat of last year’s truce. For some, happy memories of last year’s peaceful festivities are a painful reminder of the lack of progress Afghanistan has made this year in putting an end to its prolonged conflict.

“Especially during Eid days, we should feel calm,” Shirzad said. “Their families, our families, should both have peace,” he said, referring to Taliban fighters and civilians.

Last year, Hasibullah Mohibi, 18, traveled away from Kabul for Eid, missing the arrival of Taliban fighters into the city where he grew up. He hoped this year he would have his chance to greet them himself.

“I was sad that I was not in Kabul to meet the Taliban for the first time when they did not intend to harm anyone, and no one intended to harm them,” he said.

For years, Mohibi has been toiling away at a food stand near a busy park in Kabul, frying bolani, an Afghan stuffed flatbread, to sell to passersby from under an orange awning. Last month, he was working when Taliban fighters attacked the compound of Virginia-based nonprofit Counterpart International nearby, killing at least five people and wounding more than 20 others, including at least one foreigner.

Mohibi ran to the scene of the attack and helped carry the wounded to the hospital. The experience left him shaken, fearing he would not escape the next Taliban assault alive.

But despite the carnage he’s witnessed, Mohibi said he would welcome Taliban fighters back to Kabul if they came under the guidelines of a cease-fire.

“If the Taliban visited, I’d love to see them,” he said. “Everyone is fed up with the war. We want a cease-fire.”

Shirzad said that he regrets not joining the Taliban fighters in the streets of Kabul last year. “I wanted to go and hug each other, speak with each other,” he said.

But other civilians expressed more hesitation over a cease-fire that could see Taliban fighters returning to urban areas for the holidays.

Reza Pazhohish, 30, who works for Afghanistan’s chief executive’s office in Kabul, said that last year, the militants returned in large numbers to his home city, Ghazni, in central Afghanistan. Some of them never left, and two months later, his brother, a police officer, was ambushed in a Taliban attack. Pazhohish called his family “cease-fire victims.”

Now, he would support a truce to end the fighting, but not one that would allow Taliban to rejoin civilians in Kabul and other cities.

“I’m very worried about safety during Eid,” he said. “There are a lot of gatherings … Maybe there will be a suicide attack.”

The Washington Post’s Salahuddin Sayed and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.

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