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Inside Afghanistan’s historic ceasefire with the Taliban

The atmosphere of unity had become so pronounced here, and the adherence to the ceasefire absolute.

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Jun 26 2018, 4:55pm

WARDAK, Afghanistan — The car’s windshield bore an indentation the shape of a human head.

Moments earlier, the small sedan had struck a motorcycle that was carrying two Taliban fighters. Now, both men and the Kalashnikovs they’d been carrying were sprawled on the asphalt.

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Nearby, young Talibs rallied to their motorcycles, two or three to a bike, and raced to their fellow fighters injured on the ground. From the opposite direction, two Afghan National Army pickups approached.

As the ANA soldiers came to a halt behind the sedan, they noticed the garb — high-top sneakers, shalwar pants that exposed their ankles, rifle butts and radios protruding from the patus wrapped around their shoulders — and quickly realized they’d driven into an encounter with the enemy.

On any other day, it would have been the cause for bloodshed. But it was Sunday, June 17, the third and final day of the historic ceasefire declared by the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership.

Two men fly a Taliban flag from a motorcycle traveling through Nerkh District in Wardak Province, an area where the Taliban has a particularly strong presence. Andrew Quilty for VICE News.

As if overnight, the atmosphere of unity had become so pronounced here, and adherence to the ceasefire so absolute, that the soldiers didn’t even hesitate when they rushed toward the group of armed Taliban fighters. Some of them didn’t even bother to take their weapons from the vehicles.

This wasn’t the scene of a firefight but rather of an emergency rescue, and the soldiers acted accordingly, lifting the two injured Talibs into one of the ANA vehicles and speeding off for the hospital. Onlooking Taliban fighters remonstrated with the remaining soldiers, not trusting what had just transpired. But the soldiers implored them not to worry: “Their weapons will be returned. Please just worry about your friends,” they said. Eventually, the Taliban fighters backed down, and some even helped the soldiers direct traffic around the accident.

This chaotic interaction, at once surreal and uplifting, was emblematic of the three days that unfolded across Afghanistan recently, when the 17-year war that has relentlessly ravaged this country was temporarily put on hold. For the civilian population, on whom the war is taking an increasing toll, more than mere respite, the ceasefire offered a glimmer of hope and a possible indication of what peace in Afghanistan could someday look like.

Taliban fighters, Afghan National Army soldiers and onlookers gather around the car that was damaged when the driver driver crashed with motorcyclists on the highway in Nerkh District, Wardak Province, an area with a particularly strong Taliban presence. Andrew Quilty for VICE News.

The ceasefire was held over the three days of Eid ul-Fitr, a joyous occasion that marks the end of Ramadan. And for the first time since the early 2000s, Afghans were able to truly realize this holiday’s tenets of peace, forgiveness, and mercy.

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It couldn't have come at a more critical time.

The war has taken on a new dimension of terror in its 17th year. The Taliban has rarely been stronger — controlling or contesting 45 percent of the country’s territory — or more menacing. Unable to compete against an intensified U.S. bombing campaign, the Taliban have brought their brutality to the cities in full force, staging one gruesome terror attack after another. This has been felt especially in Kabul, which, according to the United Nations, accounted for the war’s highest number of civilian casualties in 2017, with 1,831 non-combatants either killed or injured.

The Afghan government, meanwhile, has been crippled by low morale, corruption, and unsustainable attrition rates among its security forces.

Yet during the ceasefire, the brutality, hatred, fear that’s become so common across Afghanistan appeared to be set aside. On the streets of Kabul and dozens of provincial capitals, these two worlds collided. Traffic circles were flooded with hundreds of combatants — many of them armed — from both sides, who embraced and exchanged flags. Residents mobbed long-haired Taliban who happily posed for photos.

Police commanders who had lost scores of men to Taliban bombs and ambushes over the years were confounded as carloads of armed Taliban fighters arrived at city gates, seeking to celebrate Eid in the open, with their sworn enemies. With little basis for trust, the police — many with their hearts in their mouths — threw open their gates. Some even dispatched armoured vehicles to ferry fighters in. The Afghan government estimates that 30,000 Taliban fighters entered capital cities during the ceasefire. For government workers and the Afghan National Security Forces, it was an opportunity to visit family in areas under Taliban control that had been off-limits for more than a decade.

The three men on this motorcycle, believed to be Taliban, had most likely entered Kabul from the direction of Wardak Province, south-west of Kabul. Andrew Quilty for VICE News.

What the brief ceasefire will bring in the future remains to be seen. Many fear it was merely an aberration in a war without end. (In the early hours of June 20, in northwestern province of Badghis, ANA soldiers were killed by Taliban fighters in a coordinated assault on government checkpoints. The attack came just days after the two sides had enjoyed joint Eid celebrations).

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The success of the ceasefire was as spontaneous as it was unprecedented. While each side implored its charges to lay down their weapons, neither expected the kind of overt unity that transpired.

For the government, and in particular President Ashraf Ghani, whose rule has been plagued by internal opposition, unpopularity, and crippling violence, the ceasefire was a triumph.

For the Taliban, things are less clear. The Taliban leadership, prior to the ceasefire, were so concerned that peace talks would spark revolt among their lower ranks that they instituted lectures designed to desensitize their fighters to the idea. Midway through the ceasefire, however, the leadership admonished those cavorting in capital cities and being photographed with government soldiers, perhaps concerned that their fighters were registering a deeper experience of connection with their counterparts.

The impact of such popular mobilization on the mindset of these men could be massive, said Borhan Osman, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan. The same could be said for their counterparts: The ceasefire “revealed the desperate appetite for peace among ordinary Afghans who had previously lost hope for it,” Osman said.

But will the first taste of peace for thousands of fighters stuck in a bloody stalemate spark enough internal discord that the Taliban leadership must reassess its approach to negotiations? On the flipside, will the unexpected goodwill delivered by the Taliban encourage Kabul to ponder greater concessions?

Such strategic questions are likely now being posed by leaders from both sides.

A crowd that includes Taliban fighters, civilians, and Afghan police, ride on the back of an Afghan National Police truck amid a crowd on the highway running through the village of Top in Sayyidabad District in Wardak Province, an area that has a particularly strong Taliban Presence. Their cries included "Long live Afghanistan,” "long live the Taliban,” "Death to American,” "Death to Pakistan,” "Death to foreigners." Andrew Quilty for VICE News.

On the ground, however, the ceasefire brought out more emotional impulses.

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For sympathizers to the Taliban’s conservative credo, especially in rural districts like Sayyidabad, in Wardak, it was a moment that allowed them to express support in a way that would ordinarily see them thrown in jail.

In one village, Mawlawi Mahmadullah, a Taliban scholar wearing a lustrous white turban, led a chant from the back of an Afghan National Police pickup. “We want peace; we want unity… we want an alliance,” he cried, thrusting a Taliban flag into the air to punctuate each invocation. “Death to the enemies of Afghanistan; death to Americans... The government are slaves to foreigners; death to foreigners.”

On the second day of the ceasefire, members of the Taliban and their supporters entered Kabul from various directions. They were mostly welcomed by crowds of cheering and waving residents. The masked man holding a flag in support of the Taliban in this photo rides in a shared taxi through the Kabul neighborhood of Company in the direction of Wardak Province, to the south-west of Kabul. Andrew Quilty for VICE News.

The reaction in Kabul, where civilians have suffered one Taliban attack after another, was less joyous, however. For 20-year-old resident Zarifa Abida, the three-day event stoked greater fear instead of hope. She spent the weekend inside, at home, and away from the crowds celebrating the Taliban inside city gates.

Having enjoyed the relative freedoms brought in by a modernizing government in recent years, the women in her Kabul neighborhood are once again terrified by the slightest possibility of the Taliban's rule, she said. They’re worried that many of the Taliban who entered Kabul during the ceasefire never left.

Some were even taking precautions: “The women are all buying burqas,” she said.

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Cover Image: A vehicle carrying armed Taliban fighters is swarmed by a gathering of nearly two hundred people, including other armed Taliban fighters, Afghan National Police officers, Afghan National Army soldiers, religious leaders and local power figures on the highway in the village of Top, in the Sayyidabad District. Andrew Quilty for VICE News.

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Andrew Quilty is a freelance photojournalist.

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