Taliban Kidnaps 170 Civilians After Afghanistan Declares Ceasefire

The Associated Press
AP Photos/Allauddin Khan

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a ceasefire plan on Sunday, but the Taliban promptly kidnapped 170 people from buses in an act of highway banditry. On Monday morning, Ghani all but abandoned the ceasefire and instructed his armed forces to continue operations against the Taliban until the terrorist group scales back its violent activities.

Ghani’s ceasefire proposal was timed to begin with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. He made the offer even though an intense battle to eject the Taliban from the key city of Ghazni was only concluded a few days ago. Aid workers reported humanitarian assistance began trickling into the city on Sunday.

The Taliban did not regard the battle of Ghazni as a defeat. Videos were posted online of Taliban fighters looting the city and loitering on the streets in broad daylight. The Taliban believes the message sent by the siege is that it now has the ability to overrun districts and occupy cities close to Kabul, which is less than a hundred miles from Ghazni.

A Taliban spokesman claimed on Saturday that the district of Bilchiragh in Fayrab province was captured and Afghan government troops were taken prisoner by Taliban fighters. Roughly a hundred Afghan security troops stationed in the province are reportedly missing. Provincial officials said the Taliban captured 28 soldiers, and at least 40 others fled the battlefield. The Taliban also claimed to have captured an Afghan military base, killing more than a dozen government troops in the process.

President Ghani declared a unilateral three-month ceasefire on Sunday, coinciding with both the Eid holiday and Afghanistan’s independence day. Ghani said the ceasefire would last until Mohammed’s birthday, which is celebrated in Afghanistan on November 21.

Ghani’s speech invoked Islamic religious authorities to persuade the Taliban that peace negotiations are a sacred imperative:

As we approach Eid-ul-Adha, and to respect the wishes of different segments of Afghan society including religious scholars, political parties, politicians, women and civil society leaders, youth and members of high peace council in all 34 provinces, and to respect the wishes of the religious scholars of the Islamic world that were gathered in the holy mosques and to respect the wishes of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the custodians of the two holy mosques, the King of Saudi Arabia, we announce a ceasefire that would take effect from tomorrow, Monday, the day of Arafa, till the day of the birth of the prophet (PBUH) i.e., Milad-un-Nabi, provided that the Taliban reciprocate.

Ghani’s proposal was an attempt to build on a successful three-day ceasefire in June that produced photos of Taliban fighters posing for selfies with Afghan troops. The ceasefire received enthusiastic support from the government of neighboring Pakistan and from the U.S. State Department.

“The United States welcomes the announcement by the Afghan government of a ceasefire conditioned on Taliban participation. This plan responds to the clear and continued call of the Afghan people for peace,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday.

“The last ceasefire in Afghanistan revealed the deep desire of the Afghan people to end the conflict, and we hope another ceasefire will move the country closer to sustainable security,” he said.

Pompeo called on the Taliban to participate in the ceasefire and open negotiations with the government in Kabul. “There are no obstacles to talks. It is time for peace,” he declared.

The Taliban disagreed and immediately kidnapped a large number of civilians, including women and children, traveling on three buses along a highway from the city of Kunduz to the northeastern Takhar province.

The passengers were reportedly on their way to Kabul when the Taliban attacked. Local officials speculated the Taliban was hoping to capture government workers or security personnel traveling home for the Eid holiday.

Afghan security forces quickly launched an operation to rescue the hostages and were able to free 149 of them by Monday afternoon local time. Fighting was still in progress to rescue another 21 hostages still in terrorist hands.

Taliban leader Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah issued a statement saying there will be no peace in Afghanistan until “foreign occupation” ends. He dismissed Ghani’s appeal to religious authority by insisting it is the Taliban that fights for “Islamic goals” and Afghan national sovereignty, by which he meant the sovereign rule of the Taliban.

Along those lines, Akhunzadah made it clear the Taliban still considers Ghani’s government wholly illegitimate and will only negotiate directly with the United States.

On Monday, Ghani held a video conference with provisional officials and security commanders in which he ordered his armed forces to continue combat operations against the Taliban until a “positive response” to the ceasefire proposal is received.

The New York Times argued on Sunday that Ghani misinterpreted the Taliban’s “charm offensive,” exemplified by the earlier three-day ceasefire and ostentatious displays of friendship from Taliban fighters. Ghani thought the Taliban was opening the door to a more durable peace agreement, when, in fact, the terrorist gang wanted to “charm” the Afghan people after years of terrorizing them.

Taliban fighters are busy recording and uploading propaganda videos from occupied towns that show local residents either actively welcoming them or wearily submitting to their rule. Many of these clips involve gangs of armed militants surrounding individual civilians on the street or marching into classrooms and asking if they support the Taliban, a question the terrified civilians tend to answer in the affirmative.

Other Taliban videos show the insurgents methodically destroying government buildings to physically erase the influence of the Kabul government. “We don’t need such fancy buildings. We hold our courts in the desert,” one Taliban fighter said as he set a courthouse in Ghazni on fire.

The true message was that the Taliban is the rightful sovereign rule of Afghanistan, and civilians have a choice between embracing it or facing starvation, torture, and death as collaborators with invading Western powers and their puppet government in Kabul. The Taliban continues to demand a massive release of its captive fighters as a condition for serious ceasefire talks.

Meanwhile, the only “peace initiative” the Taliban has been showing to Afghan government forces in battle zones like Ghazni and Bilchiragh is allowing them to flee with their lives if they surrender and disarm. The NYT spotted Taliban fighters using Twitter to transmit surrender terms to Afghan government troops, complete with convenient phone numbers and email addresses they could use to contact the Taliban and give up.

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