Herat, Afghanistan • After two days of rising hopes across the country, Taliban leaders Sunday brusquely rejected the government’s proposal to extend a three-day ceasefire and said they were ordering all insurgent fighters to resume operations against “the foreign invaders and their internal supporters.”
The insurgents’ terse announcement came as thousands of Taliban fighters continued swarming into cities and towns to celebrate the three-day Eid holiday, mingling cordially with civilians, hugging policemen and posing for selfies. Many remained armed, however, raising concerns about whether their presence would turn menacing after the current truce expired at midnight.
In Kabul, the capital, a group of insurgents milling in the streets was heard shouting, “Death to America” after the truce extension was rebuffed, according to a video posted on social media by Afghan journalists. In Paktika province, another post said Taliban fighters meeting with local residents had fired shots and torn up Afghan flags.
There were also scattered but unconfirmed reports late Sunday of Taliban fighters regrouping or opening fire on Afghan forces in Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul provinces — long before the official ceasefire was to end at midnight.
Adding to the ominous and swift change in mood, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people in the eastern city of Jalalabad, detonating outside the governor’s compound where several hundred Taliban members and local officials were meeting to celebrate the third day of the holiday ceasefire.
A nearly identical attack in the same provinice killed 36 people Saturday. Both were reported to be carried out by the Islamic State militia, which was not included in the truce. The separate group of foreign-backed extremists has competed with the Taliban but also collaborated with them at times.
On Friday and Saturday, dozens of such peaceful gatherings were held in cities and towns across the country, generating hopes that the festive religious atmosphere would create a momentum for peace. But the statement Sunday by a Taliban spokesman rejected that notion. “Our ceasefire was announced for the peacefulness of the people” during Eid, “but it ends this evening,” the statement said.
President Ashraf Ghani announced a unilateral ceasefire one week before Eid, and after the Taliban’s positive response, he called on the group Saturday to extend it beyond the holiday. He also offered to release Taliban prisoners and provide medical aid to their wounded. He called for peace talks and said he would be willing to discuss all Taliban concerns, including their repeated demands that foreign troops leave the country.
American officials praised his offer, and U.S. military officials in Kabul said Saturday that they would “honor” an extended truce, even acknowledging that the future role of foreign military forces should be part of peace talks.
There was no public comment Sunday by Ghani or other government officials on the Taliban snub. Ghani had previously called for peace talks early this month, offering the Taliban political recognition and participation, but the group did not respond. A national council of Islamic scholars also recently called for an end to the 16-year conflict, formally declaring it un-Islamic.
One of the few voices calling for caution in regard to the ceasefire Sunday morning was Amrullah Saleh, a former head of the national intelligence agency, who tweeted early in the day that “if this ceasefire ends 4 any reason, it will mean a TALIBAN TET OFFENSIVE.” That was a reference to the push by Communist forces who struck unexpectedly throughout South Vietnam 50 years ago, in a move that ultimately failed militarily but was a decisive moment in turning public opinion against the war there.
Saleh noted that “countless” armed Taliban have entered cities and that Afghan security forces “haven’t gone to their territory. They have infiltrated the NUG space.” He was referring to the National Unity Government.
But until early afternoon, expectations remained high that the truce might be extended. Groups of Taliban fighters from Wardak province headed into Kabul on motorbikes and in trucks, with religious chants blaring from loudspeakers. Some waved and smiled as they passed a large group of peace activists walking on the highway. As they reached the city gates, security forces searched their vehicles and let them pass.
Several fighters stopped to talk and said they hoped the war would end. One of them, Belal Ahmad Hotak, 21, said he welcomed the truce and hoped his leaders would extend it.
“We are tired of war. The entire nation is tired of war,” he said. “Soldiers and police officers are our brothers.”
Another Taliban fighter said the group was ready to stop fighting if foreign troops leave. “This is our government,” he added.
Yet even before the truce extension was formally rejected, there were signs that the Taliban’s easygoing holiday mood was about to end. Here in Herat, a prosperous western province, government officials traveled to a rural Taliban compound Sunday morning, where they made impassioned pleas for peace, repeatedly calling the insurgents fellow Afghans and Muslims.
More than 100 local Taliban members met the arriving officials with hugs and smiles. One provincial security official later described encountering an insurgent there who had threatened to kill him barely a week before, but who greeted him warmly at the meeting. Yet many of the insurgents carried assault rifles and rocket launchers, and some had their faces completely covered with scarves.
After the officials made their appeal inside a local mosque, the insurgents responded coolly. The local Taliban leader, Ghulam Sakhi, murmured a few words about obeying the orders of the group’s national leader, then brought his teenaged son to the floor. The boy stood and strongly denounced the Ghani government as un-Islamic, while the gathered fighters raised cheers of “God is great.”
“This is not an Islamic government,” declared the boy, identified as Omid.
“Islam says that the hand of a thief should be cut off, that people who have illegal sex should be lashed, but this is not done. There are commanders who drink alcohol. President Ghani has brought an apostate to Afghanistan,” he said, referring to Ghani’s Christian wife Rula. “We all want to see peace, but we want our government to be Islamic.”
As the meeting dispersed, one Taliban member left the mosque on a motorbike, his face hidden beneath a scarf and an assault rifle cradled in his arm. “Until the day a bullet hits me in the forehead, I will fight for Islam,” he said.
Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Sharif Hassan in Wardak contributed to this report.