IN THE ORCHARDS and vineyards around Kandahar, where the Taliban first budded in the 1990s and waged nearly two decades of war against America, there is a mood of quiet anticipation. The long war that has scarred the land may be about to end. On February 21st America and the Taliban announced a week-long reduction in violence, with the promise of a formal accord at the end of it. “The agreement will happen. I think both sides want to sign a peace agreement,” explained Haji Gul Mohammad, an elder in Panjwayi.
America and the militants, having negotiated for some 18 months, are on the point of an odd sort of deal: a ceasefire that is not a full cessation of violence; and a peace agreement that does not include the Afghan government, at least not yet.
Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, announced that his negotiators had “come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant and nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan”. If this holds, he explained, then a formal peace deal should be in sight. “We are preparing for the signing to take place on February 29.” Mr Pompeo gave no indication of when the lull would begin, but Taliban sources said it would be from the start of February 22nd.
Afghan news reports said Taliban attacks are expected to fall by about 80%, and spare population centres, bases and highways. Afghan and American forces, for their part, will only act in self-defence. The arrangement will certainly test the Taliban’s control of its fighters, in a fiendishly complicated conflict that is laid over local disputes and tribal rivalries. A statement from the leadership told fighters that they “must strictly refrain from entering enemy territory”.
Perhaps more worrying than the Taliban are the people who might be opposed to the deal. Suspects range from rogue Taliban commanders, to the local branch of the Islamic State group, to factions in the Afghan government profiting from the war economy. “Politically and economically, war is in their benefit, so therefore they may spoil a deal,” explained Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban-official-turned-peace-campaigner, referring to the many potential saboteurs or provocateurs.
Careful monitoring of the semi-truce will be important. If a car-bomb goes off in Kabul next week, or a remote outpost is overrun, it will be necessary to clarify who was responsible. A communications channel between America and the Taliban is understood to have been agreed on.
The outlines of the deal that is supposed to follow the lull remain as they were in September, when President Donald Trump called off talks in anger at continued Taliban attacks. America will set out a withdrawal timeline—down from about 12,000 to about 8,600, according to American sources—while the Taliban will give assurances that they will not let terrorists like al-Qaeda use Afghan soil. Once the Americans have agreed to draw down, the Taliban will meet with Afghan leaders from the government and beyond to decide how to run the country.
That will be the most difficult bit. Divisions in the Afghan political class will complicate talks. Matters are not helped by the contested presidential election result. On February 18th Mr Ghani was declared the winner, five months after the ballot was held; his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the outcome and threatened to establish a parallel government.
America has attempted to assuage the Afghan government’s concerns that Mr Trump is running for the door. A troop withdrawal is “conditions-based”, insisted Mark Esper, America’s defence secretary, earlier this month. Those conditions—and what happens if they are not met—have not been disclosed. Likewise the Taliban have tried to persuade sceptics in America. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the fearsome deputy leader known until now for ordering car-bombings, used the opinion pages of the New York Times to say he wanted an end to killing and the creation of an inclusive government.
For Afghans, a truce is not just an academic negotiating point. The toll on civilians has reached bloody new highs. The most recent UN tally shows that, in the third quarter of last year, 1,174 civilians were killed and a further 3,139 injured. Casualty counts from Afghan forces suggest dozens die each week.
“We are thirsty for peace,” said Muhammad Ehsan, a politician from Kandahar. “It’s a priority for us.” The country holds its breath.