General Views Taliban Cease-Fire with 'Cautious Optimism'

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2015 file photo, Afghan Taliban fighters listen to Mullah Mohammed Rasool, the leader of a faction of the Taliban, in Farah province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2015 file photo, Afghan Taliban fighters listen to Mullah Mohammed Rasool, the leader of a faction of the Taliban, in Farah province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo, File)

The head of U.S. Central Command said Thursday that the recent cease-fire between Afghan forces and the Taliban may be a signal both sides are ready for peace.

Although fighting continues, "there is cause for cautious optimism and evidence that the president's South Asia strategy is working," U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.

"The most dramatic evidence of this manifested recently when our conditions-based approach allowed [Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and] the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to set up the conditions for the first-ever nationwide cease-fire," he said. "Although the cease-fire was temporary, all parties respected the terms, and there were no reported breaches."

The cease-fire, which began June 9 and concluded June 30, did actually have a few breaches according to Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, assistant to the Deputy Commander for Air, and Vice Commander, 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan Resolute Support.

Bunch told reporters at the Pentagon in late June that the Afghan air force had had to conduct a number of self-defense strikes during the designated cease-fire period in response to Taliban hostility.

"There have been 38 instances where the Afghan air force has been airborne and has conducted self-defense strikes in support of their ANA partners on the ground -- 38 instances where the Taliban did not honor the ceasefire," Bunch said.

Following the cease-fire, U.S. and coalition forces conducted "increased kinetic strikes in support of the Afghan National Security Forces' targeting of Taliban revenue-generation mechanisms," Votel said.

Votel stressed that "much work and fighting" lie ahead, but "the cease-fire demonstrated the increased desire for peace not only from the Afghan people but also from the belligerents in the conflict."

"We saw numerous instances of this during the cease-fire, and we have seen many since its conclusion, even in the midst of ongoing combat operations," he said.

The New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. officials are open to holding direct talks with the Taliban, according to an article by The Associated Press.

Votel, however, stressed that U.S. and coalition forces so far have been a "supporting element to that overall reconciliation effort."

"This is an Afghan-owned and led process," he said.

The Taliban have continued to refuse to participate in direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with Washington, according to the AP.

Ghani's orchestration of the three-day cease-fire may change the Taliban's stance, Votel said.

"His offer to move forward with the cease-fire and to meet with the Taliban under a no-conditions-based approach [is very courageous]," he said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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