Almost as soon as the Afghan government trumpeted a local cease-fire with the Taliban Monday, the purported deal fell apart. The breakdown of this minor agreement underscores the extreme difficulty the government and its international backers face in finding a political solution to the insurgency.
The government claimed it had struck a deal with Taliban leaders and tribal elders in the northern province of Badghis. Specifically, the local cease-fire would safeguard a road construction project and electioneering ahead of next month's national vote.
Within hours, however, clashes broke out in the region, and a Taliban spokesman told media that no deal ever happened. Suspected insurgents ambushed police, and fighting left two militants dead and two police wounded, Reuters reported, citing the Interior Ministry.
Negotiations with the Taliban have become a top goal – though an elusive one – for Kabul and Western governments. In a speech Monday at NATO headquarters, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated his government's call for Kabul to formulate "a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation."
Remote region most likely for success
The preelection timing and the remote location of Badghis seemed to provide the best conditions possible for both sides to test the waters of a truce.
Badghis is "a fairly natural target for negotiation because of its separation from the Pashtun heartlands of southern Afghanistan where the Afghan Taliban have most of their hardcore support," says Col. (ret.) Christopher Langton, an Afghanistan expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Over the past year, Badghis has stood out as the site of increasing violence within a generally peaceful northern Afghanistan. That's partly due to a growing sense of alienation among ethnic Pashtuns. Most Pashtuns live in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where violence has been high; Badghis is a rare Pashtun exclave in the north.
"They have been a little hornets' nest up in the north causing trouble," says Colonel Langton. The government might have seen the geographically isolated Taliban in Badghis as an "easier nut to crack," he says, "and if they did crack it, maybe there would be a ripple effect that could be maximized in the harder areas in the south and east."
Despite the failure today, there are reasons for the Taliban to consider truces.
"There is a sense among the Taliban that if they disrupt the elections, they would actually be playing into the hands of [Kabul and the West]," says Langton.
If the Taliban allow the population to take part in the elections, and the elections result in little positive change, he continues, the Taliban could benefit.
For the most part, the Taliban did not harass workers registering voters earlier this year and refrained from attacks during the last presidential election.
"In Pakistan next door, they are signing a peace deal every couple of months with isolated Taliban groups, but it never holds for more than six months. And to start doing the same thing in Afghanistan – I think we know better," says Mr. Mir.
There are limits, of course, to the comparisons that can be made between the efforts of Kabul and those of Islamabad, given the decentralized nature of the Taliban and the different governments involved.
Cease-fire allows Taliban to regroup
Such small cease-fire deals are so fragile because they are merely tactical ploys for the Taliban, argues Wadir Safi, a professor of politics at Kabul University.
"I think these small dealings are all not their main strategy – it doesn't bring any nearer to their dream, they are only using it as a tactic," says Mr. Safi. If a truce is "in their temporary interest, they use it; if not, they ignore it and violate it."