KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban and the Afghan government announced a cease-fire for the three days of the Islamic festival Eid al-Fitr, which starts on Sunday in Afghanistan, offering the war-torn nation a rare respite from violence that has been intensifying.
The insurgents, in a statement late Saturday, said they had instructed their fighters to attack only if their positions were hit. Hours later, President Ashraf Ghani, who recently ordered his troops to move into offensive operations amid the increasing Taliban attacks, said Afghan security forces would comply.
“I welcome the cease-fire announced by the Taliban, and last evening I have ordered the security and defense forces to comply completely with the cease-fire and to remain on the defensive,” Mr. Ghani said.
In a sign of reciprocating the Taliban’s compromise, Mr. Ghani said he would expedite the release of insurgent prisoners in the hopes of building further trust in a fragile peace process.
This is only the second brief cease-fire that both sides have agreed to during the nearly two decades since the American invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001. The first cessation of violence, during Eid in 2018, was widely celebrated across Afghanistan as a rare glimpse of what the country could look like without war. Eid al-Fitr is an Islamic holiday that signifies the end of Ramadan, the holy month of daytime fasting.
The announcement of the latest cease-fire was widely welcomed by the United Nations, NATO and other allies of Afghanistan who have been urging the Taliban to stop bloodshed that has been threatening to derail a fragile peace process.
In February, the insurgents and the United States signed an initial peace deal that lays out a phased withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. It also describes the next steps of a process to end the war in a political settlement — including an exchange of up to 6,000 prisoners that would pave the way for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides.
All of those steps have since hit obstacles, and the Taliban over the past couple months have intensified their attacks on Afghan forces even as they have left United States troops alone.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States envoy for Afghan peace who has been shuttling around the region again in recent weeks despite Covid-19 travel restrictions, welcomed the cease-fire.
“This development offers the opportunity to accelerate the peace process,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “Other positive steps should immediately follow: the release of remaining prisoners as specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement by both sides, no returning to high levels of violence, and an agreement on a new date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
The Afghan government initially dragged its feet on the release of Taliban prisoners. The United States agreed to the Taliban’s demand for the release, but those talks did not include the Afghan government, which is holding the prisoners.
After much pressure, the government said that it would release 5,000, though in a phased manner. Mr. Ghani had said that 1,500 would be let go unconditionally as a “good-will gesture,” and that the rest would be freed if the insurgents reduced their attacks. More than two months later, his government has released only 1,000 prisoners, and Mr. Ghani halted the process after the insurgent violence intensified.
The new cease-fire appears to be the compromise the president was seeking before he lets out more Taliban prisoners.
“As a responsible government, we will take another step: I announce that we will expedite the release of Taliban prisoners, and serious steps will be taken,” Mr. Ghani said after the Eid prayer on Sunday morning.
Late on Sunday, Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Mr. Ghani, said the Afghan president had “initiated a process to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a good-will gesture.”
Mr. Sediqqi did not provide details on how long that process would take, but if 2,000 are freed, it will bring the total closer to the Taliban’s demand of 5,000 to be released before direct negotiations can occur.
Although Mr. Ghani’s act suggested the kind of urgency the United States has wanted to move the peace talks forward, a senior Afghan official said the process could still take a considerable amount of time because of technical issues related to the release of prisoners.
Najim Rahim contributed reporting.