KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as insurgents in Afghanistan have escalated their attacks against government forces across the country, they have also been staging a simultaneous charm offensive of sorts in advance of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, which starts this week.
In the past week alone, the Taliban have overrun a city, burned down government facilities, hidden in civilians’ homes and killed hundreds of their opponents.
At the same time, the group has been actively seeking for weeks to court Afghan civilians, promising last month to halt suicide bombings in civilian areas, and announcing on Twitter and other social networks that those who surrendered would not be harmed.
The moves left many in the country expressing hope that the Taliban and the government would join a cease-fire and hold peace talks.
On Sunday, the government made the first move. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan proposed a conditional cease-fire with the Taliban, extending a trust-building measure to the insurgents before Eid al-Adha.
“I announce a conditional cease-fire starting from tomorrow, Monday, until Nov. 21, birthday of the Prophet Muhammad,” Mr. Ghani said from Darul-Aman Palace on Sunday during celebrations for Independence Day.
“The cease-fire is conditional, and if the Taliban also announce and observe the cease-fire, it will continue until the Taliban are observing it.”
During the Eid al-Fitr festival in June, the government announced a unilateral cease-fire that the Taliban then joined for three days.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Sunday that he welcomed the government’s proposal. “The last cease-fire in Afghanistan revealed the deep desire of the Afghan people to end the conflict, and we hope another cease-fire will move the country closer to sustainable security,” Mr. Pompeo said.
He added that the United States is ready to support and participate in negotiations. “There are no obstacles to talks,” he said. “It is time for peace.”
There was no immediate response from the Taliban about a new cease-fire, but Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Sunday that the group had identified hundreds of prisoners that it wants the government to release on Monday, so that “they can share the happiness of Eid with their families and friends.”
Release of such prisoners has been a Taliban condition for another cease-fire.
In terms of how it treats its own potential captives, the insurgents do seem to be abiding by the promise not to harm government troops who lay down their arms.
When the northern district of Bilchiragh in Faryab Province was captured by the Taliban late Saturday, the militants promised the last 50 government defenders that they would be freed if they surrendered. When the government supporters capitulated, the insurgents allowed the Bilchiragh District’s police chief, Ahmad Shah Khan, to speak by phone with a reporter.
“I am with the Taliban now,” he said. “We negotiated through tribal elders, and the result is they will release the whole personnel of the district, and me, too.”
As the Taliban besieged the capital of Ghazni Province, Ghazni city, beginning Aug. 10, they offered amnesty to Afghan security forces there, going so far as to share phone numbers and email addresses on Twitter to reach the insurgents. They said they would treat those who surrendered as “brothers,” and would give them protection.
There have been no reported cases of such surrenders, and the insurgents were pushed out of most of the city after six days.
Central to the effort are Taliban fighters who send reports from the battlefield for inclusion in propaganda. During a quiet period in the Taliban effort to take over Ghazni this month, half a dozen insurgents walked up a mostly empty street in a Ghazni neighborhood, moving toward a young man speaking on the phone outside his house.
“They are here,” the man said into the phone as the insurgents approached him. He nervously put his phone away.
One of the insurgents shifted a loaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher to his right hand, and with his left he recorded his encounter with the man, which was later posted on an insurgent Facebook account and reposted on Twitter.
“Are you happy with the mujahedeen?” the fighter asked.
“Inshallah,” or God willing, the man said.
The so-called reporter did not seem satisfied with the vague answer, and he kept pressing.
“We want to see one side in charge,” the civilian told him diplomatically. “This side or the other side, everyone is tired of war.”
Fatiullah Qaisari, a member of the Afghan Parliament’s Defense Committee, said the insurgents were using such vox populi campaigns to improve their standing in case peace negotiations come to fruition.
“They’ll use it to say, ‘See, people like us, and they are happy with the Taliban presence in their area,’” Mr. Qaisari said. “In reality, people are too afraid of them to say anything against them.”
But even as they sought to portray themselves as hospitable to civilians, the Taliban were rampaging through Ghazni. In their six-day attack, they set fire to buildings and marketplaces, and attacked police and government positions. The insurgents repeatedly told civilians that they would not be harmed, but then took over their homes and shops to fight from them, killing 155 members of security forces.
There were also 50 to 70 civilians killed, with attacks from both sides. Many of those civilians died in airstrikes on Taliban positions; the Ghazni Red Cross estimated that at least 24 perished in American and Afghan airstrikes to push out the insurgents last week.
When the insurgents burned down buildings in Ghazni, they explained to residents that they were punishing displays of wealth and privilege. Setting a courthouse ablaze, one insurgent explained: “We don’t need such fancy buildings. We hold our courts out in the desert.”
The insurgents’ propaganda drive has gone far beyond Ghazni, however. In the eastern province of Paktia, militants visited a high school in Sayed Karam District on Aug. 12 to interview the principal, who seemed visibly nervous during the encounter. The interviewer, dressed in military fatigues and holding a large microphone, asked if the principal was happy with the monitor that the Taliban had appointed for the school.
“Yes, he gives very good advice, which brings positive effects on learning methods,” the principal quickly responded.
As uncomfortable as the encounter appeared, it signaled a major change; insurgents were more likely in the past to be burning down schools than they were to be monitoring them.
Similar scenes have played out in the past week in the northern province of Jowzjan, particularly in Darzab District, where the Taliban broke the grip of rival militants from the Islamic State on Aug. 1, sending them fleeing for safety into government captivity.
People in the district had just spent two years under an Islamic State reign of terror, complaining that the extremists had raped and enslaved women, and killed men and sometimes children suspected of supporting either the government or the Taliban.
In a video posted on Facebook on Aug. 11, an insurgent sought to interview a villager who appeared to be returning from exile, after fleeing the Islamic State. The militant was part of a group of fighters with AK-47s strapped across their chests, riding motorcycles through the heavily ruined village of Sar Dara and filming from their bikes to show the devastation from recent fighting there.
“What is your name?” the insurgent asked.
“Noruddin,” the villager responded.
“Were you forced to seek refuge because of the Islamic State?”
“Yes, we went to the desert.”
“So now the Islamic Emirate came here and they captured the area,” the Taliban militant said, referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the group calls its own government. “Are you happy with the Islamic Emirate?”
“Yes, we are happy,” Noruddin said.
“Did they oppress you?”
“No, none of them oppressed us.”
“None of the mujahedeen?”
“No, no,” a very relieved looking Noruddin said as the questioning ended.
Bilchiragh, the district in Faryab Province that fell on Saturday night, was at least the fifth rural district to be captured by the Taliban since their attack on Ghazni city; the other four, in Ghazni Province, fell last week.
The insurgents already “controlled or influenced” 56 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the basic unit of governance here, on July 30, according to a report by an American military watchdog; the latest takeovers would bring the total number of districts under insurgent control or influence to 61.
The Bilchiragh District governor, Jamil Sadeqi, confirmed that the area had fallen. He said the insurgents had 600 fighters, and that the government forces, who were outnumbered, were unable to get reinforcements or air support.
“It was not possible to fight,” said Mr. Khan, the district police chief who surrendered. “We had asked for reinforcement and support, but it was not provided.”
In exchange for their freedom, government forces who surrender to the Taliban typically promise not rejoin the fight against insurgents.
Follow Rod Nordland and Fahim Abed on Twitter: @rodnordland and @fahimabed.
Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kunduz, Afghanistan, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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