Afghans are waiting for the outcome of endless meetings between the United States and the Taliban.
For the Afghans bracing for a chilly winter, the new year could have started on a happy note as reports emerged this week that the Taliban leadership had agreed to a few days of ceasefire, raising hopes for the settlement of an 18-year-old conflict.
While the United States had been negotiating with the Taliban for more than a year, the insurgent group hadn’t stopped attacking American soldiers and Afghan government security forces during that period and neither has the US coalition ceased its activities against the movement.
The US has continued to lose soldiers - 20 died in 2019 - as President Donald Trump’s administration struggled to find a way to pull out from the long-drawn war.
The news about the proposed ceasefire came from two sources - first by The Wall Street Journal on December 27 and then by wire agency Associated Press on Sunday.
But the Taliban were quick to announce that no such ceasefire has been announced.
The Taliban have consistently demanded that the US, which has around 12,000 troops in Afghanistan and other foreign forces, pull out of the country for the ceasefire to take effect.
Multiple rounds of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, have yet to bring an end to deadly Taliban attacks and American retaliation in which thousands of civilians have been killed.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy tasked with negotiating with the Taliban, put the talks on hold on December 13 after a Taliban attack near a US airbase in Bagram.
“#Taliban must show they are willing & able to respond to Afghan desire for peace,” he said in a tweet, adding that the talks were put on hold for the Taliban to consult with its leadership.
What it all means?
Thousands of people, most of them Afghan civilians, have been killed since the US dislodged the Taliban from power after the 9/11 attacks.
US President Donald Trump wants to withdraw American soldiers who have played a crucial role in stopping the Taliban from toppling the internationally-backed Kabul government.
As a peace deal, the US expects the Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan won’t be used as a base by terrorist groups.
Any deal with the US would ultimately pave the way for the Taliban to start negotiations with the Afghan government, which has so far been sidelined in the talks.
The insurgent group is seeking the release of its fighters, changes in the Afghan constitution to reflect the group’s strict Islamic views and the removal of its leaders from sanctions lists.
Up until now it has refused to meet officials from the Afghan government, saying they first want a timetable for a withdrawal of American soldiers.
The Taliban also doesn’t recognise that Kabul has a legitimate government.
President Ashraf Ghani has already made concessions to the Taliban by agreeing to amend the constitution, allowing the Taliban to contest elections and removing their name from the watch lists.
The growing unpopularity of Ghani’s government has worked in favour of the Taliban, which enjoys the support of more than half the population in some provinces, according to a recent Asia Foundation survey.
Ghani, narrowly won an election this year, amid accusations of fraud.
The insurgents, comprised mostly of ragtag fighters armed with rusty Kalashnikovs and rundown joggers have emerged as an alternative and gained legitimacy among the Afghan people because of the government's inefficiency in delivering basic services.
The Pakistani connection
Taliban leaders have long found sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan, which the US and Afghanistan accuse of helping the insurgents.
Officially, Islamabad denies facilitating the fighters and says it’s difficult to stop people from crossing the porous border despite an 800 kilometre-long fence.
But it continues to exert influence on the insurgent group.
Pakistanis have been part of almost all the meetings involving the Taliban. Over the years, Taliban leaders have also travelled abroad on Pakistani passports.
The Taliban movement is made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Pashtuns, an ethnic community that straddles both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
On the Pakistani side, some of them have grouped together to launch a movement demanding more rights and the end of a military operation that was launched to eliminate terrorists in Pashtun-dominated areas.
Pakistan is also being pushed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help find a way to end the war in which thousands of civilians have been killed.
Many US officials involved with Afghanistan say that Islamabad has been duplicitous by taking US aid and backing the Taliban at the same time. Pakistan rejects the allegation.