As Afghan Cease-Fire Ends, Temporary Friends Hug, Then Return to War

Carrying the wounded to a hospital after a blast in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Sunday.

CHARDARA, Afghanistan — In the end, the truce was too short.

At sunset on Sunday, the final day of an unprecedented three-day cease-fire in the bloody Afghan conflict, Mohammed Islam, a Taliban fighter, stopped his motorcycle to say goodbye to Mohammed Edris, the Afghan police officer in charge of the bridge leading to the contested Chardara district in northern Kunduz Province. The two hugged.

Soon, these two men will find themselves with orders to attack, and with orders to defend. But for a brief moment, as they said their goodbyes on the bridge, they had experienced the possibilities of a reality other than war.

Before he drove off, Mr. Islam, 22, scrawny and with a long nose, described the joys of roaming the urban center of Kunduz city for three days during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr. He has been with the Taliban for three years, and in all that time had not made it to the city.

“I had the kebabs, I had the sheeryakh ice cream, I hugged the police, I hugged the army ones — all of it was pleasant,” Mr. Islam said. “The people were very happy with the peace. Nothing comes of fighting. It’s all loss.”

Officer Edris, five years with the police in Kunduz — a period during which insurgents like Mr. Islam overran the city twice — looked at ease. For the first time in five years, he had visited his village, under Taliban control, to celebrate Eid with relatives. Now he was back on duty at the checkpoint, watching the last moments of the cease-fire.

“In all my 27 years, this is the first time I experienced a cease-fire,” Mr. Edris said.

A last-ditch scramble by the Afghan government on Sunday to persuade the Taliban to extend the brief cease-fire proved futile. The insurgents, after reportedly holding long meetings of their leadership in the Pakistani city of Quetta, put out a statement saying they will go back to full-fledged war. The statement repeated the group’s consistent demands: that they would negotiate directly with the Americans, and that foreign forces should leave.

The Afghan government, after long meetings of its own, decided to stick to earlier plans to extend a unilateral cease-fire. In the meantime, it ordered its troops to be ready to defend against Taliban attacks.

Many analysts and officials were expecting an uptick in violence immediately after the cease-fire ended. Intelligence reports suggest the attacks could be both military offensives against entire districts, and suicide bombings that could target the cities.

Just how complicated the Afghan battlefield remains was demonstrated by two deadly attacks in eastern Nangarhar Province during the cease-fire period. The latest attack, on Sunday afternoon, targeted a crowd gathered outside the governor’s palace and killed 18 and wounded close to 50 others, officials said.

Inside the Nangarhar governor’s palace, a meeting celebrating the cease-fire was attended by officials, local Taliban commanders, and civilians. The attendants were leaving after a lunch of rice and fried chicken when the explosion, reportedly a suicide bombing, went off amid the crowd outside.

The first attack during the cease-fire, on Saturday, which killed 36 people and wounded 65, including Taliban fighters, was claimed by the Islamic State.

Much of the talk in Kabul has already turned to what the cease-fire achieved, if anything. Had the flooding of cities by Taliban fighters — most of them leaving their weapons at the gates, but some entering armed — increased the vulnerability of a government already struggling with suicide bombings in urban centers?

The cease-fire had come very suddenly. Neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban was prepared for how widely it would be embraced, especially by lower- and midlevel Taliban fighters. Government estimates suggest that about 30,000 Taliban fighters visited cities across the country during the three days, with close to 97 percent of them exiting before the end of the cease-fire.

For the Afghan government, such large numbers raised fears that among them were attackers or potential suicide bombers who may be now hiding in the cities and waiting for an opportunity to strike. In a brutal war, skeptics said, it was naïve to open up cities to an enemy that had gone so far as detonating an ambulance full explosives.

Government officials said enough measures had been put in place to minimize those risks.

“Before the cease-fire, there were discussions with corps commanders and security officials of the capital and the provinces about possible scenarios,” said Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani. “Even during the cease-fire, the forces are on high alert and there is readiness for any kind of attack.”

For the Taliban, such enthusiasm among its foot soldiers for a brief period of normalcy directly contradicted a narrative the insurgent leaders often push: that their forces are ready to drag this war out as long as it takes.

Their fighters, and even midlevel commanders, not only widely spoke of how tired they are of the war, but continued to visit the cities — and appeared to enjoy their visits — on Sunday, despite clear orders from their leadership to avoid such visits after the bloody attack on Saturday.

Voice messages attributed to Taliban leaders, sent to the phones of their fighters and shared with a New York Times reporter, showed a sense of anger at how easily their side had mingled with Afghan government forces, and their excess in posing for selfies.

Despite the fears of the aftermath, diplomats and analysts said the cease-fire had injected a sense of possibility into a dormant Afghan peace process. Ordinary Afghans, as well as foot soldiers on both sides, got a brief taste of what life without war could be — something they had not been afforded for long years.

On his way from Kunduz city to visit his village, Mr. Edris, the police officer, said he came across Taliban fighters on motorcycles. They stopped the shared taxi he was traveling in to ask the occupants: Would the government harass them in the city? Those on board said most likely not, as it was a cease-fire.

Mr. Edris said he was nervous at the stop that he might be forced out of the vehicle, as Afghan forces traveling in Taliban areas often are. But the insurgents drove away toward the city after they got their answer.

Once in his village, long controlled by the Taliban, Mr. Edris said all of it felt unreal.

“One of my cousins pinched me.H e said ‘Is this you, or am I dreaming?’”

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