Bike races and street dancing, Afghans celebrate step to peace

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Hours after a historic truce took hold across their country, jubilant Afghans who have suffered decades of non-stop conflict took to the streets to celebrate what they desperately hope is a first step towards peace.

Men were seen holding up signs for peace near the capital Kabul, dancing in celebration in the east, and mingling with Taliban fighters in the southern city of Helmand.

But the first day of the reduced violence agreement made between the United States and the Taliban was also marked by the latest UN report on violence. In a “grim milestone”, deaths last year surpassed 10,000 as the UN said that 100,000 had been killed or wounded in the 10 years it has been keeping track.

“Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN’s the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. “It is absolutely imperative for all parties to seize the moment to stop the fighting, as peace is long overdue; civilian lives must be protected and efforts for peace are underway.”

But on Saturday in Jalalabad, the capital of eastern province Nangarhar, cycling enthusiasts donned Lycra shorts and shirts for a road race – something previously hard to imagine in a city that has been beset by attacks.

Race organiser Fazli Ahmdi Fazli told AFP about 60 people representing nine provinces came out for the event, where they wound through the city's dusty streets on their bikes.

"Our goal of coming together is to mark the reduction in violence and to convey its message to our people," Mr Fazli said.

Warring parties have agreed what they are calling a one-week "reduction in violence" that is expected to set the conditions for Washington and the Taliban to sign a deal on February 29 in Doha.

The accord could, ultimately, pull US troops out after more than 18 years and launch war-weary Afghanistan into an uncertain future.

A successful week would show the Taliban can control their forces and demonstrate good faith ahead of any signing.

Even in a country that has been torn apart by violence, Jalalabad has suffered more than many places, facing continual attacks and suicide bombs from the Taliban and, in recent years, the Islamic State group.

Saturday's bicycle race – dubbed the Peace Cup – had been planned in anticipation of the first day of the partial truce.

Sergeant Jay Kenney, 26, with the 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Destiny, assists wounded Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers off the Blackhawk UH-60A helicopter after they were rescued in an air mission in Kandahar on December 12, 2010 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Getty Images

An Afghan Northern Alliance fighter mans the front line against the Taliban on October 2, 2001 near Jabul os Sarache, 30 miles north of Kabul. Getty Images

Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan travelling via helicopter for the final campaign rally in Bamiyan, Afghanistan on September 25, 2019. Afghans will head to the polls on Saturday, September 28th. Getty Images

Mustafa Tamanna, 10, son of Afghan reporter Zabihullah Tamanna, weeps during the funeral ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 7, 2016. Tamanna was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by the Taliban. Getty Images

Northern Alliance soldiers come back from the front line after a battle near Charatoy town in the north of Afghanistan on October 10, 2001. REUTERS

A Northern Alliance fighter throwing rocks as part of a popular national game yards away from a multiple Grad missile launcher in October 12, 2001 in the Salang Gorge in Northern Afghanistan. Getty Images

A French soldier from the 7th Mountain Regiment, part of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) stands on a boulder overlooking Kabul during a patrol August 3, 2002 in Afghanistan. The ISAF has been patrolling Kabul since January 2002, working with the government and a new police force to prevent the violence and lawlessness that threatened to engulf the city after a U.S.-led coalition forced the Taliban from power. Getty Images

US Marine Sgt. Jerry Brown (L) of Jacksonville, North Carolina watches over a weapons cache found during a patrol near the American military compound at Kandahar Airport in January 16, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Marines recovered mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds discovered in various caches near the base while on the patrol. Getty Images)

Members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry patrol through poppy fields in the village of Markhanai in May 6, 2002 in the Tora Bora valley region of Afghanistan. Getty Images

The United States and Britain on October 7, 2001 launched a first wave of air strikes against Afghanistan. President George W. Bush said the action heralded a "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" campaign against terrorism. REUTERS

A young Afghan girl eats a piece of bread at the Chaman refugee camp on November 8, 2001 on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. The UNHCR has estimated that since September 11, 2001 over 135,000 Afghans have crossed the border into Pakistan, adding to the already millions of refugees living in the country. Getty Images

Afghan opposition Northern Alliance soldiers leap over a trench as they return from front line positions after battle near the town of Charatoy in the north of Afghanistan October 10, 2001. REUTERS

An Afghan child peeks out from the doorway of his family's home as a US Army soldier from the 101st Airborne stands guard in the eastern Afghan village of Hesarak on July 16, 2002 during what the Army refers to as a 'sensitive site exploitation' mission or 'SSE'. Getty Images

Fred Perry, a British Royal Engineer soldier, reads the book "Black Hawk Down" inside his tent after a day of work on January 29, 2002 at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) barracks at the Kabul airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Afghan soldiers (L) speak to a local Afghan, while a medic in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company (R) monitors a soldier who has just survived a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) while driving a vehicle during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay, on March 19, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Marines on a light armored vehicle prepare for patrol as an AH1W "Super Cobra" helicopter flies by on December 28, 2001 at the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

A Norwegian ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)soldier from Recce Squadron 3 patrols on October 4, 2004 in Kabul, Afghanistan as election officials get ready for the Presidential elections. Getty Images

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai (L) is greeted by a group of Afghan military officers on his arrival to Kandahar airbase on May 04, 2002 in Southern Afghanistan. Getty Images

Soldiers in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division wade though a creek to avoid buried insurgent bombs while on patrol October 16, 2010 in Zhari district west of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

British commandos descend from a mountain observation post overlooking the beginning of the Helmand River at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam on March 13, 2007 in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Getty Images

101st Airbornes 1st Sgt. Kerry Black from Westmoreland, Tennessee uses an Afghan child's sling shot on February 6, 2002 as children crowd around him while he patrols on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Marine Cpl. Jonathan Eckert of Oak Lawn, IL attached to India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment works his improvised explosive device (IED) sniffing dog Bee as they secure a compound during a patrol near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Zeebrugge on October 11, 2010 in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Afghan refugees walk across the border into Pakistan on October 11, 2001 as they leave Afghanistan at the Chaman crossing point on the 4th day of U.S.-led air strikes against the ruling Taliban and terrorist networks in the country. Getty Images

Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters watch several explosions from U.S. bombings in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan on December 16, 2001.

British Marines run under fire from the Taliban during a morning operation on March 18, 2007 near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. Getty Images

Afghan Army troops prepare to board a British chinook helicopter from their base at Shorabak on March 12, 2007 in Southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. Getty Images

British Marine Joe Harvey from Stafford, England (R), watches as British forces come under fire by Taliban insurgents on March 18, 2007 near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. Getty Images

U.S. Army 101st Airborne 3-187 "Bravo" company soliders pass through a corn field while conducting a sensitive site exploitation (SSE) mission July 23, 2002 near the town of Narizah in Southeastern Afghanistan. Getty Images

Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on August 22, 2006. US Army

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Other spontaneous celebrations broke out Saturday across Afghanistan – though with the country still deeply patriarchal they mainly consisted of men, with women remaining largely behind closed doors.

In Gardez, the capital of Paktia province south of Kabul, hundreds of people poured into the main square to support the partial truce.

"They were calling on the Taliban and the government to extend the truce and work for permanent peace in the country," said Abdullah Hasrat, a spokesman for the local governor.

Crowds held up signs with messages such as: "Peace is our wish" and "All obstacles in the way of peace should be removed".

In Kandahar in the south, considered the Taliban heartland, and in Jalalabad, dozens of celebrating people danced the attan – a traditional Pashtun dance – in the streets during the night.

"I am very optimistic for the first time about the outcome of the talks" between the US and the Taliban, said Saeed Ahmad, a police officer in Helmand province, which neighbours Kandahar.

Meanwhile, in the city of Helmand, Taliban fighters massed openly and mingled with civilians while carrying flags and weapons, apparently without fear of being targeted in a US drone strike.

Ashraf Ghani, a former professor and World Bank employee, was declared President this week after disputed results dragged out the final election outcome for months. He narrowly secured his win in the contested race by garnering 50.6 per cent of the disputed vote. He will serve five more years as President. After being excluded from last year’s failed US-Taliban peace negotiations, the Pashtun politician demanded to play a bigger role in this year’s talks. But at the behest of the Taliban he was not invited to participate in the discussions. The reasons for his exclusion are two-fold, first, the Taliban does not recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Second, the Taliban’s priority in the negotiations is the removal of foreign forces from the country, which can only be promised by American negotiators. As a result, Mr Ghani remains sceptical of the deal’s success. Being one step removed from the process, and having few other options available to him, Mr Ghani finds himself in a position where he must acquiesce to the final deal without providing much input into the terms. Mr Ghani's position is shaky going into the proposed intra-Afghan negotiations as both the Taliban and Mr Ghani's opponent Abdullah Abdullah are refusing to accept his presidential win. Photo: EPA

Abdullah Abdullah, a former eye surgeon, serves as the country’s Chief Executive. He is the only person to ever hold the title, which brings with it prime ministerial duties. The newly created post was the result of the US mediating an awkward power-sharing deal after the 2014 elections. Dr Abdullah has unsuccessfully sought the presidency three times. After losing the election to Mr Ghani this week, Dr Abdullah decried that he would form his own government and boycott the election results. He went so far as to call the country’s independent election commissions “unlawful.” With the peace deal aiming to ending a tense political stand-off between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it seems frictions within the Afghan government could lead to a new stand-off, one between Mr Ghani and his opponents, putting at risk the intra-Afghan discussions that are baked into the trade agreement. Photo: AP

Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum was controversially chosen as Mr Ghani’s vice-president in the 2014 election. But after a falling out, Gen Dostum decided to put his support behind Mr Ghani’s opponent Dr Abdullah in the latest election. The Uzbek former warlord has been the target of several assassination attempts and faces a litany of human rights accusations against him, which include claims of torture and rape. The Afghan army general has fleed to Turkey when accusations mounted against him in the past. In 2017, Gen Dostum's political rival Ahmad Ishchi said he had been abducted, tortured and raped by Gen Dostum. Several people came forward to say they witnessed the abuse, prompting Gen Dostum to flee to Turkey. Gen Dostum could interfere in the pending intra-Afghan talks, as he's expressed discontent with the election results and threatened to form a “parallel government.” No stranger to extremity, his erratic behaviour threatens the stability of Afghanistan’s government during this crucial peace process. Photo: Getty Images

Amrullah Saleh was Mr Ghani’s running mate in the 2019 election, and is set to take on the role of vice-president. Mr Saleh is an ex-intelligence chief who has not shied away from doling out fierce criticisms against the president. The Tajik politician enjoys grass roots support among young people, which provided an advantage to Mr Ghani’s campaign. Mr Saleh was the target of an attack against his office within the Kabul headquarters of the Green Trend party during the summer of 2019. The attack killed 20 people and injured 50, resulting in a six-hour operation to rescue more than 150 civilians trapped in the aftermath of the blast. The attack came just hours after Mr Ghani and Mr Saleh launched their election campaign. Photo: REUTERS

Sarwar Danish, a Hazara politician, was chosen for the role of second vice-president during Mr Ghani’s 2014 campaign. He retained the position in the latest election. Mr Danish has been strongly critical of the peace negotiations, emphasising that peace cannot be achieved by sidelining the government from talks. He called the reduction in violence agreement a “vague proposal” intended to deceive citizens and the international community.  Photo: REUTERS

Hamid Karzai was the first elected President of Afghanistan and held the role for almost 10 years, reigning during much of the US war in Afghanistan. The Pashtun tribal leader was the first Afghan official to work alongside the Americans in attempting to forge a peace deal with the Taliban. In 2010, during his presidency, Mr Karzai made peace negotiations a priority. Unlike today’s negotiations, Mr Karzai attempted to negotiate directly with the Taliban, and invited a wide range of actors to the table, including the Americans, the Taliban, tribal leaders and other influential members of Afghan society. Photo: Reuters

As the leader of the Taliban, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada agreed to bring the insurgent group to the negotiation table. He is acting in an advisory role throughout the discussions, serving as the steering force for chief negotiator Mr Baradar. But it falls upon Mawlawi Akhundzada to make the final decision when it comes to whether the Taliban will accept the final deal. Last week, he threatened to pull out of the negotiations if the Americans did not respond formally to the Taliban’s seven-day offer for a reduction of violence. AFP PHOTO / AFGHAN TALIBAN

Abdul Ghani Baradar runs the Taliban’s political office in Doha and has taken on the role of chief negotiator for the insurgent group during these negotiations. He’s credited with helping to establish the group’s strong position in the country, having served as the number two in command for the group’s founding leader Mohammed Omar. He was a key senior operative for the group, who once held a reputation for being even-keeled, before he fled to Pakistan when the Americans arrived in 2001. Mr Baradar was arrested in a 2010 raid and remained in a Pakistani prison for eight years. His release is believed to have been a part of a deal struck between the Americans and the Taliban. Photo: AFP

Abdul Salam Hanafi is one of the central negotiators at the table representing the Taliban. He serves as deputy head of the group’s political office in Doha. On Monday, he said the Americans and the Taliban were already drafting the final peace agreement. He added that representatives from all neighbours of Afghanistan, the United Nations Security Council, Islamic countries and European Union would be invited to the ceremony that would be held in Doha if the deal is finalised. Mr Hanafi previously served as the Taliban’s deputy minister of education and held leadership positions in the country’s northern territories. As a senior member of the group, he was added to the United Nations sanctions list in 2001, accused of being involved in drug trafficking. Photo: AP

Suhail Shaheen has served as a public figurehead for the insurgent group throughout the negotiations. He is a fluent English speaker known to give interviews to international media outlets. During the Taliban’s rule in the country, which lasted from 1996 to 2001, Mr Shaheen served as the editor of the English-language Kabul Times newspaper. He's also held senior roles within the Taliban, such as deputy ambassador at the Afghan embassy in Pakistan. Many of the statements regarding the Taliban’s position in the negotiations are delivered through Mr Shaheen. Photo: AFP

US President Donald is serving as the “closer” in the negotiations. In 2019’s negotiations, he took on a similar role by inviting the Taliban to Camp David to close the deal. Amid strife between his top advisers and the death of an American soldier in Afghanistan, Mr Trump abruptly declared the peace talks "dead." Mr Trump has proven to be more patient and flexible during this round of negotiations. If the withdrawal is accomplished, the American negotiators would have fulfilled a Trump campaign promise to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, well-timed before the presidential election in November. Photo: EPA

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is the chief negotiator on the American side, colloquially referred to as “Zal,” he was the only Afghan working in the White House during the September 11 attacks. This is his second attempt to help US President Donald Trump finalise a peace deal with the Taliban. The Afghan-born diplomat, who serves as the main intermediary between the Americans and the Taliban, nearly finalised a peace agreement last year, before Trump abruptly cancelled the deal. While the heavy lifting of the negotiations is being led by Mr Khalilzad, the diplomat is working on behalf of the White House, the Pentagon and the US intelligence community, who must all agree to the final terms of the deal. Photo: AFP

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has served in many capacities throughout the negotiations, most notably acting as the US spokesman, delivering major updates about the US position to both the public and to Afghan officials. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Mr Pompeo held sideline meetings with key Afghan officials, including Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah to discuss the negotiation process that appeared close to finalisation. Photo: AFP

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has operated throughout these discussions on behalf of the 3,500 American and Nato service members that have been killed since 2001. His position remains cautiously optimistic. He called the reduction in violence proposal “very promising,” but holds on to scepticism regarding the success of its implementation. “The best if not the only way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement and that means taking some risk,” he said. Photo: REUTERS

US Army General Austin Scott Miller took over the post of commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2018. During his tenure, Mr Miller ramped up air strikes in the country in the hopes of forcing the Taliban to the negotiation table. But it’s led to a further escalation as the Taliban responded with increasing violence in the country. Gen Miller has previously advocated for a smaller American presence in Afghanistan, stating that he does not require tens of thousands of US troops in the country to successfully fulfill the US combat and training operations. Photo: AFP

Qater is hosting the peace talks, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, playing a mediating role in the negotiations. Sheikh Al Thani has been a liaison between the Americans and the Taliban from the beginning of the negotiations, sitting in on several of the key discussions. When the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mr Baradar delivered an ultimatum to the Americans, demanding they accept the offered seven-day reduction in violence, rather than the American’s requested 10-days, it was Sheikh Al Thani that mediated the deadlock, according to pro-Taliban media. Photo: AFP

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In the northern province of Kunduz, 28-year-old Afghan soldier Reza Sharifi said he was hopeful a deal between the US and the Taliban would be struck.

"We hope lasting peace will come to Afghanistan," Mr Sharifi said.

But, illustrating how fragile the situation is, at least two Taliban attacks were reported to have taken place after the truce kicked in at midnight.

And many Afghans remain sceptical that anything positive will come from the latest political developments.

"I believe the US are fleeing and paving the way for the Taliban to make a comeback and rule the country like in the mid-'90s," said Qais Haqjo, 23, an ironsmith in Kabul.

Updated: February 22, 2020 03:42 PM

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