Afghanistan conflict: US-Taliban deal raises hope for peace

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A protest in support of peace in Kunduz
Image caption,
About 100 people took part in this rally for peace in Kunduz city

An Afghan flag flutters above the busy roundabout which marks the centre of Kunduz city. Pointing up to it, a policeman standing guard nearby tells me that whenever the Taliban have briefly captured the city, one of their first actions has been to replace the flag with their own white and black banner. They've done so twice in the past five years.

Behind us, in a corner of the square, a poster displays the pictures of senior police officials killed here in a suicide bombing during another assault by the insurgents last August.

For now though, the roundabout is host to a small demonstration in support of peace by about 100 young men. Patriotic songs blast out from a speaker - someone in the crowd is holding a large bunch of balloons with "I love you" written on them.

"We've come out in support of peace," says Zahid, one of the demonstrators. "I'm so happy. In the past few days it's been calm in Kunduz and across the country. We want a ceasefire that lasts forever."

A week-long "reduction in violence" is coming to an end in Afghanistan after the Taliban, Afghan army and US-led international forces agreed not to launch attacks against each other for seven days.

The period has passed off largely successfully, and the US and Taliban look set to sign an agreement on Saturday in Qatar. It will establish a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban not to allow groups such as al-Qaeda to operate in their territory.

It's a key development in the peace process, aimed at bringing an end to America's longest-ever war, and it has boosted hopes amongst a war-weary Afghan population.

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Nasirullah saw part of his property in Taluka destroyed in an air strike on the Taliban

The rural areas on the outskirts of Kunduz have witnessed fierce fighting. We travel to the village of Taluka, recently re-captured by the government after being in Taliban hands for the past three years.

The local school has been obliterated by an air strike, targeting the militants who used it as a base.

Nasirullah, an elderly man living next door, saw part of his property destroyed too.

"Four Taliban fighters climbed over the wall to hide," he says, "I told them, 'go away or the house will be hit in an air strike', but they refused."

Media caption,

Is peace with the Taliban possible?

Everyone in the village wants to show us the devastation in their homes. Many of the residents are yet to move back in. The Afghan army has been helping to clear landmines but some still remain.

Another elderly resident points to a huge dent in a wall of his house caused by a mortar shell.

"I was sitting there with my wife. She was hurt here," he says, grabbing his neck. "Another rocket landed over there. I don't have the money to rebuild all this."

Nevertheless, he is hopeful. "I have a TV, and I follow the news," he tells me. "Whenever I hear there will be peace, my heart fills with joy."

The US-Taliban agreement is a step towards peace, but a full ceasefire, along with the political future of the country, is something that will have to be established in separate discussions between the Taliban and other Afghan leaders. Those talks will follow the signing in Qatar and could last for months, if not longer.

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Children in Kunduz are accustomed to the sound of gunfire

Adding to the complication is an ongoing dispute over the results of the presidential elections. Ashraf Ghani was narrowly declared the winner, but his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has alleged fraud and threatened to form his own, parallel government.

Whether or not the "reduction in violence" will continue throughout the "intra-Afghan" talks as they're known, has not been made public. At an army checkpoint by the eastern entrance to Kunduz city, soldiers check for Taliban infiltrators, worried they might be using the partial truce to smuggle explosives inside.

Salahuddin Safai, 32, lives nearby with his extended family. On average, he tells me, the Taliban attack the checkpoint at least every fortnight, surging forward from the fields just beyond his home.

Mr Safai says his young children have grown accustomed to the sounds of gunfire, but he worries about the effect on their mental health.

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Salahuddin Safai says the Taliban launch regular attacks

He is hopeful that peace will come, but cautious at the same time. The family have seen false dawns before. After the US overthrew the Taliban in 2001, they moved back to Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan where they had been living in a refugee camp, thinking the country would prosper. Instead, they found themselves caught along the fluid front lines of a war in which tens of thousands of Afghans have died.

"If we look at our past, similar things have happened," he says. "When the Soviet Union pulled out from Afghanistan, there were peace negotiations, but they failed. A civil war started and the country became what it is now."

He's referring to what many see as one of the worst episodes in Afghanistan's history, when the rival "mujahideen" groups that had successfully battled against the Soviet invasion, fought against both the local Afghan communist government and each other in a brutal quest for power.

"We are a little sceptical of this process but, God willing, history won't repeat itself," Mr Safai tells me.

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Ghayasuddin lost both his legs when he stepped on a landmine laid by the Taliban

There are concerns, too, about what price Afghans might have to pay for peace. Whether the Taliban will accept the country's current democratic system, and the advances in women's rights made in the past two decades.

The group have insisted that they believe women should be allowed to study and work, but local residents tell us that in some villages close to Kunduz under Taliban control, girls are prevented from attending school once they become teenagers.

For others, though, the priority is an end to the violence. Ghayasuddin, in his 70s, from the village of Taluka, lost both his legs when he stepped on a landmine laid by the Taliban.

Could he ever forgive them, I ask?

"If they become our neighbours I'll have to accept them," he responds. "Everything I have is in this village, there's no choice but to learn to live with them."