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Will Afghanistan’s cease-fire open the door for peace?

A three-day cease-fire between the Afghan army and the Taliban expired at midnight local time on Tuesday. The truce was only the second cease-fire observed in almost 20 years of fighting—and it’s on this shaky ground that the Afghan government is hoping to build a path to peace.

The Afghan government took the opportunity to make good on one of the stipulations of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February by renewing the release of Taliban prisoners; approximately 1,000 prisoners have been released over two days, and the Taliban have promised to release a “remarkable number” in a reciprocal gesture.

By releasing the Taliban prisoners, the Afghan government is also signaling its optimism: Under the terms of their release, the former detainees must sign a waiver confirming they will not return to the battlefield.

The incentive to return to Taliban service isn’t difficult to understand; the newly released men were only provided with enough cash for bus fare home.

On Tuesday in Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinksi reported from Afghanistan as the prisoners were released. She found one prisoner hopeful. “The Taliban and the government need to come together. It’s what our people deserve,” said Abdul Basir, a 32-year-old political prisoner.

Another was more blunt. “There won’t be peace in Afghanistan as long as the U.S. is still here,” 27-year-old Abdul Hak said. “They must leave for things to improve.”

Next step, peace talks? The relative comity is a contrast to the violence the Afghan government accuses the Taliban of perpetrating during the holy month of Ramadan. (The government says 146 civilians were killed and a further 430 were wounded over the 30-day period.)

Afghan National Security Council spokesperson Javid Faisal has said the government wants to extend the cease-fire. “If the Taliban are ready to extend the cease-fire, we are ready to continue the cease-fire too,” Faisal said. “We hope they release our prisoners so that intra-Afghan peace talks begin as soon as possible … The future depends on the Taliban’s next move.”

The Taliban has not yet responded publicly to the overture, but AFP reports that the group could extend the cease-fire a further seven days if prisoner releases continue.

An early U.S. exit? With an eye on November’s presidential election, U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing for a quicker withdrawal of the roughly 12,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan according to the New York Times. The Pentagon is reportedly trying to calm the president’s urgency, and bring the withdrawal schedule more in line with the May 2021 date agreed in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.

Any training and capacity building that U.S. troops have been conducting with Afghan forces has had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, potentially delaying withdrawal even longer. U.S. officials estimate that up to 50 percent of Afghan security forces have the virus.