In the 18-year-long Afghan war, the United States and the Taliban along with the Afghan government will finally hold their fire for seven days as a test. The test period — step one of a ceasefire — from 22 to 28 February, is a condition for a peace deal scheduled to be signed by the United States and the Taliban on February 29.

The Test Period and Afghanistan’s Political Turmoil

As the seven days begin counting down, the United Nations released the report on the human cost of the war, listing more than 100,000 killed and wounded Afghan civilians. The U.S. and the Taliban are one step away from a deal, but the political dispute over the Afghan election results complicates the chances of bringing the 18-year old year insurgency to an end.

Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner of the 2019 presidential election by the country’s election commissions, but his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, declared his own victory, calling Ghani’s re-election as a coup against democracy. American peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the man behind the seven-day reduction of violence, is now busy talking between Afghan politics’ camps, specifically Abdullah and Ghani.

Pompeo: ‘A Significant and Nationwide Reduction in Violence’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced formally the reduction of violence, from February 22 to February 28. “U.S. negotiators in Doha have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant and nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan,” Secretary Pompeo said in a statement. “Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward. We are preparing for the signing to take place on February 29.”

In negotiations between the U.S. diplomats and the Taliban representative, the Afghan government and the U.S. demanded a comprehensive ceasefire, but the Taliban came up with reduction of violence—close to ceasefire. The week-long reduction of violence is a test for the Taliban and also for the Afghan government to demonstrate command within their fighters.

“This is a critical test of the Taliban’s willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith,” said NATO-Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists.”

The Taliban’s Perspective on the Test Period

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the start of reduction of violence period from midnight Saturday local time. Small firefights might still happen, however, as it was not a ceasefire, said Mujahid. The Taliban issued a decree to their fighters: “entering enemy’s territory is strongly prohibited.”

For his part, Ghani ordered Afghan security forces to follow the given instruction. “As commander-in-chief, I announce the security and defense forces adhere to the instruction during the reduction of violence week… and to act to defend themselves and people.”

The reduction of violence includes U.S. forces, Taliban fighters, and the Afghan government forces. During this period, the Taliban will not conduct suicide and car-bomb attacks inside Afghan cities, will not target highways and will not storm provincial and Afghan security forces headquarters or locations.

The Afghan government forces will not advance to areas under the control of the Taliban. The United States air power will stop flying to attack the Taliban positions, but support the Afghan security forces if the Taliban breaks the reduction of violence terms. As of Saturday, the first day of the test period, small security incidents were reported across the country.

Afghans Celebrate the Test Period

In Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar and other Afghan provinces, people took on the street to celebrate the reduction of violence. In Kabul, the militarized Afghan capital where suicide bombing had reduced significantly since November 2019, security checkpoints were relaxed.

“It is absolutely imperative for all parties to seize the moment to stop the fighting,” said UN envoy to Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto. “As peace is long overdue; civilian lives must be protected and efforts for peace are underway.”

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) jointly with the U.N. Human rights Commission released their annual report on the civilian casualties in the Afghan war.  3, 403 civilians killed and 6,989 others were wounded in 2019, according to the report. Anti-government forces, including the Taliban, were 49% responsible for the casualties, while pro-government forces were responsible for 43%.

Hope for Ending the War

With the 2019 annual report, the record-high levels of civilian casualties surpassed 100,000, the U.N. said in a statement. Nothing more than civilian causalities reflects long-suffering of Afghans’ need for peace and this seven day reduction of violence gives them hope for ending the war. The next step toward a lasting peace is the beginning of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

But the political unrest in Kabul over the election threatens a full crisis. Abdullah’s camp just replaced governor for the northern Afghan Sar e Pul Province without the approval of Ghani. Reportedly Governors of Jawzjan and Panjshir provinces announced they will also no longer obey Ghani’s orders although InsideOver was unable to confirm their statements.

“[UNAMA] is extremely concerned by the events that are going to replace government officials,” said UNAMA in a statement. “Resorting to force or any other unlawful means at the very time that efforts are ongoing to realize a reduction in violence – with the expectation that it can lead to the start of an intra-Afghan negotiations on peace – jeopardizes the population’s hope for peace.”