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Taliban say they have halted suicide bombings of Afghan civilians

KABUL — Taliban insurgents are refraining from attacking Afghan civilians for the first time in many years, according to Afghan officials and the insurgents themselves.

The change in tactics started after a Taliban cease-fire expired June 17 and came after a six-month period that the United Nations said had been the deadliest yet for Afghan civilians.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location that the insurgents had been ordered to stop suicide attacks in cities that might cause civilian casualties.

“Since the cease-fire, we have not had any martyrdom attacks in Kabul,” he said, using the Taliban term for suicide bombings. “On the martyrdom attacks in the cities, our superiors cautioned us against them, and we are going to obey their orders.”

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A deputy spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani noted the shift.

“We can see a change in their ranks,” said the spokesman, Shah Hussain Murtazawi. “There are fewer suicide attacks in the cities now, but it is not the end of suicide attacks.”

The Taliban moratorium on suicide bombings has no effect, however, on the activities of the rival Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. The group has repeatedly carried out suicide bombings against nonmilitary targets, and it has continued to do so since the cease-fire ended.

There have been seven suicide bombings or attempted bombings in the month since the end of the cease-fire, and the Taliban have denied any role in most of them.

The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, claimed to have carried out all of the attacks except a failed bombing attempt Monday at a park crowded with civilians in the Shar-e-Naw area of Kabul and another in southern Helmand province on Saturday, in which the suicide bomber attacked a police base, killing one officer but no civilians.

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The moratorium on suicide bombings does not apply to other military operations by the Taliban, which have ratcheted up significantly since the cease-fire ended. The Afghan government had offered to extend the cease-fire, a move supported by the US-led international coalition, but the insurgents refused to do so.

As often happens, improvised bombs that may have had a military target ended up killing civilians, as was the case in two episodes in the past two weeks in Helmand province, where five civilians were killed in their cars by roadside bombs. And in Zabul province, a mortar shell that Afghan officials claim was fired by the Taliban struck a home, killing two children on July 11.

In a report released Sunday, the UN mission in Afghanistan said the first six months of 2018 were the deadliest first half of any year in the war so far, claiming the lives of 1,692 civilians, a 1 percent increase over the first six months of 2017. That increase came despite the cease-fire.

The report said that when the government and Taliban cease-fires overlapped on June 15-17, the only civilian deaths the UN recorded were attributed to attacks by the Islamic State. Overall, during that six-month period, the Islamic State was responsible for 52 percent of the civilian deaths while the Taliban were responsible for 40 percent, the report said. Only 3 percent of civilian casualties were attributed to the US-led international coalition.

Mujahid denounced the report, claiming that it had been “manufactured in close coordination with the US Embassy” and that it showed the UN “sympathy with American invaders and the cover-up of their daily crimes.”

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The Taliban spokesman said that the group had not abandoned the use of suicide attacks and that it would continue to use them against targets outside the cities.

“Our bosses do not allow us to carry out attacks in the cities quite so often because we want to be careful not to cause civilian casualties,” Mujahid said. “This does not mean there won’t be any attacks in the cities. Especially in Kabul. It is not that we stopped or gave up.”

Murtazawi, the president’s spokesman, said the cease-fire demonstrated to the Taliban that many of their fighters were tired of the war, as insurgents mingled congenially with civilians on the government side. Murtazawi said that recent fatwas by religious leaders in Afghanistan and in Saudi Arabia renouncing the Afghan war had also had an effect. “They don’t have an answer to those fatwas,” he said.

The spokesman for the Afghan High Peace Council, Sayed Ihsan Taheri, said the cease-fire was an important first step toward real peace talks. “Without doubt, after the cease-fire, the level of fighting has decreased and so has the number of attacks,” he said.