BACKGROUND: Last year’s presidential election in Afghanistan was rife with allegations of systematic rigging. As expected, the results were not declared for several months as the government lead by Ghani anticipated a serious backlash from his political rivals, particularly Abdullah. In February, Abdullah rejected the election results and announced the formation of a parallel government in Afghanistan. In March, Kabul witnessed two presidential ceremonies as Ghani and Abdullah announced separate cabinets.
While a political crisis was ensuing in Kabul, the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar to end the 18-year long war in Afghanistan. According to the agreement, the U.S. and its allies decided to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if the peace process stayed the course. Moreover, the U.S. also agreed to guarantee the release of thousands of Afghan Taliban prisoners. All of this was agreed between the U.S. and the Taliban without consultations with President Ghani or his rival Abdullah.
President Ghani’s credibility has weakened, particularly after his exclusion from the Afghan peace process and his regime’s policy of staying in power at all costs. While the legitimacy of Ghani’s government wanes, his inability to compromise with his political rivals has emerged as one of the key hurdles to the intra-Afghan dialogue. Significantly, while the U.S. was signing a peace deal with the Taliban, which would effectively lead to the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiation phase, Ghani was planning the formation of his government without consultations with his political rivals or taking into account the seriousness of the rigging allegations. In late March, Ghani went ahead and unilaterally established a commission to commence intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban. The delegation did not invite or bring onboard Abdullah and his political supporters, which make up most of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun voter base. Other political leaders with significant clout in Afghan politics, including Hamid Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, and Rahmatullah Nabil, refused to support Ghani’s unilateral decision. Ghani’s announcement to separately form an intra-Afghan dialogue team was also rejected by the Afghan Taliban as the group recommended that any such “team must be agreed upon by all effective Afghan sides so that it can represent all sides.”
Ghani’s policy of non-cooperation with his political rivals and attempts to control all levers of power in Afghanistan have invited serious criticism from the U.S., which wants the Afghan peace process to move forward. On the other hand, Washington’s willingness to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban at all costs has encouraged the group to continue a campaign of violence.
IMPLICATIONS: Understandably, the agreement between Abdullah and Ghani was forged under immense pressure from the U.S., which wants Kabul to deliver on its peace deal with the Taliban. In March, Washington threatened to cut Afghan aid by US$ 1 billion unless the country’s feuding political elite resolved their differences. Washington’s threat pushed for the formation of an inclusive government that could implement the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban by effectively beginning the second phase of the peace process. The U.S. secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned in a statement “this leadership [Abdullah and Ghani] failure poses a direct threat to U.S. national interests” in the region. It is unclear how a government formed under external pressure will effectively operate or have the authority or legitimacy to negotiate with the Taliban.
The current power-sharing formula between Ghani and Abdullah and its potential impact on the Intra-Afghan dialogue look troubling at the outset. According to the agreement, while Ghani remains Afghanistan’s President, Abdullah will lead negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Both leaders will have a 50 percent share in the cabinet while several other warlords have been made part of the government. The situation reflects the post-2014 election scenario where a weak and divided government dominated by ethnic differences and individual political interests may bloat Afghanistan’s governance woes and make peace elusive.
Abdullah, who will lead talks with the Taliban, comes from a mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity and has represented the Northern Alliance’s interests in Afghanistan. It is noteworthy that historically, the Northern Alliance has benefited from the Taliban’s collapse and the groups have never reconciled. Abdullah served as Foreign Minister in a government led by the Northern Alliance before the Taliban took over in 1996 and was the first Foreign Minister in the government formed after the Taliban’s downfall in 2001-2002. The Taliban will hardly yield space to someone who has worked against the groups’ interests for decades.
The agreement between Abdullah and Ghani mentions holding an election in several districts but does not state who will make the ultimate decisions or decide the terms of the intra-Afghan dialogue. While Abdullah leads the talks, Ghani still sits at the helm of governmental affairs and can reject anything that conflicts with his political interests. Moreover, it remains unclear when the next phase of the election discussed in the power sharing agreement will begin and how its results will be taken. Officially, Ghani leads a small majority and a turnout in Abdullah’s favor could change the entire landscape of the current setup.
Additionally, the Taliban will make it very difficult for an already divided government to make any credible headway. The group has already made its position clear concerning its view of the Abdullah-Ghani agreement. Hours after the formation of the current government, the Taliban dispatched a suicide bomber to attack a major Afghan military base and killed a number of soldiers. The Afghan Taliban has accused the current government of supporting the Islamic State in Afghanistan and vowed to ramp up operations against the security forces.
This intention and position of the Taliban show two things as far as the newly forced government’s ability to negotiate with the group is concerned. First, it is clear that the Taliban are not going to give up their claim to form an Islamic Emirate and overhaul the constitution according to their liking. Will the current government under Washington’s pressure accept any such outcome as it will diminish its chances of staying in power? Second, the group has shown its willingness to use violence while it negotiates. Moreover, Washington has refused to place any deadlines on Taliban violence, which further weakens the current government’s ability to negotiate. Will the current government continue to negotiate even as the Taliban remains committed to its battlefield plans? Arguably, the Taliban would endorse a collapse of the current regime without giving an inch of space to the Abdullah-Ghani political settlement. Tough weeks and months are ahead for Abdullah who will need all the unity that his country can offer to face the Taliban in negotiations.
CONCLUSIONS: President Ghani and Abdullah’s political agreement is a welcome move but it is lopsided with Ghani controlling the levers of power. The arrangement came into being under U.S. pressure to implement the U.S.-Taliban peace deal and is unlikely to heal the deep divisions, including of an ethnic character, that continue to dominate all political processes in Afghanistan. The agreement between Ghani and Abdullah may bring hope for the international forces that want peace to return to Afghanistan. However, in the long run it holds nothing for Afghans except further turmoil and ineffective government.
Umair Jamal is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand and the Diplomat Magazine’s correspondent in Pakistan. His areas of research include counterterrorism and security issues in the Pak-Afghan region. Umair has consulted with various think tanks in Pakistan and globally and has published for a number of media outlets including Al-Jazeera, Foreign Policy, SCMP, Huffington Post and others.
Image Accessed on 7/15/20