After nearly five months, the Afghan Election Commission announced the final results of the September 2019 Presidential elections in Afghanistan on 18 February 2020, confirming the interim results declaring President Ashraf Ghani the winner in December 2019 with less than 1 per cent vote over the required 50 per cent plus one to win over. This confirmed the interim results where Ghani beat his principal rival Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The announcement occurred just as the US had reached a peace agreement with the Taliban on a good faith one-week ‘Reduction in Violence’ to prepare the way for the signing of an agreement on US troop withdrawal initiated earlier, and long-awaited intra-Afghan talks soon after.
While the announcement has plunged Afghanistan into another severe political crisis, the inauguration of the ‘Reduction in Violence’ or RIV on the night of 21-22 February has generated a lot of hope and expectation for a path to peace.
Reflecting the deep polarisation of the Afghan polity between pro- and anti-Ghani forces, Abdullah’s team has rejected the results of the elections. His ally, Uzbek leader, Abdul Rashid Dostum has called for a show of support for Abdullah and declared that they will set up a parallel government in Afghanistan. Abdullah has since announced the appointment of at least one provincial governor.
Public and international reactions
Fortunately, the political confrontation has not spilt over onto the streets partly on account of residual restraint on all sides, but also, it appears, due to public fatigue, and anticipation of the peace talks that most Afghans weary of war are desperate for. No one wants Afghanistan to go over the brink. While the stalemate complicates the intra-Afghan talks, it also leaves the US in an advantageous position to broker a three-way solution involving the Taliban, President Ghani, and Abdullah and the political parties and forces with him. The repositioning of the US from a strategic partner of the Afghan government to a facilitator of intra-Afghan talks, while there is no change in the Taliban-Pakistan equation that has kept the insurgency alive will weaken the republican side in the negotiations to follow.
The international community has largely adopted a ‘watch and wait’ stance so far in the hope of greater political clarity in the coming days with the UN ‘noting’ the results of the election, and only the European Union, Kuwait and India so far extending congratulatory messages to President Ghani. The US has not yet issued a statement on the election result, though influential US Senator Lindsay Graham has congratulated President Ghani on his election. US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is in Kabul busy meeting political leaders in Kabul looking for a way out. India’s decision to recognise the result of the election will not please the opposition but is in keeping with its support for the Afghan state and its institutions.
Meanwhile, the US is pushing ahead with its agreement with the Taliban including the start of the one-week ‘Reduction in Violence’ starting last Friday, 21 February night, leading to the signing of the US-Taliban agreement on troop withdrawal in return for counter-terrorism guarantees on the part of the Taliban on 29 February and intra-Afghan talks shortly after. It is, however, far from clear in the prevailing political climate, how a previously agreed formula for a 15-member broadly representative Afghan delegation for the intra-Afghan talks will proceed. There are those who believe that the public imperative of peace talks and US pressure will ensure that it is not affected, but there also is some speculation on the motives and timing of the announcement of the results, just as the US-Taliban talks were nearing fruition.
Meanwhile, in a controversial editorial decision, The New York Times on Thursday, February 20, carried an opinion article attributed to Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the leader of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a US-designated terrorist network responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks and violence against Afghans and US soldiers (in his capacity as a ‘deputy leader of the Taliban’), portraying itself as willing to walk the last mile for peace in return for withdrawal of foreign forces.
The article assures the international community of all its concerns over the Taliban, from its willingness to negotiate a “new, inclusive political system” agreed to by consultation and consensus, to the rights of women “granted by Islam”, the use of Afghanistan by what it calls “disruptive groups” that threaten regional and world security (that it says are “inflated”), and desire for friendly relations and cooperation with all countries. It makes no mention of an Islamic ‘Emirate’, one of its central tenets so far. Few commentators are willing to take what is clearly an extraordinary public relations exercise driven by US and Pakistani interests that The New York Times has lent itself to, at face value.
Challenges and prospects
Under the circumstances, notwithstanding the desperate desire for peace on the part of Afghans and the US determination not to lose the opportunity provided by the agreement on ‘Reduction in Violence’ to initiate the intra-Afghan talks so that it can start the withdrawal of its troops, the prospects for the success of the intra-Afghan talks look doubtful. Apart from issues of political division on the Republican side and sincerity on the Taliban side, there are too many substantive issues between the two sides, not least on the place and nature of Islam and the political system that they can agree to.
While the post-2001 generation wants peace, they have also made it clear that they want a just and dignified peace that protects the gains of the last 18 years, and not the peace of the vanquished. This is especially true of the youth, women and urban dwellers who have gained the most in Afghanistan since 2001. A consensus and bottom line on the compromises that can be made have also not been thrashed out. Afghanistan will have to brace itself for a continued period of uncertainty and instability during which international support will remain necessary.
As the US-led peace process with the Taliban moves into intra-Afghan talks, India can use its considerable political capital in Afghanistan to talk to all parties including the Taliban to help bridge differences and bring peace to Afghanistan.
The author is a Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research and former Ambassador to Afghanistan. Views are personal.
This series of articles is a curtain-raiser to the CPR Dialogues, an international conference on public policy, to be hosted by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 and 3 March in New Delhi. ThePrint.in is the digital partner for the conference. Read all the articles in the series here.