Afghanistan's young sense of self-determination is jeopardized by the contesting circumstances between the ongoing US-Taliban peace talks and the now two-time postponed Afghan presidential elections.
Since his campaign days, US President Donald Trump promised to end US’s longest war, get US troops gracefully back home, and out of Afghanistan. This eventually led to the push for direct talks with the Taliban, who have been fighting an insurgency against US-led international troops and Afghan national security forces for nearly 18 years now.
With the conclusion of the 8th round of US-Taliban negotiations on 12 August 2019 in Doha – without the participation of the US-backed Afghan government due to Taliban demands –, the two sides are said to be close to a peace deal like never before. While the Taliban have been negotiating from a position of strength from day one, underpinned by their double-track strategy of continuing the fighting, whilst holding peace talks with the US; the Afghan government – the only comparatively democratically elected entity in Afghanistan – remained excluded from international venues where the future of the country was being brokered. As the international community hailed the progress of talks between the US and the Taliban, anxieties among Afghans inside Afghanistan began to grow. No-one present at the numerous venues where conditions of an Afghan peace were being discussed, from Doha to Moscow to Tehran or Islamabad, represented their interest. With the two-time postponement of the Afghan presidential election, in addition, most Afghans left deprived and robbed of their nascent sense of self-determination. These developments raise the question of the intentions of the key stakeholders of the Afghan peace process, likely scenarios, and the need to establish optimum conditions for an Afghan peace deal, however, prioritizing and keeping the demands of the war-weary Afghan people in mind.
Key Stakeholders and Possible Scenarios
The US’s (new) diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis the Taliban and their broader policy towards the Afghan government has come to a head. The two-time postponement of the Afghan-presidential elections, supposedly due to unpreparedness of the Afghan Independent Election Commission but actually due to lack of funding – the US being the largest and main donor to Afghanistan and the Afghan government–, placed enormous pressure on the Afghan government, questioning its legitimacy and ability to project state coercion. While this move helped the US buy time to further talks with the Taliban, it undermined the very system of political values and institutions the US helped to build in Afghanistan in the first place; democracy, and elections as a legitimacy providing an instrument for political change or continuation. However, as political realities inside Afghanistan changed with the commencement of US-Taliban peace talks in October 2018, the Afghan presidential election was eventually revised and this time used to pressure the Taliban into reaching a peace deal with the US on US terms. Or alternatively, see to another five years of the incumbent President, Ashraf Ghani, a prospect the Taliban want to avoid as they see his government as a puppet government of the US.
The Afghan Government
On the other side, confident of a second term, President Ashraf Ghani steadily but consistently pushed for the election. While the exclusion of the Afghan government from the US-Taliban peace talks in Doha weakened the position of his government internationally, it saw a surge in the President’s popularity compared to the pre-peace-talk phase inside Afghanistan. Supported by an extensive media campaign which drew parallels between the civil war years that followed the Soviet troop withdrawal and the US troop withdrawal, President Ghani was able to reestablish his position as the President who would not allow for history to repeat itself. This brought him public support and silenced many of his critics.
In a post-election scenario of a Ghani.2 government – with a much stronger mandate¬ – the government is imminent to make room for the Taliban as reaching an agreement with them is essential and indispensable to bring peace to Afghanistan. However, in this constellation, the Taliban will remain the smaller partner of a Ghani-led government, with limitations especially in the domains of foreign policy, economy, and security. Nonetheless, an overall right-shift in governance renewed interpretation of particular constitutional provisions adhering to Taliban’s understanding of Islam, and changes in the polity of Afghanistan are to be anticipated.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have announced that no election will take place in areas under their jurisdiction as they continue to pursue the talks with the US. Maintaining momentum internationally, the Taliban happen to have the upper hand compared to all the other Afghan stakeholders, however, it remains uncertain how their prevalent military capabilities and anti-democratic ideology will translate into political will in Kabul after an exclusive US-Taliban peace deal.
Taliban’s current opposition to the presidential elections because they are not a part of it, does not provide any prospect that the presidential, or for that matter any other elections will be held at any time. The odds to agree to any form of elections given the group’s history and anti-democratic ideology is very low. With the improbability that Taliban political representatives will capture a significant number of votes in a possible election scenario, it is fair to ask why would the group be in favor of democratic elections in the first place. In many ways, the Taliban continue to be a particularist movement in their constitution and outlook, namely a Sunni-Pashtun dominated one. Therefore, in the absence of a feasible intra-Afghan dialogue framework – which should have been worked out in tandem to the US-Taliban talks– any agreement reached between the US and the Taliban will remain largely ineffective in bringing and maintaining peace to Afghanistan.
Simultaneously, prominent “disenchanted” members of the current and former governments since 2002, centered around former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, have also voiced their opposition to the presidential elections. Politicians associated with the former President have already increased their leverage with the Taliban by participating in “intra-Afghan” meetings convened in Moscow and Doha– without holding any legitimate mandate from the Afghan people.
In private calls, these politicians have suggested the formation of an interim government for possibly up to 24 months. Aiming to bank on the Taliban’s strong military position in tandem with their weak political position, this group has become the Taliban’s natural coalition partner inside Afghanistan now. In the scenario of a power-sharing interim government with the Taliban, this group will eventually gain the political upper hand vis-a-vis the Taliban in Kabul – where the political realities have changed substantially since the Taliban ruled last. Nonetheless, the Taliban will comparatively have more scope and decision-making power in a coalition with this group than in Ghani.2 government.
Demands of the Afghan People
The Afghan presidential elections and the ongoing US-Taliban peace talks which should have complemented each other, instead have become two contesting aspects of bringing peace to Afghanistan. Given the history of internal antagonism of the Afghan political elites, irrespective of the type of regime, it would be ironic, and not a surprise to many Afghans, if a US-Taliban peace-deal turned out to be the smaller evil of the Afghan peace process. Under these circumstances, reaching a US-Taliban peace-deal before establishing a solid intra-Afghan dialogue framework where the voices and demands of the Afghan people are translated into a workable agenda, negotiated by legitimate and competent representatives of the people, cannot, and should not be supported.
Maryam Baryalay is a Berlin-based political analyst focusing on Security Relations in South Asia.
Abdul Mateen Imran is a Kabul-based political and security researcher.