Afghanistan - The Future Remains Murky
Talks and elections
Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled to be held on September 28,2019 four months after the term of incumbent President Ghani ended. But his continuation in office was upheld by the Supreme Court when many others, including the then Presidential Candidate Mohammed Hanif Atmar, had called for a caretaker government claiming Ghani’s continuation was unconstitutional.
The Independent Election Commission had issued credential letters to 17 presidential candidates and their running mates. One candidate refused to take the letter. Notables on the slate include President Ghani, CEO Abdullah Abdullah, former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the late Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Masoud’s brother Ahmed Wali Masoud.
Former National Security Advisor, Mohammed Hanif Atmar, once considered the most potent challenger, had withdrawn his candidature.
The date for the election had been officially announced by the Independent Election Commission and according to reports the plan to have provincial and the Ghazni Wolesi Jirga elections at the same time had been dropped. According to the Independent Election Commission 5,374 polling stations would stay open for around 9.6 million voters across the country on Sept 28. It had also said that it was purchasing 25,000 biometric devices to be used in the election.
Zabihullah Sadat, IEC acting spokesman said 21,000 devices used in the Wolesi Jirga polls were already available and 25,000 more would be purchased. Around 35,000 polling sites had been set up countrywide for the Sept 28 presidential election.
The specter of the elections not being transparent had been raised by different parties including some presidential candidates. Election oversight institutes had criticized what they said was a lack of interest on the part of the government and the international community to hold fair and transparent presidential elections.
Naim Ayubzada, head of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), told a press conference that his office and the Fair and Free Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FFEFA)’s findings showed no preparations had been made for holding a transparent, inclusive and acceptable election. Mohammad Hanif Atmar had said Mr. Ghani’s control over the election process could taint the vote.
The Council of Presidential Election Candidates formed by 12 presidential candidates had warned the Independent Election Commission members of consequences if they did not observe the law. Among their demands were the creation of a cooperative environment between electoral bodies, political parties and civil society organizations. The statement called on the government to prevent interference in election commissions, improve election oversight activities and suspend the sacking or appointment of civil and military officials ahead of the election. Other demands of the candidates included prevention of early campaigning, prevention of showy activities of the president such as traveling to provinces and giving an equal opportunity to all candidates by the media.
Mr. Atmar, had said there would be a boycott of the election if Mr. Ghani did not remove recently appointed government officials loyal to him. Such a boycott by nearly two thirds of the candidates would severely damage the credibility of the process and Atmar had made the first move by withdrawing from the race.
The campaign period officially commenced on July 28, 2019. But the continuing violence and high casualty attacks in Ghazni, Jalalabad and Kabul, including the murderous attack on President Ghani’s running mate Amarullah Saleh, had acted as an effective deterrence to public meetings and road campaigning.
Reports indicated that Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Rahmatullah Nabil, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, Sayed Noorullah Jalili, Mohammad Shahab Hakimi, Mohammad Ibrahim Alokozay and Ahmad Wali Massoud were among those who had launched public campaigns.
Promises and pious declarations had come from some of the candidates. President Ghani said that if elected he promised to start peace talks with the Taliban and transform Afghanistan into a trade hub. Abdullah Abdullah had told a gathering that a repetition of the catastrophe following the last presidential elections was not acceptable to the citizens and no government institution possessed the right to work to benefit a particular candidate.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in his first election campaign gathering in Kabul, said that attempts were afoot to conduct high scale rigging using government resources. He said he would bring about fundamental changes in the economic, political and social areas and replace corrupt figures with patriots if he won the election.
A presidential candidate, Latif Pedram, said he would change the structure of the government if he won the election. He would and create an Islamic federal government would divide the structure of the country to federal zones and give people authority to manage their economic, social and military issues. He would also ensure that the rights of all tribes were respected. Sayed Noorullah Jalili promised to take away power from monopolists, dual nationality holders and transfer it to “the real sons of this land.”
The Taliban, while professing a commitment to peace, had made it clear they would disrupt the elections which they said would have “no legitimacy” because the country was “under occupation.” They called the elections “a ploy to deceive the common people” and said the “ultimate decision-making power” lay with foreigners who were running the process. They warned people against voting, adding another dimension to the insecure environment for the public and officials. Interestingly their warning came just hours after U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reported “excellent progress” during talks with them in Qatar.
The eighth round of the Qatar talks between the Americans and the Taliban recently concluded and the ninth was due to commence soon. The process of the Qatar talks had started in October 2018 and throughout the Taliban had negotiated from a position of strength. That was unremarkable as the US Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction had reported that the group controlled at least 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population — 59 of the country’s 407 districts and another 119 districts were contested.
At the commencement of the process both sides had come with specific issues to be addressed. The American urgency for a deal was because, as US Secretary of State Pompeo said, President Trump wanted an end to the fighting by 2020.
The Americans wanted discussions on foreign troop withdrawal, assurances by the Taliban that they would ensure that no terrorist attack on the United States could again be launched from Afghanistan, a cease-fire, and inter-Afghan talks leading to a power-sharing agreement and peace.
The Taliban had given no hint of any compromise on two agenda points. They ruled out any talks with the Afghan government as long as there were foreign troops in the country and said the question of an end to the fighting would be meaningful only after all foreign troops left their country.
At the end of July 2019, State Minister for Peace Affairs Abdul Salam Rahimi had said that it was hoped that direct talks with the Taliban would be held in the next two weeks in an unidentified European country. The government would be represented by a 15-member delegation.
But Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, denied that, saying talks with the Afghan government would only come after a deal had been struck with the United States on the departure of its forces.
But over the period of the past of almost one year the Taliban while refusing to talk officially to the Afghan government, had had no problems in holding discussions with non- governmental Afghan delegations which included officials present in their personal capacity. They had met with about 60 high profile Afghans-men and women-- in Doha in an event co-sponsored by Germany and Qatar and supported by the USA.
A joint declaration had been issued after the two day talks which emphasized the need to work for reducing “civilian casualties to zero” and assuring women their fundamental rights in “political, social, economic, educational, cultural affairs.” The declaration however was not binding.
The past year had seen the Taliban being recognised increasingly as a legitimate political force. Mullah Baradar had been received in Moscow in May where he met Afghan politicians, including those planning to challenge President Ashraf Ghani. He had been on the road visiting Iran, Russia, China and Indonesia as well as Uzbekistan- almost keeping pace with Khalilzad’s shuttle diplomacy.
The increasing international acceptance of the Taliban as a political force and the possibility that a deal with the Americans would bring them back to power had been worrying Afghan women many of whom had enjoyed new freedoms including managing successful businesses. Women made up 28 percent of the Afghan National Assembly — more than in the US Congress. They feared that once the Americans were gone the Taliban would, despite their protestations, revert to their old ways.
The Taliban had sought to project a more moderate image saying that Islam gave women rights in areas such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, the choice of a husband, security and well-being. But they continued to warn against the mingling of men and women and denounced those they saw as encouraging women to defy Afghan customs.
After the eight round a draft plan had reportedly been arrived at which was lauded by US interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad. In terms of what had been made public the plan does not explicitly include an agreement or date for a permanent cease-fire- a main issue for the Americans when the talks started- to take place, but leaves the details to be worked out by the Afghans themselves.
The plan is said to include an explicit link between U.S. withdrawal and Taliban agreement to start negotiations with Afghan officials, without spelling out a Taliban commitment. There is said to be agreement for an initial and partial pull-out of about 5,000 troops, and most of the remaining forces would leave over the next 18 months. There is also reportedly no specific assurance in the deal to ensure that women will continue to have equal opportunities in education, employment and government.
But the plan does not address the question of the US keeping a small U.S. counterterrorism force in the country to fight other Islamist groups. While saying the US military had been reduced to a policing force, President Trump had said the US forces would not completely withdraw from Afghanistan and America would have “somebody there” to make sure that the Taliban did not regain control.
Reports based on a knowledge of the thinking of Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who was willing to use a smaller troop contingent, suggested that despite Trump wanting all troops out by 2020, the Americans would want to keep open Bagram air base, from which the United States launches counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains. A Pentagon official was quoted as saying that there would be no withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan without agreement on the terrorism issue, without agreement on a cease-fire and dialogue, and a political road map. . . . That is the current posture, the current understanding and the current decision.”
The military is likely to want to maintain a significant presence in Kabul, where there are numerous bases, and some troops at Kandahar Airfield, the largest U.S. base in the south. U.S. officials say that German troops are likely to keep a presence in northern Afghanistan and that Italian troops will remain in the west. U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command was reported to have said that some troops could be moved “over the horizon,” still remotely supporting the war effort from overseas.
In the US Senate a bipartisan warning had been issued against a “precipitous withdrawal” from Afghanistan and Syria. In sponsoring the measure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stressed the need for the White House to coordinate a long-term strategy with Congress, “including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily
The Taliban had placed the onus entirely on the Americans for the delay in a return to peace. Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada-- whose brother had been killed in a bomb blast at a mosque in Kuchlak in Pakistan--said in his Eid message that the Taliban had taken “incredible strides” towards their goal of “ending the occupation and establishing an Islamic system”. He said that the Taliban were engaged in negotiations with “utmost seriousness” and called for sincerity to end the “18-year tragedy”.
But, addressing the Americans, he said “.. “However, the increasing blind and brutal bombings by America during the negotiation process, attacks on civilian areas and the contradictory statements by your military and political officials has generated a cloud of uncertainty about this process and raised doubts about your intentions,”…“Bilateral trust is the foundation of a successful negotiations process therefore it is imperative that such negative actions are ceased,”.
Despite the death of Akhundzada’s brother Afghan Taliban officials said the killing of the brother of their leader in a bomb attack near the Pakistani city of Quetta would not derail the talks with the United States, aimed at securing their objective of getting foreign troops out of Afghanistan.
For the Taliban it remained critical that an agreement should not fracture the cohesion of the group and any deal should be one that the Taliban cadres would accept. Already there had been some reports that some local commanders might look askance at a deal that required them to observe a ceasefire or agree to any other compromise worked out in Qatar.
There was also some apprehension that Islamic State, which had a significant presence in Kunar and Nangarhar, could attract malcontents from the Taliban after any deal with the Americans. The American media had been highlighting the emerging expansion of Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The manner of the negotiating process had come under criticism in Afghanistan and outside. Iranian officials were reported to have disapproved of Zalmay Khalilzad’s “over-zealous shortcuts ..” which had given “political supremacy” to the Taliban at a time when they were also gaining militarily. Taliban leaders were said to have told their Iranian interlocutors they would not “accept anything less than a Taliban-dominated government” that ruled “an Islamic emirate.”
While President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan officials, chafing at being sidelined, felt that they might be sold out to serve American interests, some Afghan politicians said that Trump was making a mistake to get his troops out in a hurry to bolster his position for the 2020 USA Presidential elections. They felt that the Taliban could not be trusted and if the Americans left without a good peace deal there would be chaos in Afghanistan.
So-will there be presidential elections in Afghanistan on schedule? Possible -but unlikely.
While President Ghani remains adamant there were other voices from among the candidates who felt that the elections be delayed to avoid a new government interfering with the peace negotiations. Among others who had articulated this position were U.S. officials hoping that the Afghan parties, once they agreed to meet, would jointly call for a delay in Afghanistan’s presidential election.
Will there be peace—not if the Taliban stick to their stand that each and every foreign soldier should leave their land. Anything less- and Trump’s latest comments suggest there would be less- and the Taliban leadership could be accused by its own commanders of betraying the jehad.