While the governments, peoples, and the global media remain largely focused on the devastation being caused by the coronavirus, significant moves have been afoot in Afghanistan. The fruition of the ongoing process could, if one was very optimistic, presage the establishment of peace and stability in that country--not today, not tomorrow but perhaps somewhere near in the future. The wait will be an anxious one for the people of the war wrecked country seeking a normal life. Success might eventually depend on whether America, in an election year and afflicted by a pandemic, would retain the focus to exert enough pressure to force two individuals to sacrifice their egos and agendas for the welfare of the country and remain ready for a Taliban betrayal.

Afghanistan’s Presidential elections were held in September 2019. But allegations of fraud; alleged flaws in the electoral process using biometrics; and the counting and recounting of votes with obstructions in the validation process caused by Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters had led to a months long delay in announcing the victor with both Asharaf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah claiming to have won. Finally, on 18th February 2020 the Independent Election Commission declared Ghani the winner with a margin of about 12000 votes above the 50 percent required. Abdullah Abdullah’s team said Ghani had pressurized the Election Commission to ensure a second term for himself before the peace process with the Taliban became a distraction.

A furious Abdullah Abdullah said he would form a parallel government and held his own inauguration on the same day as Ghani’s, which had been postponed at the request of the Americans who were engaged in a dialogue for a deal with the Taliban. Both inaugurations took place in the same Presidential premises with the two sides divided by a wall. While Ghani’s inauguration, performed by the Afghan Chief Justice, was attended by Zalmay Khalilzad; Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of U.S. NATO forces in Afghanistan; and dozens of other diplomats no senior diplomat was seen at Mr. Abdullah’s ceremony next door, which was administered by a religious cleric.

Ghani, in his inauguration speech said, in the interim, he would keep his current cabinet, but promised an inclusive government through extensive consultations that would be for the entire Afghanistan and work for unity and solidarity and to bring peace after the four -decade- long war. Abdullah Abdullah in his inauguration speech promised vowed to "safeguard the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity" of Afghanistan. And he refused to recognize Ghani as the new President.

According to his advisors Abdullah wanted a power sharing arrangement with Ghani which the latter refused claiming that what Abdullah wanted would require a constitutional change and that could come only by holding a loya jirga, or grand council, of all Afghans. While ruling out any extra constitutional position for Abdullah Abdullah, like his earlier one as Chief Executive, Ghani was only willing to accommodate some of Abdullah’s allies in the Cabinet and give him a role in the dialogue with the Taliban.

The American’s had concluded a deal with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 after talks in Qatar. The deal signed by Zalmay Khalilzad with the head of the Taliban delegation in the presence of US Secretary of State Pompeo, essentially called for a phased withdrawal of American and coalition forces and required the Taliban to initiate a formal dialogue with the Afghan government and other political and civil society groups on a permanent nationwide ceasefire and power-sharing in post-war Afghanistan. Other aspects defined deadlines for the American and foreign withdrawal and the release of 6000 prisoners held by both the government and the Taliban. March 2020 was the tentative time frame for the commencement of an Afghan-Taliban negotiation. The UN Security Council had unanimously endorsed the Taliban-US deal. The full text of the UNSC resolution may be seen at https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14139.doc.htm

As the impasse continued with Ghani and Abdullah appointing individuals in high-ranking positions, including as governors of different cities, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that it was unlikely that the government was getting ready for the intra-Afghan talks on March 10, because of the disagreement between the politicians that had led to two swearing-in ceremonies. The Americans had made nuanced statements with Mike Pompeo not congratulating Ghani on becoming President again but only supporting his pledge to form an inclusive government that would unify the country and make peace a priority. He had also said that the United States “strongly” opposed the creation of a “parallel government, and any use of force to resolve political differences.” Pompeo had travelled to Kabul in March after Khalilzad failed to get Ghani and Abdullah to resolve their differences. Pompeo met both leaders and also failed to reconcile them. In what was a clear power play the State Department said it was cutting $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year, and potentially another $1 billion in 2021 after Pompeo’s failed efforts.

The continuing political mess had provided an opportunity to the Taliban to continue with their attacks following the one week stoppage of violence that they had agreed to while working out the deal in Doha. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had told the media that the reduction in violence had ended and they would resume their operations. He had also made it clear that as per the Doha agreement the Mujahideen would not attack foreign forces but continue their operations against the Kabul administration forces.

The period after the signing of the deal saw a spate of concerted attacks in Wardak Province, Badghis Province , Helmand Province , Kunduz Province , Jowzjan Province , Baghlan Province , Balkh Province, Kabul Province , Takhar Province , Zabul Province , Daikundi Province , Sar-i-Pul Province , Paktia Province , Nangarhar Province , Badakhshan Province , Herat Province , Jowzjan Province , Kandahar Province .

The political situation had also affected the formation of the team that the Afghan Government was to field for the dialogue with the Taliban. The Afghan government's Ministry of Peace Affairs had announced that a 21 member team headed by Masoom Stanekzai, former chief of the National Directorate of Security, had been set up. It consisted of politicians, former officials, civil society representatives with five women included. First the Taliban said they would not engage with the team as it was not selected in a way that included all Afghan factions. Initially Abdullah Abdullah did not express support for the team, something that could jeopardise the dialogue process given his strong influence in the country's north and west. But eventually Pompeo’s visit and the threat of an aid cut appeared to have had an impact, and Abdullah Abdullah endorsed the team announced by Ghani on March 26 for peace talks with the Taliban.

For the Taliban getting their leaders and cadres released remained the primary issue. The Taliban and the Afghan government had held a “virtual” meeting on prisoner releases over Skype.. A three member Taliban team had arrived in Kabul for finalizing the mechanics for the prisoner release. But the Taliban broke off talks as the Afghan government wanted a phased and conditional release but the Taliban wanted all prisoners released in one go as envisaged in the Doha agreement. They said a peace-meal release was not acceptable and Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, said on Twitter a technical team would not participate in “fruitless meetings” and the release of their prisoners was being “delayed under one pretext or another”. But further discussions, and a possible role by the Americans, led to a compromise with the Afghan government and the Taliban agreeing that releases would occur in smaller batches rather than all at once.

Afghan officials had said they would release 100 Taliban prisoners who were sick or over the age of 50 while the Taliban said they wanted their senior leaders released in the first phase. The Afghan government was not willing to release anyone who had helped orchestrate large-scale attacks. So far the Afghan government had released 300 Taliban prisoners while the Taliban had released 20 Afghan prisoners and handed them over to the ICRC in Kandahar. There was some comment that the Taliban had not included any Afghan military personnel.

The arrival of the corona virus appears to be playing a role too. The U.N. Secretary-General had called for an immediate cease-fire to respond to the pandemic and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the country. The Taliban Spokesman said that the Taliban were ready to declare a cease-fire in areas of Afghanistan under their control if they were hit by a coronavirus outbreak. They also guaranteed the security of health and aid workers traveling to their areas. They said that they had carried out public awareness campaigns in four provinces of northern Afghanistan, distributing face masks, soap and pamphlets telling the faithful that it was a religious duty to keep themselves and their environment clean.

Afghanistan with four decades of war has a devastated economy. A joint study by the European Union and Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organisation has revealed that over the past five years more than half the population has been living on less than a dollar a day. In order to keep pace with population growth and tens of thousands of qualified people, the economy has to create some 400,000 new jobs a year. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan continues to face major economic challenges, with growth slowing to 1.8 % in 2018. A notable decline in exports and an increase in the imports had escalated the trade deficit to around 35.3% of GDP in 2018.

General Mackenzie had advised against a total pull out if violence continued though he did concede that the Taliban were fighting Islamic State which had launched the attack at Ghani’s inauguration and was still involved in stray but heavy violence including the killing of killing at least 32 people at the gathering to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by the Taliban. Mackenzie was however not very definite about the current Taliban-- Al Qaeda nexus and Al Qaeda’s status in Afghanistan.

A major player in Afghanistan, Pakistan seemed to be waiting and watching, anticipating that the long game it had played would end in its favour with the Taliban eventually controlling Afghanistan. Taliban delegations had held repeated discussions with Pakistan as had Zalmay Khalilzad, with Pakistan seeking credit for having persuaded the Taliban to come to the table and officials citing their release of Mullah Baradar and others to assist with the peace process. Annoyance with Ghani’s anti-Pakistan statements had drawn sharp responses from Pakistan blaming Afghanistan for housing anti-Pakistan militants who had launched attacks in Pakistan’s territory. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Quereshi, responding to a joint Afghan-American statement that America would facilitate discussions for Pakistan and Afghanistan to work out arrangements to ensure neither country’s security was threatened by actions from the territory of the other side, had made it clear that there was no place for America in the resolution of issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As of now Afghanistan still does not have a President since Abdullah Abdullah has not given up on his refusal to accept Ghani’s victory. The question remains—will the Taliban adhere to the deal with the US or continue with their original agenda of refusing to accept any “puppet government” and once the prisoner release is over return to a full fledged armed onslaught against the government—if the corona virus does not decimate their leadership.

Many in the US believe that the Taliban cannot be trusted. NBC News had broadcast a report based on interviews with three US officials who were briefed on intelligence assessments the Trump administration had received since igning the peace deal with the Taliban in Doha. According to the report the US government had collected persuasive intelligence that the Taliban did not intend to honour the promises they had made. But President Trump appeared quite willing to concede that the Taliban could take over the country, when questioned by a report. His rationale “Countries have to take care of themselves. You can only hold someone’s hand for so long,” ….. “It’s “not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will.”

And that perhaps is what will eventually happen.