The US Secretary of State’s ultimatum to President Ashraf Ghani underscored a blatant disregard for democracy in Afghanistan.

By sending Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani a letter outlining US “intentions” for creating drastic changes in the country, “updating” him on where America stands and “urging” him to show leadership by accepting it, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in fact behaving as a neo-colonial ruler dictating terms to an elected president.

The letter, leaked to Tolo News and went viral on Sunday, came together with an eight-page draft “Afghanistan Peace Agreement” proposing amongst other things a transitional government. It outlined that the UN is to convene a meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and a separate senior-level meeting in Turkey to finalise the peace agreement.

It was a stark reminder of the Bonn Conference which designated an interim government led by Hamed Karzai. But at least at Bonn, wide consultations had taken place beforehand. Also at Bonn and during the past twenty years, the international community has underscored all actions to be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned”.

This letter is devoid of that hallmark.

Blinken’s letter is seen by some as displaying US “naivete”. Bringing other countries in for cover doesn’t change the fact that Blinken and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad “are empowering the Taliban in Afghanistan,” says former Defense Department official Michael Rubin.

Although the Americans have frequently influenced the outcome of elections in Afghanistan since 2001, this latest move seems blatantly patronising.

It displays a total disregard for democratic processes and institutions that have been the only success story in Afghanistan in the past 20 years, a journalist in Kabul told me.

“The tone, prescriptive nature and the context of the letter is disturbing,” tweeted Kawun Kakar, an advocate in Kabul.

The Afghanistan Peace Agreement proposes power sharing with the Taliban and a brand new constitution with increased Islamic oversight, an Islamic Jurisprudence Council with a right to veto over all other laws, and additional unelected Taliban members in parliament.

These changes would empower the Taliban to dominate the state through blocking and vetoing all decisions. Ironically, this would create a set up not too dissimilar to Iran’s theocratic structure which the US criticises.

Ulterior motives?

Ghani is understandably furious and some argue Blinken’s plan is primarily aimed at dislodging him as he has disagreed with Khalilzad all along.

There is also general criticism of Ghani’s government slowing the process of peace, monopolising power, and being ineffective with rampant corruption. Ghani rejects these accusations, but they are frequently levelled by Afghan analysts.

“The only route to change of government is through elections,” said Ghani in a speech to parliament. “Anyone can write their ideas on a piece of paper, they’ve done so before, they’re doing it now, and will continue to do it in the future,” he said smiling. “But there will be no deals.”

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, had a more tempered response to the letter. He agreed that peace was essential but stressed the importance of elections, in effect rejecting the idea of a transitional government.

Sending the letter to both politicians could provide Blinken with an option. If Ghani disagrees, then perhaps Abdullah could be asked to take the upper hand. Yet playing them against each other would only create further tension.

Blinken’s priority is understandably US national interests and by proposing a revised “90-day Reduction-in-Violence,” he is buying time to give US President Joe Biden a justification to keep roughly 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan.

“They [Americans] have the right to decide on 2,500 US soldiers and sign deals with the Taliban as they please,” said Vice President Amrullah Saleh. “But it is also our right to make decisions about 35 million people of Afghanistan not based on anyone else’s calendar,” he said.

In the region too, Blinken’s roadmap would be seen as a way of thwarting plans by Iran and Russia while testing the ground for their cooperation. Russia has already separately invited all parties to Moscow for talks within the next nine days.

Blinken may have several good reasons for urging parties to move on, and no one would disagree with speeding up peace in Afghanistan.

Whatever the motives, Blinken cannot whitewash the fact that he is rewarding the Taliban with more power and status when they should in fact be held to account for gruesome violence.

As the top diplomat of an administration that prides itself on democratic standards, the Secretary of State doesn’t seem to be acting within international norms when he issues ultimatums to a head of state.

“I am making this clear to you so you understand the urgency of my tone,” he ends his letter to Ghani.

That tone certainly sounds wrong and the proposal would probably backfire if it is not built on consensus.

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