Efforts to secure a durable political settlement to the Afghanistan war coincide and conflict with an uncertain political transition in the country.
The United States and the Taliban are once again close to signing a preliminary peace agreement that could pave the way for an end to the 18-year war. According to one report, a deal could be signed by the end of January.
But significant stumbling blocks in the overall process remain. And efforts to secure a durable political settlement to the Afghanistan war coincide, and indeed, conflict with an uncertain political transition in the country as the results of last September’s presidential elections remain unfinalised.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, the United States, Afghan power brokers, and the broader international community must make three major decisions.
First, the United States must decide whether its deal with the Taliban should include a comprehensive ceasefire that applies to all parties to the conflict or remain restricted to the two negotiating parties in this current round of talks.
Next, Washington and other major powers must determine whether the Kabul government will lead the non-Taliban side of the next phase of talks — the dialogue among Afghans — or play a more diminished role, perhaps as first among equals.
And finally, the international community and Afghan powerbrokers must determine what should be the future of both the current Kabul government as well as the broader political dispensation.
Even as a US-Taliban agreement appears near, there is disagreement among stakeholders on these three issues.
The Taliban, it appears, will only consent to a “reduction of violence” with Afghan forces alongside a 10-day ceasefire with the United States. And while former President Hamid Karzai and current Chief Executive Abdullah find these conditions to be sufficient, President Ashraf Ghani continues to demand a comprehensive ceasefire alongside a preliminary US-Taliban deal.
Among international powerbrokers, the German special envoy for Afghanistan has identified a reduction of violence as an immediate goal, but his European Union counterpart seems to prefer a broad ceasefire.
While a cessation of all major political violence in Afghanistan is desirable, it is only realistic as the end state of a negotiation process. The Taliban should be able to convince most of its fighters, who see themselves as waging war against a foreign occupation, to abide by a ceasefire agreement with the United States because of an enforceable withdrawal agreement.
But the same cannot be said for a broader ceasefire among Afghan belligerents. There is no enforceable agreement on the basis of which a ceasefire can be implemented and carry legitimacy among the Taliban rank and file. That can only emerge from a formal dialogue between the Taliban and other Afghan political forces, and such a process has yet to begin. A de-escalation among Afghan belligerents somewhat approximating a ceasefire is a realistic short-term objective.
Should Washington and the Taliban come to a deal and a ceasefire and/or de-escalation agreement is put into effect, the intra-Afghan dialogue could commence within a matter of weeks. Yet here, again, the Ghani government remains an obstacle. Ghani has twice sabotaged intra-Afghan talks by stacking the participant list with his supporters.
Furthermore, the Taliban will only engage officials in the Ghani government as part of a broader delegation of non-Taliban Afghans. The militant group does not recognise the Kabul government’s legitimacy.
At the same time, many of Ghani’s political opponents resent his attempts to control the Afghan reconciliation process. Some among them also question the legitimacy of his presidency.
Ghani rules Afghanistan as part of a power-sharing deal he has brazenly flouted. And his constitutionally determined tenure ended seven months ago — though a pliant Supreme Court allowed him to continue as president. Ghani has also been accused of rigging the recent presidential polls. His legitimacy, both de-facto and de-jure, is questionable.
To ensure the integrity of the intra-Afghan dialogue and elite buy-in, the US and other foreign powers should press Ghani to agree to form a diverse negotiating team led by a neutral political figure with ample representation of political and ethnic factions, including his election rivals.
Washington, in the coming weeks, may have to have to make a greater demand of Ghani: to cede power to a caretaker government.
The first round of the presidential election results could be finalised by early February — over four months after they were held. Ghani, according to the preliminary results announced by the Afghan election commission, maintains a majority of votes by less than a single percentage point.
Over 300,000 of the 1.8 million votes are disputed. With a loss of just over 23,000 votes, Ghani would be deprived of a majority, thus trigging a runoff between him and Abdullah.
A second round would not only overlap with the intra-Afghan dialogue, but, like the first round, it would be a prolonged and contentious affair marred by low turnout and allegations of rigging. The earliest they could be held would be April, after the winter snow melts. The vote counting and verification process would likely take another few months.
Last year, the Trump administration bet that it could deconflict the elections and the intra-Afghan talks. Delays in both processes and the likelihood of a second round now give Washington an opportunity to rescind that wager. It will soon have to make a choice between the peace process and the election process. And the peace process must take precedence.
A broad-based caretaker government led by a neutral political figure who can govern by consensus should rule Afghanistan over the course of the intra-Afghan dialogue, period of constitutional reform, and next round of elections.
While some observers may deem a caretaker government as undemocratic and extra-constitutional, it will likely prove to be necessary for preserving the present republican system.
Elections, in their present form, have produced growing elite discord and public discontent with the status quo. The confidence of Afghans in their elections actually erodes after every electoral cycle. That eroding confidence was on display last September, when fewer than 20 percent of registered voters took part in the president polls.
Elections, as held by the present Afghan government, are hardly a credible and effective way of securing the public’s mandate. Another election crisis would not only jeopardise the intra-Afghan dialogue, but it also could lead to civil conflict, putting the entire political system at risk.
Trump would be averse to policing a civil war in Afghanistan and could just decide in favor of a unilateral withdrawal, leaving Afghans to fend for themselves.
A caretaker setup would hold the political process in abeyance but would fall short of abrogating the present constitution. It would provide space for Afghan political elites to reform the constitution, incorporating the demands of non-Pashtuns desiring decentralisation, and some demands of the Taliban, while serving as a buffer preventing the reestablishment of an emirate.
Ghani would certainly resist the notion of giving up control of both the intra-Afghan dialogue and government. But he recognises that his government is financially and militarily dependent on foreign powers for survival.
The US government should make clear to Ghani that should he continue with his brinksmanship, it would be at a great cost to him and his nation.
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