On February 18, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared President Ashraf Ghani the winner of the September 28 presidential election. Hours later, Ghani’s key rival, who also happens to be his chief executive officer in the so-called National Unity Government, challenged the final outcome by declaring a parallel government.
“We are announcing our victory. We will now form an inclusive government,” tweeted Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. He also wrote a letter to the European Union on February 20 calling the election results “illegal and unacceptable to all Afghans.” Going a step further, Ghani’s previous vice president and former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum termed the final result a “coup” and urged his supporters to take to the streets.
Amid the nearly five-month delay in announcing the conclusion, the hotly contested Afghan presidential election had faded into the background as something more important was happening: The much-awaited outcome of the 18-month peace talks between Taliban representatives and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on February 21 that the two sides plan to formally sign their peace deal at the end of the month.
The Ghani-Abdullah dispute over the poll result, however, sent shockwaves across Afghan society, where people are anxiously awaiting an end to the nearly two decades of violence. The not-so-unexpected row also exposed the ethnic fault lines in Afghanistan — majority Pashtuns vs the rest — at a time when the war-battered country needs unity more than anything else to open a window to lasting peace.
Notwithstanding the weeklong “reduction in violence” slated to begin from February 22 – which, if all goes as planned, will culminate in the signing of a U.S.-Taliban agreement on February 29 — the Ghani-Abdullah row, if prolonged, may drag Afghanistan into new trouble: an ethnic feud.
Before going into what comes next, let us have a glance at what went wrong. What brought Afghanistan to this juncture, where last-ditch efforts to restore order are seen with despair rather than hope?
What Went Wrong
A majority of Afghanistan analysts are of the view that had the international community invited the Taliban leadership, or at least those who were willing to reconcile, to the December 2001 Bonn Conference, the group would never have become such big threat to peace and security in Afghanistan. Armed with backing from neighboring countries and propaganda in the name of religion, Taliban quickly regained support and sympathy from various individuals, groups and communities in face of reckless military campaigns that often resulted in civilian casualties. For several years after the toppling of their regime, not a single serious effort was made to bring the Taliban into the government fold.
The government was, however, plagued by the presence of powerful warlords Instead of cornering them, if it was not possible to try them under the law, even leaders accused of human rights violations were granted official perks and privileges. A majority of them were either offered positions in the government or made their way into the parliament. Aid money meant for Afghanistan reconstruction ended up in the coffers of the same strongmen who were believed to be responsible for the country’s mess. Not only that, but as the warlords and jihadists of the past further increased their strength and influence, new power centers emerged with the influx of billions of dollars, thus causing serious problems for the future of a centralized authority in Afghanistan.
The increasing level of corruption diminished the chances of good governance, thus disenchanting common Afghans about a system based on the ideals of a better future. Expecting no improvements, many Afghans lost hope in their post-Taliban leadership. The sympathy pendulum began to swing back toward the Taliban, who had brought calm (if not peace) to Afghanistan.
The international community did fairly well in committing men and money but failed to pressure Afghanistan’s neighbors to put an end to their interference in the country. Every effort to push and defeat the Taliban and their allies failed because the militia continued to enjoy safe havens outside Afghanistan’s borders, not to mention a steady supply of money, men, and arms.
Now the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement, set to be signed by the end of February provided the week-long “reduction in violence” arrangement holds, comes hard on the heels of a political crisis in Kabul, caused by the February 18 announcement of the poll result. If current trends continue, there are many reasons to fear new trouble on the Afghan horizon.
First, the country is more divided today than at any time in the past 20 years. With Taliban reconciling, but also vying for control over the government, divisions among political leaders on ethnic lines will definitely not end well. Notwithstanding Ghani’s following in non-Pashtun ethnic groups, parties such as Jamiat-e-Islami (mostly Tajiks), Hezb-e-Wahdat (mostly Hazaras), and Junbish (mostly Uzbek) have announced their support for Abdullah.
Second, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since their ouster. They are coming to this agreement, which should also see the beginning of an intra-Afghan dialogue process, from a position of strength in comparison to the Afghan government and rest of the Afghan leadership. Divisions among the Afghan leadership will further strengthen the Taliban’s standing.
Third, opportunist groups and warlords are waiting in the wings. Reports suggest that several leaders have already established contacts with the Taliban. Finding the militia leadership has much to gain from the peace efforts, they may announce open support for the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s military and police have yet to be purged of warlord loyalists. A divide inside these crucial organs cannot be ruled out if the political leadership fails to agree on a settlement. Furthermore, any reduction in international support in terms of training, materiel, and salaries may affect the security institutions.
Lastly, there is every possibility that Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors will continue to interfere in the country’s internal situation. The meddling may increase and even turn into open rivalries once the international forces leave. In that case, Afghanistan may continue to be a battleground for regional rivalries.
The only assurance, if to be believed, comes from the February 20 New York Times op-ed by Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. In a reference to the possible re-entry of foreign (terrorist) groups once the United States leaves, Haqqani, who also heads the terrorist-designate Haqqani Network, writes that “it is not in the interest of any Afghan to allow such groups to hijack our country and turn it into a battleground.”
With the long-awaited and much sought-after U.S.-Taliban peace deal set to materialize in the days ahead, unity among the Afghan leadership is needed more than any time before. Discord will not only jeopardize the first step toward lasting peace, but also weaken the Afghan leaders who, despite their individual, group, and community disagreements, faced the Taliban as a united front.
The onus mostly rests on Ghani to resolve differences with his opponents before sitting face-to-face with the Taliban leadership for peace negotiations.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.