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Afghans Celebrate Reduction in Hostilities But Fear Civil War

The U.S. is ready to make peace with the Taliban. But can Afghanistan’s political factions come to terms with each other?

Ezzatullah Mehrdad
Afghans Celebrate Reduction in Hostilities But Fear Civil War

An Afghan National Security and Defense Forces Soldier holds the Afghan flag during a ceremony at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Oct. 7, 2017.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Gonsier

With a poster that showed photo of President Ahsraf Ghani and Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, Afghans gathered in the provincial capital of eastern Paktika province to celebrate the beginning of reduction in violence on Saturday morning, February 22. If the weeklong partial truce holds, the United States and the Taliban will sign a deal on Friday.

In the northern Sar-e Pol Province, supporters of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah gathered in the compound of the provincial headquarters on the same day as the reduction in violence began. They were there to introduce a new governor for the province to support Abdullah in his dispute with President Ashraf Ghani over recently announced election results.

As the seven-day partial truce between the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government counts down, the political dispute over the September 2019 presidential election results drags on. Ghani, who was declared winner of the election, has set up a commission to celebrate his re-election, while Abdullah announced his would celebrate his own victory.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the man behind the weeklong reduction in violence, has been in Kabul trying to convince the political rivals to avoid a full political crisis. In a meeting with Abdullah, Khalilzad said that Ghani will delay his inauguration for 15 days and in return Abdullah will halt introducing governors for provinces.

Previously, Reuters had reported that the United States wanted Ghani to delay his re-election ceremony over “concerns it could inflame an election feud with his political rival and jeopardize U.S.-led peacemaking efforts.”

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U.S. President Donald Trump has said he would put his name on the paper of a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, provided the weeklong reduction in violence across Afghanistan holds. “We’ve got two days now under our belt without violence or, I guess, a minimum of violence,” Trump said during a press briefing in India, referring to the seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan. “Everybody is happy about it, even people that are normally against me like 99.9 percent of the time.

A U.S.-Taliban deal, under which the United States would cut troops from 13,000 to 8,600 in Afghanistan, could pave the way for the beginning of the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in March. But with the Afghan government in political crisis, it is still unclear who will sit across the table and negotiate with the Taliban.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press briefing on Tuesday that “we’re on the cusp of an enormous, enormous political opportunity” and that the United States would not allow any group to “undermine it.” Pompeo also reiterated that the Taliban should adhere to their promise of cutting ties with the terrorist groups, otherwise the U.S. could stay in Afghanistan.

“If a truce between the US & the Taliban were to hold, it would allow both sides to focus attention and resources on the Islamic State as a common enemy,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of CNA’s Special Operations Program in Virginia. The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan “has an existential interest in disrupting the peace process,” he added.

Since the beginning of the reduction in violence, a seven-day period to test the ability of the Taliban and the Afghan government to command the long chain of forces, small incidents have been reported across the country but no major assault. In one deadly incident in Zari district of Balkh province, three Afghan soldiers were killed by the Taliban on the first day of the period.

On the fifth day of the partial truce, the Afghan government claimed that 19 security forces and four civilians had been killed and 35 security
forces wounded in Taliban attacks across the country. In Kabul, on the evening of February 26, an improvised explosive device (IED) placed in a motorbike went off and wounded nine civilians. The Taliban denied any involvement in the IED attack in Kabul.

During the weeklong reduction in violence, the Taliban are supposed to refrain from attacks on Afghan cities and provincial headquarters, highways, corps, divisions, bridges, and bases. The Afghan government forces, for their part, will not advance to areas under the control of the Taliban. But should the Taliban attack government forces, the United States will support the Afghan security forces.

“Afghans and Resolute Support” – the name of the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan – “need to be prepared for the possibility that violence will increase again,” said Schroden, who is also a professorial lecturer at the Elliot School of International Affairs of George Washington University. “There’s no guarantee of both sides continuing the reduction after the seven-day period.”

With the end of the seven-day partial truce on Friday, the next phase of the peace process begins: U.S. troop withdrawal and beginning of the Taliban talks with the Afghan government, which is still divided. The political chaos in Kabul is mostly between Western-educated Ghani’s young advisers and technocrats and some more hardened figures, like Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who stayed and held onto power by making deals.

“[The political unrest] surely has the potential to disrupt the initial steps of the Afghan peace process,” said Andrew Watkins, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan. “The election-related grievances and concerns that political figures and their communities have are real, and are serious.”

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Abdullah’s team disputes some 300,000 votes and accuses the election commission of favoring Ghani in the election. Ghani’s team denies the accusations, saying their success in holding the election and announcing a result wins them the right to show up at the table to talk with the Taliban and secure the country’s republic against the emirate of the Taliban.

Ali Amiri, a lecturer at a private university in Kabul, explained that Ghani’s camp believes Abdullah’ team wanted to win power through the election, failed to achieve it, and now threatens violence. “After Ghani’s winning, we have seen offers as a ‘political bribe’ to the opposition,” he said. In the eyes of Abdullah’s team, however, Ghani’s team mismanaged the country and took power through fraud.

“Both sides must acknowledge the current crisis has no legal solution,” said Amiri. “When we face a legal deadlock, we have political solutions,” and diplomacy and negotiations are the sign of political maturity.

Indeed, the political camps have begun talks. On Monday, former President Hamid Karzai and Afghan leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf met Ghani in the morning and Abdullah in the evening. The Afghan-born U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad drove bulletproof vehicles around the militarized Kabul to talk with Afghan figures, discussing the political crisis.

“The results of political solution are unclear. Having the political will to solve the crisis is important,” said Amiri. “Do we have the political capacity to solve the crisis? We are taking the test and our actions will answer it, either positive or negative.”

Presidential candidate Rahmatullah Nabil, who directed Afghan intelligence during the 2014 political dispute from which the National Unity Government emerged, rejected both Ghani’s administration and Abdullah’s declaration of his own government. In an op-ed to an independent newspaper in Kabul, Nabil warned that Afghanistan was like a “store of gunpowder” that could be set ablaze by a bullet.

Nabil proposed forming a two-year old National Reconciliation Government, which would make peace with the Taliban and announce a comprehensive ceasefire. The formation of a national reconciliation government could be connected to the U.S.-Taliban deal, and could have different forms, he argued.

Analysts say that a U.S.-Taliban deal is going to be signed regardless of the political dispute among Afghans. But under these circumstances, Watkins of Crisis Group explained that it will be a hard task to form “a united front to preserve the core values and civil rights that Afghans have grown dearly accustomed.” Freedom of speech along with women’s and minority rights are among the important demands of the Afghan government.

The more serious debate will about the future of the political system: emirate or republic. The Afghan government says a republican political system is a red line for them, while the Taliban demands sharia law.

“If the elites in Kabul cannot form and present a unified front in talks with the Taliban,” said Schroden of CNA, “it will undermine their negotiating position and give the Taliban more room for maneuver in the discussions.”