Afghanistan held a presidential election on 28 September. The results have not been announced yet, and may remain so for a few weeks. The two main rivals, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, are already positioning themselves to claim victory. Yet, whoever is declared the winner is unlikely to be able to bring peace and stability to war-torn Afghanistan. Neither will have a sufficient public mandate to govern effectively and lead Afghanistan out of its prevailing miserable conditions.
This election was the fourth of its kind since the US-led overthrow of the Taliban rule in late 2001. From an estimated population of 37 million, nine million had registered to vote, but no more than two million cast their ballots. It marked the lowest turnout ever. The reasons for this ranged from a warning by the Taliban, who rejected the election as a sham, to a great majority of the Afghans being totally disillusioned with their leaders’ performances.
Initially, when the Taliban rule ended, the Afghan people were generally optimistic about their future. Many of them welcomed the US-led intervention. They hoped for an end to the warfare, bloodshed and destruction that had dominated their country ever since the pro-Soviet coup of December 1979, which was followed by the rule of the Islamic resistance groups, the Mujahideen (1992-1996), and the Taliban (1996-2001).
However, this did not turn out to be the case. The US and its NATO and non-NATO allies as well as the internationally backed administration of Hamid Karzai that replaced that of the Taliban were soon seriously challenged by the Pakistan-backed Taliban. Other neighbours of Afghanistan also entered the fray to protect their varying interests from the Afghan turmoil. Within a few years, Afghanistan became a zone of conflict within conflicts at growing human and material costs for the US and its allies as well as the Afghan people.
Karzai’s rule (2001-2014) proved generally ineffective. It was marred by internal divisions, poor governance and corruption. It failed to generate a solid foundation for national unity in a highly mosaic Afghanistan. This, in combination with the lack of a suitable US stabilisation strategy, enormously aided the growth of a Taliban-led insurgency.
The Ghani-Abdullah National Unity Government (2014-2019) that followed Karzai’s administration came to be more disunited than united. It achieved little to improve the national conditions for stability and peace. If anything, the security situation has deteriorated and administrative dysfunctionality and corruption have remained rampant. In contrast, the Taliban and their supporters have grown more robust than ever before.
From 2016, in addition to the Taliban, poppy growers, drug traffickers and criminal gangs, the Khorasan branch of IS (IS-K) has become another active group in opposition to the government and in rivalry with the Taliban in the country.
US-led international efforts have resulted in a degree of infrastructural development, freedom of expression and media, empowerment of smaller minorities and the establishment of military-security forces, but all at a very high cost. A majority of the Afghan people still live in poverty within a pervasively insecure and unpredictable environment.
President Donald Trump had all along opposed the US Afghan adventure. He decided last year to push for a political settlement of the conflict as part of an exit strategy. In September 2018, the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who has a history of advising Republican administrations on Afghanistan and had served as special envoy and ambassador to Afghanistan, was tasked to secure such a settlement.
Khalilzad opened dialogue with America’s erstwhile foe, the Taliban, as well as with the Afghan government and leading figures, Afghanistan’s neighbours (except the Islamic Republic of Iran, given the enmity between Washington and Tehran), and other stakeholders in the Afghan conflict. He set out to achieve four objectives: a timeline for withdrawal of the 14,000 American troops from Afghanistan; a guarantee by the Taliban that Afghan soil would not be used against US interests and those of its allies; direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government; and a ceasefire throughout Afghanistan.
However, after nine rounds of negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, the best he could achieve was to reach an agreement with the Taliban on the first two issues, which was scheduled to be signed by President Trump in early September 2019. It was hoped that the ratification of the agreement would open the way for achieving the remaining two objectives.
Initially, Trump invited the Taliban delegation and Ghani for secret meetings at Camp David for the signing of the agreement, but he abruptly called off the meetings and peace talks after a Taliban attack in Kabul that killed 12 people including an American soldier. The president’s actions pleased Ghani, whose government had never been a party to the negotiations and is rejected by the Taliban as a ‘puppet’. But the Taliban criticised the cancellation and claimed that it would damage the US, while keeping the door open for the continuation of negotiations. In the absence of any peace process, the Taliban have intensified their operations, prompting Washington to seek a resumption of the peace talks.
Against this backdrop, the 28 September Afghan presidential election assumed extra importance in the hope of producing a clear winner with a sufficient public mandate to persuade the Taliban to negotiate directly with the new government for a settlement. Yet, the prospects for this eventuating look very grim not only due to the very low voter turnout, but also because there have already been claims of electoral fraud. Abdullah’s camp has alleged that the Independent Electoral Commission has colluded with the Ghani team by counting the non-biometric votes in favour of the president. Abdullah has made it clear that he is well positioned to form the next government, but Ghani is unlikely to give in easily, as he has done everything possible to remain at the helm.
Whatever the outcome, neither Abdullah nor Ghani will be in a position to form a strong, effective and clean government in dealing with the Taliban and their supporters. In the absence of a viable US-led peace process and a guarantee of its outcome by all the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the Afghan conflict is set to continue as a source of serious regional and global concern for the foreseeable future.
Professor Amin Saikal is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and author of Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012).
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