International concerns are escalating about the current Afghan political deadlock caused by the troubled presidential elections in Kabul, which had been delayed twice in the preliminary stage since last September for unclear reasons, amid unstoppable terrorist operations fulfilled by the armed proxies of the Taliban group.
The Taliban’s growing ambition to fill the political void in the country and return to power again after they were ousted in 2001 by the US pushes the group to harness its armed militias from al-Qaeda fighters and other insurgency groups to spread terror among Afghans and destroy their hopes of choosing a new president with a government capable of providing peace in the country.
Violent acts of terror have recently been targeting humanitarian aid workers in Kabul. On Wednesday, December 4th, gunmen killed six people, including the head of a Japanese aid agency, in an attack on their vehicle in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, according to officials. The ambush comes a week after a grenade attack on a United Nations vehicle in Kabul heightened fears for those doing humanitarian work amid one of the world's longest-running conflicts.
Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, said the group was not involved in the shooting. “The Afghan government strongly condemns the cowardly attack,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Many observers hint that the attackers likely belong to the same ideology of those who targeted civilians in the presidential polls two months ago, referring to Taliban armed proxies.
Deteriorating security, the high toll of fatalities due to intensive terrorist operations in the last few months, and concerns of the growing capabilities of Isis, especially after news of the US downsizing its troops in the country by 2020 in accordance to a pre-scheduled plan, have led to a reverse in the US policy towards the Afghan conflict. The US now seeks to resume peace talks with the Taliban, after a yearlong negotiation had been interrupted by President Trump last September following the Taliban’s refusal to respond to American demands.
Security experts explained that the US administration expressed a willingness to resume resolving the Afghan conflict when President Trump paid a sudden visit to US troops in Afghanistan last week and said he believed the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire in America's longest war. Trump's visit was his first to Afghanistan since becoming president and came a week after a prisoner swap between Washington and Kabul that has raised hopes for a long-elusive peace deal. "The Taliban wants to make a deal and we are meeting with them," Trump told reporters after he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
For his part, Ghani underscored the need for a halt to the fighting, saying on Twitter after meeting Trump, "If the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire."
Analysts find President Trump’s move to resume talks with the Taliban as returning to “the right course” of solving the conflict, even after domestic and international criticism against him for accepting to sit at the negotiation table with an “insurgency group.”
The UN Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Tadamichi Yamamoto, repeatedly warned of the Taliban's ambition to return to regional political power. “These attacks, along with public statements made by the Taliban, revealed a deliberate campaign intended to undermine the electoral process and deprive Afghan citizens of their right to participate in this important political process freely and without fear," Yamamoto stated in a UN report.
Before the presidential elections started last September, the Taliban group had threatened to kill civilians, teachers, and even students who were involved in organising the presidential vote, according to Reuters. As a result, only about 2.1 million of an eligible 9.6 million voters turned out on September 28th, as 2,500 polling stations remained closed out of the 4,942 centres due to the threat of violence.
The race to the presidency last September included about a dozen candidates, but the incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, were the top contenders. Ghani and Abdullah have had a fractured power-sharing arrangement since 2014, and their forces are fighting against the Taliban. After two days of the elections, the two top runners have both declared victory, echoing an election crisis five years ago, when competing claims by the two men led to months of turmoil.
After Afghanistan’s last election in 2014, Ghani and Abdullah made similar claims of victory and both accused each other of fraud. It was only after then-US Secretary of State John Kerry intervened that they reached a power-sharing deal, with Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive.
According to a report by the Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute think tank, presidential elections in Afghanistan (2009, 2014, and 2019) have failed to inject much-needed accountability and political stability. The elections undermined the internal processes of political negotiating, which in turn derailed any international cooperation. “Because powerful actors want access to ‘rents’ (state coffers and foreign aid money), they use fraud to renegotiate access to these rents. In turn, gross levels of fraud have led to heightened political uncertainty,” the report said.
Security experts find that if the Taliban group is tempted that much to gain political power in Afghanistan, it should reconsider the way it delivers its political messages to the Afghans. The way the Taliban relentlessly resorts to violent acts would not bring about anything but fear and doubt of its capability of holding a government in the country. Their history of holding power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001 has been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women.
The US administration's decision to again study the draft accord agreed upon in September, which was supposed to be discussed with the Taliban, is the right move in this critical timing for the Afghans. It suggests that thousands of American troops would be withdrawn in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the US or its allies. However, many US officials still doubt the Taliban could be relied upon to prevent al-Qaeda from again plotting attacks against the United States from Afghan soil.
The US military has said it can go down to 8,600 troops and still carry out an essential counter-terrorism mission in a country where both al-Qaeda and Isis fighters would continue to pose a threat, even after any Taliban peace deal, according to analysts. There are currently about 13,000 US forces as well as thousands of other Nato troops in Afghanistan 18 years after the US-led invasion. About 2,400 US service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict.
Trump acknowledged that US troop levels were "substantially" coming down, but he did not provide a specific number. At the same time, however, Trump suggested he was willing to have US forces stay in Afghanistan for the long-term if needed. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory. And they want to make a deal very badly," Trump said, referring to the Taliban.
The latest development of the US measures to handle the Afghan ceasefire agreement, after Trump gave the green light to resume the talks, was sending US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to Kabul on Wednesday, December 4th in a bid to breathe new life into the efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. He discussed with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior officials steps that could lead to a ceasefire and a peace deal.