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As US-Taliban deal nears, Afghanistan's Ghani hardens resolve to hold elections on time

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a White House news conference in March 2015.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — As 10 months of U.S.-Taliban peace talks enter their final stage, President Ashraf Ghani is doubling down on his determination to hold presidential elections five weeks from now, as scheduled, while his aides are hurriedly prepping negotiators to meet with Taliban leaders even sooner if a deal is reached with U.S. officials.

Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term, has rejected concerns raised by a variety of critics, who say that peace is a higher priority than elections and that politics cannot be allowed to interfere in the country's first real chance to end an 18-year war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

The peace talks entered their ninth round Friday in Qatar, and both sides said they hope to work out the final issues soon. Under a current draft agreement, 5,000 U.S. troops would leave in coming months and an additional 9,000 by next year. In return, the Taliban would cut ties with al-Qaida. Still unclear is whether the insurgents would agree to a permanent cease-fire and to talks with Kabul officials.

In an interview this week on ToloNews TV, Ghani said he would not accept a delay in the Sept. 28 polls even if the insurgents were to announce a cease-fire. The Taliban, he said, "are a part of this country, but they are not the determinant of the fate of this country." He said his job as president is "to save the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ... to save the system at any cost."

The president's comments came as national election officials announced that at least 2,000 of about 7,400 polling stations will not open on election day because they cannot be protected. The Taliban have threatened to attack election sites across the country, and most shuttered polls will be in insurgent-plagued provinces. The Taliban control nearly half of the nation's 400 districts.

Various Afghan commentators have accused Ghani, 70, of putting his political ambitions ahead of the public's overwhelming desire for peace. Some say he wants to dominate the intra-Afghan peace talks because he has been sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks at the insistence of the insurgents. The Afghan-to-Afghan talks will frame a future power-sharing arrangement.

"The president who represents his nation needs to be flexible and listen to their demands . . not to act as dictators do," wrote the editors of the daily Afghanistan Times newspaper Saturday. "What is most important for people is a lasting peace," they wrote. "We can hold elections later," when stability returns and more voters can turn out to choose their next leader.

Aides to Ghani said he believes the government must enter Taliban talks with a strong mandate, which only elections can provide. Ghani's term ended in May but was extended by the Supreme Court. They also said he is determined to protect the democratic rights and institutions built since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. The insurgents want to create an Islamist emirate.

"For a lot of us, what's at stake is the survival of the Republic," said Nader Nadery, a senior aide to the president. "An election and peace talks don't necessarily contradict each other."

With most candidates running on a peace platform, even an election with low turnout is "better than an extended term with no mandate," he said. "We don't have the luxury of saying let's postpone the elections to get more credibility."

Nadery said the government has been working fast to prepare for talks with the Taliban, which could come within weeks if a deal is struck with the United States. A small group of delegates is being trained in the art of negotiation and an array of political leaders have been named to a consultative council. Forums for national and international input are being arranged.

Still, many Afghans fear a hasty U.S. withdrawal will leave their leaders with little ammunition to pressure the insurgents. On Saturday, a Taliban spokesman tweeted a video showing the chief Taliban negotiator telling a gathering that U.S. forces are "on the run" and will leave very soon. "Americans are facing defeat," he said. "Afghanistan will be free again."

Ghani is facing 16 contenders, led by his government's former chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and a former intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil. His strongest rival, former national security adviser Hanif Atmar, has quit the race. Few others have held campaign events or put up street posters, and Ghani is expected to win if elections are held.

Some critics have accused the president of unfairly using the perks of office, as well as the power of incumbency, to counteract public disappointment in his government's failure to provide security and jobs, and to engineer a fraudulent victory at the polls.

Ghani has denied the allegations, while embarking on a high-profile campaign that includes TV ads asking the voters to "trust me again" and flights to rallies in far-flung provinces. The capital has been flooded with giant posters of Ghani's image, including one that just went up on a 30-foot-high blast wall and shows the former World Bank official wearing a huge yellow turban.
 

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