Afghan momentum on peace, election slows to a crawl
By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: December 29, 2018
KABUL — Just 10 days ago, Afghanistan finally seemed to be moving forward. Peace negotiations with the Taliban were gaining traction and the country's neighbors were playing a newly positive role. National polls had been set for April, and President Ashraf Ghani appeared strongly positioned for reelection. The U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, was so optimistic that he told the U.N. Security Council that the chance of settling the Afghan conflict "has never been more real in the past 17 years than it is now."
Today, it is a very different story. The forward momentum has all but stopped, the news has all been bad, and the country's political future seems more uncertain than ever.
Afghan officials, stunned by President Donald Trump's plan to call back thousands of U.S. troops, have retreated into silence and frantic maneuvering to shore up the government. The election has been thrown into doubt and seems likely to be postponed for months. A brutal unclaimed terrorist assault on two government ministries in the capital left 43 people dead Monday, and the Taliban's leverage in future power-sharing seems stronger than ever.
"The state of play in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly volatile," said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The new uncertainties about peace talks and elections, plus "looming U.S. troop withdrawals and a relentless Taliban insurgency," have created a "powder keg," he said in an email Friday.
Several Afghan observers expressed similar concerns, warning that the potential double whammy of a prolonged but weakened government and a politically strengthened, still-aggressive insurgency could create a power vacuum filled with violence and political turmoil.
"Unfortunately, the timing of the troop cutbacks has fallen right when there was an effort to convince the Taliban to accept a settlement, and at a crucial phase in a new political transition," analyst Haroun Mir said. Now, he said, "the Taliban will have no reason to make meaningful concessions," and it will be equally difficult to hold credible elections on time or to extend the current administration's tenure.
Technically, the election has nothing to do with the peace talks, but the imbroglio over its timing, initially due to concerns over security and fraud, became linked to the talks last month, as U.S. officials pushed for speedy negotiations with the insurgents. Some Afghans and foreign donors urged that the presidential polls be delayed, and a variety of Afghans said an interim caretaker government should be set up to oversee the peace process.
Ghani, then widely viewed as the front-runner and adamantly opposed to an interim government, insisted that the polls be held in April as mandated by the constitution. The national elections commission vacillated for weeks, changing its mind several times. Early this week, the panel indicated that the polls might be delayed by three to four months, but no announcement was made.
At the same time, the abrupt White House decision to cut half of the 14,000 U.S. troops, most serving as trainers and advisers to Afghan forces, upended both the pre-electoral political calculus here and the growing sense of momentum in the peace process, especially after a third round of talks in Abu Dhabi to which half a dozen foreign countries extended support and Taliban leaders sent senior delegates.
When news of Trump's plan broke here, it appeared to many Afghans and others that the Taliban, which had been waging an aggressive ground campaign and killing record numbers of Afghan forces for months, was being handed one of its major longtime demands - that foreign forces leave the country - without having to give up anything in return. There were media reports of Taliban fighters celebrating at the news and predicting that victory was close at hand.
"The fundamental challenge is still how to convince the Taliban to stop fighting," Kugelman said in his email Friday. "With the insurgents poised to gain a major battlefield advantage if thousands of U.S. troops start heading for the exits, the Taliban seemingly has more incentive to take up arms than to lay them down."
American military officials here have insisted that no matter how large or small their troop numbers, U.S. support for Afghanistan will remain steadfast. The senior U.S. commander here, Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, has given several interviews in the past week to emphasize that point. He also made a quick trip to Pakistan, which has strongly supported the peace talks, to deliver the same message to its military chief.
But Afghanistan's military and police forces have struggled with mixed success to overcome long-term morale and institutional problems that foreign advisers can only partly address. Although Ghani has said nothing publicly in response to Trump's decision, he moved swiftly to shore up his security team, appointing two hard-line former intelligence chiefs as his new ministers of defense and interior.
Even more than the fighting, what worries Afghans most is what political, social and religious conditions the extremist Taliban movement might impose on them in return for peace, after nearly 18 years of civilian rule in which Afghanistan has become more modern and free of repression, with extensive legal rights for women.
The beleaguered Afghan president, who took office in 2014 vowing to usher in an era of technocracy, human rights and rule of law, is despised by the Taliban as an American stooge, and the group has refused to negotiate with him. Even before the troop cuts, aides to Ghani expressed concerns that U.S. officials would make too many concessions to the insurgents to win a quick peace.
Now that his government's most important military backer has undercut him without warning, and it appears that elections may be delayed, analysts said Ghani is scrambling to consolidate his political power at all costs, co-opting critics and potential rivals with job offers, and even unofficially freeing an abusive militia commander with a large tribal following.
"The president is going after his political survival," said Najib Mahmoud, a political analyst here, adding that Ghani now hopes he can build a strong-enough team to remain in power if elections are delayed and still prevail at the polls next year. "But everything he is doing shows we have no political stability and no rule of law."
The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.