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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (centre) arrives at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Nov 1 | Bloomberg
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (centre) arrives at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Nov 1 | Bloomberg

An important upcoming milestone for Afghanistan’s Western-backed democracy and a separate, crucial chance to settle the country’s 17-year war appear to be crashing into each other.

The country’s presidential election, planned for April 20, is already roiling the political atmosphere. As President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking a second term, and an array of potential rivals try to form winning coalitions, observers fear the race could divide the country along dangerous ethnic lines.

At the same time, momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special US peace envoy pushing the process hard and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time ever. But they have insisted that they will not deal directly with the Ghani government, instead reportedly meeting US officials in Qatar and then attending a recent pro-peace conference in Moscow.

The country’s presidential election, planned for April 20, is already roiling the political atmosphere alongside the steadily building momentum for talks with the Taliban

As both developments accelerate, some Afghan and Western voices have begun questioning whether the peace process may need to come first, rather than competing on a parallel track that could enmesh the election run-up in battles over the cost of peace and sabotage the first steps toward reconciliation.

“The constitution is not as important as peace. If peace can be restored, then the elections will have to be delayed for it,” Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University, told the Weesa Daily newspaper.

Jawed Ludin, a former top aide to the previous president, Hamid Karzai, wrote in a recent opinion piece that the election could be a “major opportunity” for strengthening the country’s democracy but that it could also prove a “serious threat” to the continued strength and stability of the system.

Press reports this week that the Trump administration is considering asking the Ghani government to delay the election and prioritise the peace process could not be confirmed. There were also unconfirmed reports that the US peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, had broached the same idea in private talks with Taliban representatives.

Last week, the US ambassador in Kabul, John Bass, said in an online post and tweet: “We remain committed to helping the electoral commissions and the Afghan government prepare for presidential elections in April 2019. Timing of Afghan elections is for Afghans to decide.”

The Ghani government has insisted that the polls will take place on time, in accordance with the Afghan constitution. It has rejected a variety of alternative proposals from Afghan political groups, such as holding a national assembly of elders or creating an interim government while the peace process continues.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban, but after a brief truce in June, the insurgents returned to an aggressive military campaign and sought other foreign interlocutors. Last week at the meeting in Moscow, Taliban representatives denounced Ghani and his government, which sent only inexperienced appointees who said little.

“This was a big win for Russian diplomacy and Taliban public relations, and a big loss for the Afghan government,” said Kabul analyst Harris Wadan. Shortly after the meeting, the insurgents launched attacks in previously safe areas of Ghazni province, sending hundreds of people fleeing to other regions.

The political effect of these diplomatic and battlefield maneouvers has been to weaken the Ghani government’s credibility and incumbent advantage. This could potentially turn the race into a nasty free-for-all, with powerful former warlords either running or playing kingmakers, while Taliban leaders keep stretching out the peace process and prosecuting the war.

“The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani and his government because they do not consider it legitimate,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst in Kabul. Whether the president is re-elected or replaced, the results will probably be marred by charges of fraud, Mir added, giving the next government “a tainted legitimacy” and further strengthening the Taliban’s position in negotiating with the US.

The outcome of the election will “tremendously impact the peace talks,” Mir said. If the Afghan elite remains fragmented and cannot build a united front against the insurgents, they will make few major concessions in talks. “At this stage, we need a leader who is able to bring people together rather than deepening political and ethnic rifts,” he said.

Younus Qanooni, a senior figure in the main ethnic Tajik opposition group, warned that the election presents a “very dangerous challenge” that could “divide the country” between the Pakhtun south and the ethnic-minority-led north. He said this risk was “far greater” than in the 2014 presidential election, which was so badly flawed that the US had to broker a power-sharing arrangement between Ghani and his top rival.

The Taliban, whose members are Pakhtun, has listed several demands for potential peace talks that would be very difficult for many Afghans to accept, such as implementing full Islamic law, keeping control of southern provinces and changing the constitution.

Despite the public’s urgency to end the war, many Afghans are fearful that the price of peace will be too high. The insurgents have separate demands for US officials, especially that all foreign forces withdraw and foreign military bases be closed.

Sayed Salahuddin reported from Kabul
By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 25th, 2018