Genuine partners?

May 20, 2020

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The writer is a political risk analyst.
The writer is a political risk analyst.

THE much-awaited political settlement signed between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah has been welcomed internationally and is being positioned as a reconciliation effort to end the political impasse. Whether it will succeed in setting aside clashing political interests and progress sustained Afghan peace talks that can produce a negotiated end to years of violence, remains questionable.

The agreement comes as Afghanistan deals with the health and economic impact of Covid-19, renewed tribal clashes, corruption, and an uptick in violence. Afghans are still reeling from the militant attack on the maternity ward in Kabul that killed 24 civilians, including nurses, mothers and newborns. The government has responded to the Kabul attack with the resumption of a military offensive against the Taliban, though the group has denied responsibility.

As the Taliban intensify their attacks on Afghan security forces, an Afghan military campaign will see only limited success. Similarly, a political agreement is unlikely to put to rest the entrenched policy disagreements and mistrust that exist between Ghani and Abdullah camps. Whether the two can build a genuine partnership, and set aside ethnic and political fractures while navigating a fragile peace process, remains to be seen.

Although the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan declared Ghani the winner of the September 2019 poll, his victory was rejected by Abdullah amid allegations of voter fraud. Just days after the US and Taliban signed a peace deal, Ghani and Abdullah took separate oaths of office and formed parallel governments, plunging Afghanistan into a deeper political crisis and further jeopardising the peace process. Although only Ghani’s government was internationally recognised (reluctantly) it has struggled to commence intra-Afghan talks.

The future of Afghans should not depend on political egos.

Ghani commands a weak mandate, having won 50.6 per cent of the votes in an election where turnout was barely 20pc. Under the new agreement, Abdullah will no longer have a formal role in the government but will appoint 50pc of the cabinet, thereby maintaining political influence. Ghani’s legitimacy will continue to face challenges as Abdullah’s cabinet appointees hinder Ghani’s administrative decision-making and key policy agendas, particularly on defence and foreign policy.

Ultimately, control of the peace process is the real prize, and Abdullah seems to have secured it. He will serve as chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, which will lead peace talks with the Taliban. Although Ghani attempted to secure influence in charting out the peace process, he was undermined when the US signed a direct deal with the Taliban. Abdullah has positioned himself as the new architect of Afghanistan’s future. He will command greater control than Ghani over key decisions and political concessions linked to the peace process; even if it undermines Ghani’s authority.

Abdullah has contested and lost three presidential elections. His unwillingness to agree to a power-sharing agreement with Ghani following the latest contest indicates his desire to secure a role that will earn him a place in Afghanistan’s history books beyond a sole chapter or forgotten footnotes. Abdullah’s experience of mediating with different tribal leaders and power brokers equips him with the prowess needed to form consensus within an Afghan negotiating team, which currently remains unclear on its negotiating position and sceptical of the peace process.

Although Abdullah’s appointment as key Afghan negotiator will breathe new life into a stalled peace process, it will also attract the heavy burden of blame as fitful talks progress. Abdullah’s legacy may ultimately be marred by the significant political concessions that will undoubtedly be granted to the Taliban at the risk of alienating civil rights.

Peace processes are calculated in years and Afghanistan’s experience is not likely to be any different or less complicated. The peace process will face multiple delays and will see even more setbacks once it formally begins. Violence and war will be a constant feature. The Taliban derive their negotiating power and legitimacy from their capacity for violence. Any ceasefire that the group agrees to during negotiations will thus be prone to violations.

The future of the Afghan people cannot be dependent on the political egos of two men, but it will be. Political tensions will come to the fore as a challenging peace process demands difficult concessions and Ghani and Abdullah disagree on the future of Afghanistan’s political set-up. As attacks increase and babies become casualties, time is not on the Afghan government’s side. The Abdullah-Ghani settlement will have to hold strong if it hopes to battle the multiple hurdles blocking the road towards a stable and secure future of Afghanistan.

The writer is a political risk analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2020