The Taliban and their supporters are on the crest of a victory in Afghanistan. The United States under President Donald Trump has finally recognised the Taliban as a legitimate partner in a political settlement of the Afghan conflict. The week of reduced violence - a result of 18 months of US-Taliban peace negotiations - is meant to open the way for dialogue between the militia and other Afghan parties, most importantly the government, for a viable and lasting settlement and staged withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Yet, there is a major hurdle: Afghan politics is in a total mess, with no publicly mandated credible government in Kabul to form an all-inclusive group to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of strength.
Ashraf Ghani has recently been declared the winner of the presidential election which took place on September 28, 2019, but by less than 1 million votes in a country with an estimated 37 million population. His claim of victory is hollow and an affront to any democratic notion of legitimacy. Turnout at the election was the lowest ever since the first presidential election in 2004, in the wake of the US-led intervention. Out of 15 million eligible voters, 9 million registered to vote, but only 1.8 million cast their vote, primarily for two reasons: the public's disillusionment with their leaders as corrupt and self-seeking, and the threat of punishment by the Taliban. Ghani's main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has rejected Ghani's win as fraudulent and has embarked on forming his own government.
A main reason that the US lost the Vietnam War was because it lacked an effective partner in Saigon.
Abdullah and seven other presidential candidates have accused Ghani of engineering his victory through dubious, unethical and scandalous practices. Ghani's term of office expired in May 2019, but the Supreme Court's ruling enabled him to remain in his position, and act not as an interim but rather an actual head of state. During this period, he enacted many decrees to fill senior cabinet, security and public service positions with his own ethnic Pashtun supporters.
In the process, he totally ignored his partner, Abdullah, in the National Unity Government - which was essentially forged by the former American secretary of state, John Kerry, in the 2014 election since the two main contenders, Ghani and Abdullah, had each claimed victory over the other. He also completely overlooked the fact that Afghanistan is a land of minorities, with the tribally divided Pashtuns making up about 42 percent of the population, and that the most viable option for Afghanistan is to have a national coalition government, representing all minorities on a proportional basis.
The Trump administration is at least partly responsible for the current messy Afghan political situation. Its prime goal has been to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban - America's erstwhile terrorist enemies - so that America can make a military exit, and thus fulfil one of President Trump's election promises. It has found it expedient to let US-educated, compliant Ghani shore up his power in whatever way feasible as a necessary evil.
Yet a main reason that the US lost the Vietnam War was because it lacked an effective partner in Saigon. The same fate befell the Soviets in Afghanistan, as they could never manage to have a united and workable government in Kabul. The highly factionalised People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan constantly tore itself apart.
Trump's Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, the American-Afghan Zalmay Khalilzad, who comes from the same tribal Pashtun background as Ghani, has worked hard since September 2018 to kick-start an all-Afghan peace dialogue so that the process is seen as Afghan-owned and led, but to no avail. The Taliban has persistently rejected the Afghan government as a "puppet", and preconditioned any settlement with the US on a firm and acceptable timetable of withdrawal of foreign troops. The militia is now on the verge of achieving this when it signs an agreement with the US on Saturday as an equal partner under the glaring eyes of the international community - a development similar to Kim Jong-un's staged-managed appearances with President Trump.
Meanwhile, the Ghani leadership will struggle to coalesce an all-inclusive delegation to negotiate with the Taliban in the event of that happening. Divisions between the President and other parties are deep and wide, making the task of negotiating a workable power-sharing settlement that could prevent the Taliban from returning to power all the more difficult.
What was urgently needed for a viable political settlement and for a US and allied troop exit was a clean and fraud-free popular presidential election to have taken place. A valuable opportunity has been missed, and the future of Afghanistan continues to remain dangerously in the balance for the foreseeable future.
- Amin Saikal is a former Foundation Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, and the author of Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival.