Afghans and Americans both deserve better Afghan leadership
Peace negotiations are stalled. Taliban attacks are increasing. COVID-19 is spreading in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan’s leaders are spending their time feuding over power and the division of ministerial spoils. The Afghan and America people deserve better. How did we get here, and what needs to be done?
America’s agreement with the Taliban is not a peace agreement but, rather, an agreement for the withdrawal of American forces. Hope remains that this agreement could lead to the start of real peace negotiations — but even if they start, the road to peace will be long. The difficult U.S. negotiations contained a serious slip at the end. The agreement states that the Afghan government will release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for the release of 1,000. However, the Afghan government had agreed only to “best efforts” toward such a release. Moving from a pledge to work on the issue to a firm U.S. commitment appears to have lacked Afghan government consent and to have surprised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Since the prisoners are one of the few cards Ghani holds to leverage Taliban negotiations, it is not surprising that he refused.
Although some prisoners are being released — but not those the Taliban most want — the dispute has given the Taliban a pretext to refuse to start negotiations. The U.S. is left having to press our ally for more concessions and implore the Taliban to start talks. This may yet work. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, having made commendable progress to get this far, is working to get the negotiations going. But getting to actual peace remains a long way away. Even to get to this point, the U.S. had to give up its long-sought goal of having the Taliban agree to break ties with al Qaeda. Instead, we have only a paper promise that the Taliban will not let any movement organize attacks against America or its allies from Afghanistan — a weak promise at best.
The Taliban are continuing the war. As two recent reports by the Afghan Analysts Network have documented, after a week of lowered attacks during the so-called reduction in violence period, Taliban attacks have steadily increased. U.S. and NATO airstrikes have responded to some of the Taliban attacks and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have insisted that troop withdrawal beyond the first phase is “conditional” and could be halted. But the conditions have not been spelled out in public, so America’s resolve is unclear. And the Taliban continue to attack.
Taliban attacks, propaganda that proclaims they are winning, and their demand for more prisoner releases all suggest that the Taliban feel no urgency about serious negotiations. They may yet get serious if they believe they cannot win militarily — but that, in turn, depends on both the clarity of American purpose and the strength of the Afghan government in Kabul. And strength in Kabul is conspicuously lacking. While America has made many mistakes in Afghanistan, the current political crisis is an Afghan problem.
President Ghani and his chief rival, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, took power in 2014 in the National Unity Government. Neither really liked the arrangement but each promised electoral reform to ensure a better future. Years of squabbling, reinforced by parliamentary maneuvering, were far more about trying to weigh the process in favor of one side or the other than about real reform. The parliamentary elections of 2018 had somewhat reduced fraud but were an administrative disaster. The long postponed presidential elections on Sept. 28, 2019, led to more squabbling and disputed votes.
The Afghan constitution requires a runoff if no candidate wins over 50 percent of the votes. President Ghani claimed victory with 50.64 percent of the vote. This tally, which Abdullah disputes, is far less than a clear mandate in an election with the lowest voter turnout, estimated at between 20 and 25 percent of registered voters, of any Afghan election to date.
The result is a continued political standoff. Ghani and Abdullah both have declared victory while negotiating a solution for weeks. The outline of a settlement — Abdullah heading peace negotiations and getting 40 percent of the ministries — seems agreed to in principle but there is a standoff over the details. When they do reach agreement, it is likely to be no more than a pause before the squabbles resume as each side tries to undercut the other.
Nothing that is in contention is about policy or the good of Afghanistan. The argument between the two leaders, urged on by hungry supporters who want a piece of the spoils, is about power. Meanwhile, governance is in doubt and the country is beleaguered on every side.
The U.S. is rightly appalled by the actions of Afghan leaders. Secretary Pompeo has threatened to cut off $1 billion of aid. He is right to insist that Afghan leaders must find their own solution. In the meantime, the essentially selfish behavior of Afghan leaders is doing nothing to benefit the Afghan people. Both leaders need to rethink their responsibility to their people and their place in history.
Ronald E. Neumann is a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan who has frequently returned to Afghanistan.