Two presidents, one country, the Taleban are having the laugh in Afghanistan
Shahab Jafry
You can bet that while last week’s rather strange developments in Afghanistan worried most stakeholders in and outside the country, especially the Americans, the Taleban would have surely had a good laugh about how things played out.
It was odd enough that President Ashraf Ghani was finally inaugurated for a second term almost six months after winning yet another disputed election with record low turnout. But his rival and the country’s former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah decided he would not gulp another disputed result, especially since he thought he was winning, and decided to give himself an inauguration of his own in another hall of the same presidential palace at the same time. And, just for good measure, the local Daesh outfit reportedly decided to join the celebrations as well and bomb blasts and gunfire could be heard in the background as people congratulated the two parallel presidents.
Such a spectacle would have been bad, and embarrassing enough, in the best of times. But now, when talks with the Taleban are the government’s number-one agenda, it can make the difference between a peaceful-enough transition and outright civil war.
That is why Abdullah’s gambit is more than just an act of desperation. This was, after all, the third time he contested a thorny election, even seemed like winning sometimes, and then was suddenly declared the loser. He had to just live with it when he lost to former president Hamid Karzai in 2009. Then, in 2014, after clear cheating and a deadlocked result, he was forced to accept a power-sharing formula brokered by Washington and took the back seat to President Ghani. This time, with a big question mark once again hanging over the legitimacy of the result, he’s clearly in no mood to play second fiddle to Ghani just for the good of the system and all that.
But there’s more. Abdullah comes from the old Northern Alliance which, under the late charismatic commander Ahmed Shah Masood, offered the last bit of real resistance to the Taleban till just before 9/11 in what now seems another time from another world. And now, when talks with the Taleban are all the rage and Abdullah is the most senior leader representing the majority of former mujahideen commanders who fought against the Taleban, his support to the peace process will be critical; for appearances’ sake if nothing else. Plus, you can bet he didn’t take the jump without having enough tribal and political leaders on board to frustrate Ghani’s plans if he’s not a big part of them.
And that fact, most likely, is why President Ghani scrambled to announce release of 1,500 Taleban prisoners to take the initiative in the peace process. Just last week, after the Americans had negotiated the prisoner swap with the insurgents – according to which the government would release 5,000 Taleban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan army fighters – Ghani had simply refused. That, of course, delivered a quick kiss of death to the conditional ceasefire and fighting duly resumed.
And now Ghani is backtracking. Having American backing in his feud with Abdullah must be nice, but he knows just what that is worth if on ground sentiment is against him at this crucial juncture when the Americans are leaving and the Taleban are returning.
The Taleban will no doubt see recent paralysis in government as vindication of their earlier position. ‘Now who do we talk to, Ghani or Abdullah?’ they will no doubt say. Let’s not forget that the Americans have already started reducing their numbers, according to the deal with the Taleban, and the insurgents still have the initiative on the ground.
Unless Ghani and Abdullah can overcome their differences in the blink of an eye and get the government suddenly working like a well-oiled machine, neither of which is very likely, Afghanistan seems doomed to return once more to bloody civil war.
“History rarely repeats itself in Afghanistan; rather it echoes,” bestselling author William Dalrymple once said when explaining the parallels between different superpower misadventures in the country. And, sure enough, it is echoing once again. In the early 1990s, just after the fall of Dr Najibullah’s government, the mujahideen found themselves engaged in a fierce civil war as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar simply refused to accept Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government. That, as everybody no doubt remembers, created the power vacuum that was ultimately filled by the Taleban in 1996.
Now as before, with Abdullah Abdullah refusing to accept Ashraf Ghani as president, Afghanistan once more seems sleepwalking into civil war. And once again it’s the Taleban that stands to benefit the most. The way things are going, it’s a safe bet that Kabul will be unable to get its act together in time, the Americans will continue leaving, the Taleban will continue fighting and gaining ground, and Afghanistan will once again descend into internal war.