KABUL — As 10 months of U.S.-Taliban peace talks enter their final stage, President Ashraf Ghani is doubling down on his determination to hold a presidential election in five weeks, as scheduled, while aides are hurriedly prepping negotiators to meet with Taliban leaders even sooner if a deal is reached with U.S. officials.
Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term, has rejected concerns raised by critics, who say peace is a higher priority than elections, and politics cannot be allowed to interfere in the country’s first real chance to end an 18-year war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ghani’s government is not a party to the U.S.-Taliban talks.
The negotiations entered their ninth round Friday in Qatar, and both sides said they hope to work out the final issues soon. Under a draft agreement, the United States would withdraw 5,000 troops in coming months and could pull out 9,000 more by next year. The Taliban, in return, would cut ties with al-Qaeda.
Still unclear is whether the insurgents would agree to a permanent cease-fire and to talks with the government. A Taliban spokesman said Saturday the agreement would be completed after discussions on implementation and “some technical points.” Both sides rejected reports Saturday that they had agreed to form an interim government in Kabul.
Ghani said last week he would not accept a delay in the Sept. 28 polls even if the insurgents were to announce a cease-fire. The Taliban, he told ToloNews TV, “are a part of this country, but they are not the determinant of the fate of this country.” He said his job as president is “to save the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan . . . to save the system at any cost.”
The president’s comments came as national election officials announced that at least 2,000 of about 7,400 polling stations will not open on election day because they cannot be protected. The Taliban has threatened to attack election sites across the country, and most of the stations that will not open are in insurgent-plagued provinces. The Taliban controls nearly half of the nation’s 400 districts.
Critics have accused Ghani, a 70-year-old former World Bank official, of putting his political ambitions ahead of the public’s overwhelming desire for peace.
Some say he wants to dominate the intra-Afghan peace talks, which are planned to start after the United States and the Taliban reach a deal, because he has been sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks at the insistence of the insurgents. The Afghan-to-Afghan talks will be aimed at framing a future power-sharing arrangement.
“The president who represents his nation needs to be flexible and listen to their demands . . . not to act as dictators do,” the Afghanistan Times wrote Saturday.
“What is most important for people is a lasting peace,” the newspaper opined. “We can hold elections later,” when stability returns and more voters can turn out to choose their next leader.
Aides to Ghani said he believes the government must enter talks with the Taliban with a strong mandate, which only elections can provide. Ghani’s term ended in May but was extended by the Supreme Court.
Aides said he is determined to protect the democratic rights and institutions built since a U.S.-led force overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
The insurgents want to create an Islamist emirate.
“For a lot of us, what’s at stake is the survival of the Republic,” said Nader Nadery, a senior aide to the president. With most candidates running on a peace platform, even an election with low turnout is “better than an extended term with no mandate,” he said.
“We don’t have the luxury of saying ‘Let’s postpone the elections to get more credibility.’ ”
Nadery said the government has been working quickly to prepare for talks with the Taliban, which could come within weeks if a deal is struck with the United States. A small group of delegates is being trained in the art of negotiation, and an array of political leaders have been named to a consultative council.
Still, many Afghans fear a hasty U.S. withdrawal will leave their leaders with little leverage to pressure the insurgents. On Saturday, a Taliban spokesman tweeted a video showing the chief Taliban negotiator telling a gathering that U.S. forces are “on the run” and will leave very soon.
“Americans are facing defeat,” the negotiator said. “Afghanistan will be free again.”
Ghani is facing 16 contenders, led by his government’s former chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah.
His strongest rival, former national security adviser Hanif Atmar, has quit the race.
Ghani is expected to win, but Abdullah showed some strength on Sunday with a boisterous rally in the capital that drew several thousand women and key ethnic Hazara leaders who had previously supported Atmar.
“We are seeing a revolution here today,” Babur Farahmand, one of Abdullah’s two running mates, told the cheering crowd. Today’s Afghan women, he said, “don’t want to be window dressing. They want to be active in politics and all fields. . . . We will be with you!”
Some critics have accused the president of unfairly using the power of his office and the purse, such as offering people senior posts and advisory roles and spending lavishly on his campaign, to enhance his prospects of reelection.
Some say his administration has too much power to sway election officials, who are technically independent.
Ghani has rejected the charges while embarking on a high-profile campaign that includes TV ads asking the voters to “trust me again” and rallies in far-flung provinces. The capital has been plastered with giant posters of Ghani’s image, including one on a 30-foot-high blast wall that shows the former Johns Hopkins professor wearing a white tribal turban.