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Uncertainty over election and U.S.-Taliban peace talks leaves Afghanistan in limbo

Afghan men offer Eid al-Adha prayer Sunday in downtown Kabul. (Hedayatullah Amid/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

KABUL — With Taliban-U.S. peace talks failing to reach a hoped-for breakthrough this week, and the insurgents threatening to attack Afghan presidential elections next month, Afghans fear that one or both efforts will fail, leaving the country in political limbo.

As the Muslim society emerges from Eid al-Adha, a period of religious celebration and animal sacrifice that ended Wednesday, new doubts about the peace negotiations and the election have dampened the national mood and intensified debate about whether the Sept. 28 polls should be postponed to give priority to the push for peace. 

President Ashraf Ghani, whose chances for reelection surged last week when his strongest competitor quit the race, declared in an Eid speech Sunday that the election is “vital” to the nation. He listed his government’s achievements, including a three-day cease-fire with the Taliban 14 months ago, and assured the public that “peace with dignity” would soon be theirs.

But on Monday, the top U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the latest talks with Taliban officials in Qatar had ended and that he was returning to Washington for consultations. Khalilzad’s terse statement contrasted with previous upbeat tweets hinting that a deal was imminent. A Taliban spokesman said the talks had been “long and useful.”

Many Afghans view a likely U.S.-Taliban agreement as chiefly benefiting the insurgents, whose major demand is the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the Trump administration, which wants most troops out as soon as possible and hopes to secure a deal well before the end of September. 

But what really matters to Afghans is the other process that is supposed to follow the deal: negotiations between Taliban and Afghan leaders over a future power-sharing arrangement. Many issues will be at stake, from women’s rights to the survival of democratic institutions that have taken root since the fall of Taliban rule in 2001.

In male-dominated Afghanistan, justice for women is complicated

“To me, peace is a hundred times more important than elections,” said Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, a vice-presidential running mate of Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s chief executive, who is challenging Ghani at the polls for the second time after a tumultuous contested election in 2014. “If there is no peace agreement before September, we need to postpone the elections for at least several months.”

Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief who is one of 16 other presidential candidates, said he worries that regardless of who wins, the factional and ethnic battles of an election campaign may infect the intra-Afghan peace talks, pitting a fragmented elite against a triumphant, unified Islamist militia.

“To confront the Taliban, we need a national consensus on the future. An election will only divide us,” Nabil said. He is also worried about insurgent violence and fraud allegations marring the polls, and he has already canceled one campaign rally after receiving threats. “If we have a bad election after a bad peace deal,” he said, “the Taliban will win twice.”

Many voters are similarly discouraged and confused. Several Kabul residents said this week they had little interest in the election but were praying for peace. Some recalled the short-lived cease-fire last year as a ray of hope that was soon extinguished in months of relentless Taliban attacks that have cost hundreds of civilian lives.

In remarkable scenes, Taliban fighters join Eid celebrations across Afghanistan as cease-fire begins

People widely expect Ghani would win reelection, especially now that Hanif Atmar, his former national security adviser, has dropped out of the race. Many expressed disappointment with Ghani’s leadership though. They also fear that if American troops begin to leave the country under a deal with the Taliban, the insurgents would shrug off their promises to U.S. officials and harden their stance on issues such as personal freedoms and religious controls.

“All Afghans are thirsty for peace. Only with peace will we find security and jobs. But it is hard to trust in the Taliban’s peace,” said Abdul Hamid Faizi, 37, a taxi driver. He said a U.S.-Taliban peace deal “will not end the war” and that a foreign troop withdrawal is “not in the interest of Afghans.”

Hamid Bakhshi, 23, who sells auto parts, said the Ghani government was “incompetent” and had failed to keep the country safe. His worst fear is that after American forces leave, the country could erupt in civil war as it did in the 1990s. “The Afghan people will not let the Taliban grab power. It will be like mujahideen time again,” he said. 

A senior aide to Ghani, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, also expressed concern that the United States would make too many concessions to the insurgents. But he said elections would strengthen a new government’s ability to negotiate domestic peace. Talks with a variety of unelected ethnic and political leaders, he said, would be “an invitation to civil war and fragmentation again.”

Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, said the best course for the country would be a “good, credible election” that “injects positive energy into politics and peace.” Second best would be to postpone the elections, he said, but only if the Taliban agrees to a permanent cease-fire and allows Afghan officials to participate in talks. 

If an election is held but results are contested, as happened in the last two presidential elections, Moradian said an interim government might have to be formed, including the Taliban. 

“The Taliban have achieved a withdrawal of U.S. troops and delegitimized the Afghan government,” he said, referring to reports that a likely deal will remove thousands of troops in the coming months. “They are not in a mood to share power, but they don’t realize how much Afghanistan has changed. The system is chaotic, but it functions. No one here would welcome Taliban rule. That’s why we need credible elections — to save the Afghan republic, and to save the peace.”

Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this story.

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