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With U.S.-Taliban peace talks canceled, Afghan president is on the hot seat

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a ceremony in Kabul on Monday. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
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KABUL — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fretted on the sidelines of history for months, excluded from American negotiations with the Taliban and fending off pressure to postpone an election that could provide him with a fresh mandate to lead his war-battered country to peace.

Now, President Trump’s decision to call off the bilateral talks has abruptly altered that political dynamic, putting Ghani in the spotlight at a moment of national crisis that cries out for leadership and all but guaranteeing that the presidential election will be held as planned on Sept. 28.

As the incumbent who has campaigned vigorously while most of his rivals were not even sure the vote would take place, Ghani is likely to win a second five-year term. His repeated calls for a lasting, Afghan-led peace may find new resonance with voters who feared a U.S. peace deal would leave them vulnerable to a reprise of Taliban cruelty. 

But Ghani, 70, also faces a high risk of failure in dealing with the insurgents, who have proven both shrewd negotiators and ruthless combatants, and who have dismissed his government from the beginning as an American pawn.

“The onus is all on Kabul now, and especially on President Ghani, to come up with a realistic strategy and create a national consensus that can lead to a settlement,” said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “He has often been an opportunist, but this is a chance for him to be a statesman.”

On Monday, one day after news of Trump’s decision to break off the Taliban talks had left Afghans wondering anxiously what would fill the void, Ghani answered them in a speech to a group of security force members. He invited Taliban leaders to talk to their fellow Afghans but warned they must stop killing first or face the wrath of the Afghan military.

“Things have changed now,” he said. “Talks are impossible without a truce. We are ready for peace, but if the Taliban think they can bully us, they should look at these lions, whose response will break their back.” 

Bareheaded and dressed in a plain black jacket instead of his campaign-trail attire of turban and robes, Ghani said the nation had chosen peace but would “not surrender to intimidation.” He mentioned the election indirectly, saying, “Let the nation decide who takes this ship at this time to shore.”

The event in the presidential palace was overshadowed by a day of wild celebrations outside as caravans of former fighters honored Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban militia leader who was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001. The streets echoed with gunfire, and one police official was shot dead.

Elsewhere, the implications of Trump’s decision were on many minds. A few commentators speculated about the strange saga of Ghani’s aborted trip to Washington this past weekend, which Trump tweeted Saturday was part of a secret plan for separate talks with Taliban leaders and Afghan officials. Ghani’s spokesmen have declined to publicly discuss the trip. 

But many other Afghans were looking ahead, anticipating a frenetically revived electoral race, an Afghan peace process that will start from scratch, and the possibility of more Taliban violence in the wake of the abandoned U.S. talks.

Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s current chief executive and top election rival, told a Massoud Day audience that the cancellation of the U.S. talks might offer “an opportunity to open the way for peace that was missed.” He did not mention the election but has said he would drop his candidacy if it would help peace efforts. 

Ghani has said that if he wins, he would be willing to step down afterward in favor of an interim government or other arrangement to further peace negotiations. But he has also insisted that an electoral victory would give him a strong mandate to face the Taliban as a legitimate ruler. 

Ghani’s term technically expired months ago and had to be extended by the Supreme Court after elections were postponed. His election in 2014 was so marred by fraud that a power-sharing deal with Abdullah, his main competitor, had to be brokered by U.S. officials. 

Critics have predicted that the upcoming election will also be discredited. Ghani has been accused of using government funds and powers to increase his chances of winning, which he denies, and of risking voters’ lives by pressing ahead with the vote despite threats of Taliban attacks that have forced 2,000 polling stations to remain closed.

“Trump’s decision has given Ghani new space to maneuver, but he has never been interested in peace, only in the continuation of his government,” said Zubair Shafiqi, a newspaper owner and TV commentator. “I fear the war will intensify, the polls will be rigged, and the results will be contested again, paving the way for an even deeper crisis.”

Hafeez Mansour, a member of parliament from the Jamiat-i-
Islami party, said Ghani had felt “humiliated” by the Taliban for excluding him from the U.S. talks. “Now he is trying to portray himself as the man in charge, but he wants to impose conditions that will infuriate the Taliban. In the short term, we will only see a new wave of fighting.”

Others, however, said they hoped the president will rise to the occasion. 

“Ghani has a lot on his shoulders now, but [the election] is the only show in town. It gives him an opportunity to redeem himself,” Moradian said. “If he shows wisdom in this crisis, he can wash out the stain of the past fraudulent elections and work for peace. Then history will judge him differently.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly represented a quote by Davood Moradian. He was referring to the election, not Ghani, as the “only show in town.” The article has been updated.

Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

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