With Kabul and the Taliban struggling to maintain or regain political power, Afghanistan’s peace prospects are stuck as both maneuver for primacy after the US withdraws its troops.
President Ashraf Ghani and Kabul’s political elite are clearly reluctant to relinquish any power to the Taliban, as the US recently suggested in a transitional power-sharing arrangement.
Thus when Ghani recently made his “offer of peace” to the Taliban, he made sure it came with enough caveats to allow him to stay at the apex of power in a “government of peacebuilding” tasked with achieving a peace settlement.
Addressing the ninth Heart of Asia conference in Tajikistan, Ghani recently offered to establish a power structure under his command with a mandate to organize an “internationally supervised and monitored presidential election … to ensure a free, fair, and inclusive election process.”
Ghani used the term “a government of peace-building,” which is slightly but significantly different from the two alternate terms the US suggested in its plan, namely an “Islamic power-sharing government” or “Islamic peace government.” The term “Islamic” was a clear concession to the Taliban, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan.
Ghani did not suggest his interim arrangement would open the way for him to step down. On the contrary, he clearly aims to lead the proposed “government of peacebuilding” and hand over power only to an elected successor if he loses a new democratic election.
The Taliban have been demanding a new or heavily amended constitution, one more in line with its Islamic vision but Ghani offered to set up a new government “within the framework of the [current] constitution.”
Ghani’s proposals, while seen as a significant step forward from his previous opposition to any power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, offer no qualitative departure from his previously stated position of refusing to step down.
As Ghani reiterated, any interim government will be largely composed of “the current elected leadership and other Afghans.”
As such, while he continues to posture as the leader of all Afghans, he has conceded only to the extent that “other Afghans” – Afghan political opposition and even the Taliban – could become part of the proposed set up to make it an “intra-Afghan” process.
While Ghani holds firm to his right to rule, his political authority continues to shrink in the face of the Taliban’s continuing battlefield successes and is likely to suffer further if the Taliban start their annual spring offensive later this month.
Given that Ghani’s proposed “government of peacebuilding” will not be different from the present set up in terms of leadership, the Taliban have rejected the proposal out of hand.
The Taliban’s position vis-à-vis Kabul differs in three main ways.
First, statements on the Taliban’s website show how the group feels they have already “won” the war. They have not only been able to withstand the combined power of the US, NATO, and Afghan security forces for almost two decades but have also “forced” the principal “invader” (the US) into negotiating a withdrawal of its forces.
While the Taliban’s “victory statements” have an element of propaganda, the insurgent group’s rising sense of supremacy is clearly shaping and guiding their negotiations with the US, with which it struck an accord in February 2020 in Doha that dictates America must withdraw its troops by May this year.
This is evident from the fact that the US, despite using all sorts of pressure tactics, has not been able to force the Taliban into a ceasefire or even reduce violence vis-à-vis Afghan security forces, although direct attacks on US positions and troops have diminished greatly since the accord was struck.
The Tablian’s claimed victory can be seen in the rising abandonment of dozens of checkpoints and the falling morale of Ghani’s Afghan security forces. Various Taliban statements claim that Afghan troops continue to defect and join the Taliban’s ranks, adding to their sense of superiority and a belief that Kabul, too, will eventually surrender.
Second, the Taliban have rejected Ghani’s proposals because they see every new proposal that deviates even slightly from the Doha pact it reached with the US as unacceptable backtracking. For the Taliban, any deviation from the Doha agreement could amount to losing on the negotiating table what they have fought hard to win on the battlefield.
Third, the Taliban’s acceptance of Ghani’s proposal to become a part of a “government of peacebuilding” would grant him a legitimacy the rebel group is unwilling to give. For years, the Taliban have referred to his government as “illegitimate” and a “puppet” of the US, and to date the group’s leaders are unwilling to negotiate peace under his authority.
For Ghani, if the Taliban join a “peacebuilding” government, it will not only allow him to set the rules for the next elections, it will also allow him to position himself as a “peacemaker” before the polls.
It was likely the same reasons that the Taliban rejected Ghani’s previous proposals in March that offered to hold snap elections within six months or a year right after a peace deal is signed.
Like the latest proposal, the offer to hold snap elections included a provision for the current administration to stay in power until the vote is conducted, giving Ghani the power of incumbency on the campaign trail.
The Taliban rejected this proposal, saying that “such processes (elections) have pushed the country to the verge of crisis in the past… “We will never support it,” a Taliban spokesperson said, adding that any decision on the country’s future must be agreed to in the current negotiations.
As it stands, the Taliban are extremely unlikely to agree to any proposal that either weakens their bargaining position or makes them politically surrender to the present power arrangement or constitution. The Taliban continue to press, both politically and militarily, for negotiations to take place outside of the present constitutional framework, which the group sees as inimical to its interests and vision for the country.
The Taliban’s negotiating position has thus left little to no space for Ghani’s future political role, which explains why Ghani continues to make proposals that serve his immediate and long-term interests.
With peace prospects now trapped between these two competing power centers and visions, it’s unclear if the US can rescue the flagging peace process or will decide instead to reaffirm its military commitment to the country, in defiance of the deal the previous Trump administration brokered with the Taliban.
The Biden administration seems increasingly unlikely to meet the Doha deal’s May 1 deadline for withdrawing US troops, in part on claims the Taliban hasn’t honored its end of the bargain by allowing al Qaeda remnants to remain in the country.
Washington also sees both China and Russia circling over the country and recognizes a US withdrawal will be replaced by a Beijing or Moscow-propped Taliban-led regime. China, for one, has offered to the Taliban to pull the country into its Belt and Road Initiative.
That’s why Ghani’s proposals, while seemingly out of step with Afghanistan’s current ground realities, may still end up carrying the day.