Wahid Watanyar – ‘Afghanistan at a critical juncture’

Wahid Watanyar is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Heidelberg. His doctoral research project examines the development of political parties in Afghanistan and explores the factors impacting the development of parties’ organization, formation, and disappearance. His doctoral work is being sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

The last decade tells us that political unpredictability increases in Afghanistan after every presidential election. This time it is, unfortunately, no different. It has been more than eight months after the election, and the full cabinet is pending announcement. The election itself was mired in some controversy, as both major candidates declared victories. As the incumbent president Ashraf Ghani declared himself the winner, the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah blamed him for electoral manipulation and declared himself the winner. Simultaneous swearing-in ceremonies were held by both in Kabul – the deadlock only ended after a deal between two in May 2020, as a power-sharing mechanism was agreed to by both.

On the other hand, the Afghan government still faces the Taliban as the fundamental challenge to both its legitimacy and, possibly, existence. It is crucial to note that the Taliban have been pursuing both military and political strategies now, with modest successes in both. They destroyed government facilities, government-funded infrastructure and public work projects, and targeted ethnic and religious minorities. The increase in military engagement with the Taliban has also meant an increase in civil causalities due to the conflict over the years. Politically, the Taliban are in negotiation with the USA over the withdrawal of the US forces and in the light of the Afghan peace process. This has strengthened their position as a political actor. When coupled with the fact that the Taliban control/contest approximately 40 percent of the Afghan territory, the Afghan government is faced with a difficult problem, that is, whether there is a political solution to the peace process, how this would engage all the relevant groups, and what would be the terms of such a political solution.

The Afghan government dilemma

In 2014, Afghanistan had to face two major political transformations. On the one hand, there was a major withdrawal of the international troops from Afghanistan. This led the country to face a threefold transition process: military, security, and economics. The remaining NATO forces in the country were thought to mainly provide advice on strategy development and troop training and to conduct airstrikes against Taliban targets. On the other hand, Afghanistan held the third presidential election of the post-Taliban phase in 2014. Both presidential candidates then came up with a National Unity Government (NUG). There were some doubts about whether NUG would survive the major withdrawal of NATO forces from the country. However, with some air help from the NATO forces and through its own efforts to develop an extensive Afghan military, NUG largely remained steadfast, and major cities and transit routes remained under its control. Yet, the Taliban have also increased in both power and legitimacy, after the withdrawal of the main NATO contingent, as this withdrawal entailed a success in repelling foreign presence on the Afghan soil through their, rather than NUG’s, efforts. This gives us an oportunity to evaluate NUG’s overall political and governance success.

NUG has not shown remarkable success in the aforementioned transition process. The provincial council elections are still lagging. The electoral processes have been questioned by independent observers who voice concerns related to transparency and manipulation. At present, the Wolesi Jirga (lower parliamentary house) has still not elected all its members. Further, the government has been aiming to reform public administration with uneven success. This can be attributed to the fact that political loyalty and ethnic markers still play a crucial institutional role. This is compounded by the government‘s reliance on external aid flows that have made the Afghan economy unstable and dependent. The Afghan economy faces pressures at the moment due to the climate change-related factors, increasing conflict with the Taliban and political problems in the region. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation has exposed the faults in the existing Afghan government structure, especially that of systemic corruption.

However, it would be uncharitable to say that the Afghan government has not achieved anything. It has taken some measures to reduce corruption and to empower women. The Office of the President has been active in ensuring that civil servants, especially young graduates, are appointed meritocratically. However, the extent to which such appointments have supplanted traditional political and ethnic affiliation in public administration remains unclear. Furthermore, the lack of transparancy, together with the absence of willingness to implement major reforms, has led to democratic backsliding, thus undermining success in other aras.

Ongoing US-Taliban peace talk and what next?

This brings me back to where I started: the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government has been beset by some political, governance-related, and economic problems. The Taliban had been a threat to it, initially military and now politically as well. Entering into negotiation directly with the US-government has given the Taliban some legitimacy in the international community. The Afghan government, on the other hand, has generally perceived such talks as one that might affect is own political legitimacy.

As the Taliban signed a ceasefire agreement with the US on 29 February 2020, they have increased their pressure on the Afghan army in order to demonstrate their military strength and disqualify the Afghan government politically, keeping in mind that they have also been excluded from the US- Taliban negotiation process. From this perspective, the Taliban have been using armed engagement; and alternatively, to give their movement and political objectives some legitimacy, they have sought political arenas. One of the tipping points of the US-Taliban deal and condition for the intra-Afghan talk was the release of 5000 thousand Taliban prisoners, and, in exchange, the release of Afghan security and governmental personnel by the Taliban.

The process was marked by mistrust and challenges from the beginning, as the Afghan government showed reluctance. Each release of prisoners has been preceded by an uptick in armed violence, especially with the Afghan government claiming that they have been sidelined in the peace talks. Similarly, the Afghan government criticized the Taliban‘s growing violence against the Afghan military forces and their attitudes towards the Afghan government as a illegitimate partner in the peace talks. The last bone of contention was the 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners, which the Afghan government deemed high profile and did not release. President Ghani called the Loya Jirga, or a traditional Afghan council of tribal elders, community leaders, and politicians to advise the government on this issue. Following three days of deliberation, the Loya Jirga decided to release the remaining Taliban on 9 August 2020.  However, the process continues to face obstacles both internally and externally, as the governments of France and Australia have made some reservations and as some of the Afghan political and social voices remain skeptical and caution the government to slow the release process. After almost three weeks of the decision, the release of 320 Taliban prisoners is pending on the condition that Taliban also release 20 special services soldiers of Afghan military. The pressure by Western governments on the Afghan government must also be kept in mind. However, this might also derail the upcoming planned peace summit.

One can finally hope that this would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government, though the outcomes remain to be seen. Both the peace negotiations and the release of prisoners have been hailed by the Taliban as its victory after two-decades of efforts. It is quite clear that sidelining the Afghan government during the initial US-Taliban peace talks, due to the Taliban reservations, had some effect on the negotiating position of the Afghan government. While power-sharing could be agreed by both parties, whether the model would be an Islamic Emirate or Islamic democracy remains an open question. The Taliban have been, at least in their official pronouncements until now, advocating for the Emirate. This has major effects on the ongoing negotiations. On the one hand, the Taliban believe that they might be in a position to impose their political will on the negotiation table, given their military and political successes. On the other hand, it is still expected that negotiations should build on post-Taliban democratic achievements. In sum, then, it is hoped that peace would finally come to Afghanistan, though it remains unclear under what and whose terms.

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