Two presidents, one country. Abdullah Abdullah (L) and Ashraf Ghani (R) were sworn in as Afghan presidents in public ceremonies in adjacent palaces, Kabul, March 9, 2020
Three significant things about Ashraf Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony in Kabul on Monday augur well for the implementation of the US-Taliban pact signed in Doha on February 29.
One, the US officials, civilian and military, made a full court appearance at the ceremony in Kabul, affirming their reconciliation with Ghani. The US special representative for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and US General Scott Miller, the commander of the US-led international force in Afghanistan, attended Ghani’s inauguration, apart from the EU, UN and western diplomats.
Two, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan felicitated Ghani. He wrote on his Tweeter page,“[I] look forward to working with him [Ghani]. Pakistan will do everything it possibly can to bring peace and stability in our region.”
Islamabad and Washington held back from congratulating Ghani when his election victory was formally announced last month. Now they are moving in tandem to engage with the Ghani presidency.
Three, Ghani announced in his speech at the ceremony that he will issue an order on Tuesday itself on the release of the Taliban prisoners. Ghani expressed the hope that the Taliban will reciprocate by significantly reducing violence. Thereby, Ghani is signalling that he will not block intra-Afghan dialogue.
Furthermore, he added that the government’s negotiating team for the intra-Afghan dialogue will also be finalised by Tuesday.
What may be even more significant than the above is that the Taliban is not creating a ruckus over Ghani’s inauguration. A senior figure in the Taliban leadership, Amir Khan Motaqi who is based in Qatar sounded optimistic that peace negotiations with the Afghan government will be “easier” than the Taliban’s marathon talks with the United States (which took around a year and a half).
“We will reach a conclusion with Afghans in a better way – of course with Afghans who consider other Afghans’ interests and do not consider foreigners’ interests,” Motaqi said. Another senior Taliban figure, Anas Haqqani, who was freed from Bagram prison last November, called the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners important and urged the speedy formation of the negotiating team from Kabul so that the intra-Afghan dialogue can commence on March 10, as envisaged under the Doha pact of February 29.
In sum, Ghani’s induction or his change of heart — depending on how one views it — gives traction to the US-Taliban pact signed in Doha.
Contrary to doomsday predictions that the political rift in Kabul between Ghani and the former chief executive Abdullah over the disputed election results — Abdullah held his own inaugural ceremony in Kabul on Monday — would undermine the US-Taliban pact, the opposite seems to be happening.
Ghani’s brinkmanship in the recent weeks served its real purpose, which was to get US support for his presidency and also carve out for himself an influential role in the inter-Afghan dialogue.
Pakistan and the Taliban have wisely kept away from getting embroiled in the Ghani-Abdullah rift and left it to Khalilzad to pacify Ghani.
Ghani apparently didn’t need much persuasion to do the two things that are Khalilzad’s top priority — release of the prisoners and the launch of the intra-Afghan dialogue. It is a fair guess that Khalilzad has struck some sort of deal with Ghani regarding the uncertain future role of the latter’s presidency.
Taliban’s flexibility to hold talks with the Afghan government could be one factor here. Conceivably, Pakistan would have persuaded the Taliban to show flexibility.
If so, this is brilliant tactic on the part of Islamabad and the Taliban. For, once the intra-Afghan dialogue begins, a new dynamic will appear in any case, and, given the fragmentation in the opposite camp, with so many cliques and factions jostling for position, Taliban would have the inherent advantage of being the only cohesive group at the negotiating table.
The US President Donald Trump acknowledged these ground realities when he said on March 6 while talking to reporters at the White House that the Taliban could “possibly” overrun the Afghan government after foreign troops withdraw from the country as part of the Doha agreement.
As Trump put it, “Countries have to take care of themselves. You can only hold someone’s hand for so long.” Asked if the Taliban could eventually seize power from the current US-backed government, Trump said it is “not supposed to happen that way but it possibly will.”
This is of course a hypothetical scenario, since it will not be in Pakistan and Taliban’s interest to grab power forcibly in Kabul. It is useful to remember how much the Taliban hankered after US and UN recognition for its regime in Kabul in the nineties.
Significantly, the joint statement on the US-Taliban pact agreed by Special Envoys and Special Representatives of the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the United States of America on the occasion of the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement in Qatar spells out the expectations regarding the Afghan transition and it is quite obviously based on the understanding reached between Khalilzad and the Taliban.
The following paragraphs merit attention:
- “ Reaffirmed that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not recognised by the international community, and furthermore, the international community will not accept or support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
- “Welcomed the Taliban committing to join a political process and their prospective role in a new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
However, there is the “known unknown”— how far the fragile Afghan state structure will hold through the stresses and strains of the period ahead — negotiations with the Taliban and a period of profound transition to an entirely new beginning of state-building.
Importantly, Abdullah’s coalition which opposes Ghani is also a coming together of non-Pashtun groups — Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek. The ethnic overtone is ominous.
When asked whether the Afghan government had the ability to defend itself from fighters after foreign forces pull out, Trump was brutally frank: “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. We’ll have to see what happens.”
Indeed, what happens next will also significantly depend on Abdullah’s future moves. He and his associates have thrown their weight behind the intra-Afghan dialogue but it is unlikely they will accept Ghani’s leadership to navigate the peace process.
To be fair, Khalilzad tried hard for a Ghani-Abdullah reconciliation, but it didn’t work. The bitterness lingers because this was a patently rigged election and Ghani doesn’t have a legitimate mandate to rule.
Meanwhile, the drawdown of the US troops has begun. Washington is unlikely to get entangled in Afghan domestic politics. To quote Trump, “We can’t be there for the next 20 years. We’ve been there for 20 years and we’ve been protecting the country but we can’t be there for the next – eventually, they’re going to have to protect themselves.”
Washington’s focus is going to be on the reduction in violence (ceasefire) and on verifiable evidence of the Taliban’s commitment to severe links with the al-Qaeda.
The bottom line is, as the sensational report by New York Times on Sunday — A Secret Accord with the Taliban: When and How US Would Leave Afghanistan — confirms, the Doha pact is only the tip of the iceberg.
A matrix of understanding between the US, Pakistan and the Taliban provides the underpinning for the incoming Afghan peace process and the road map leading to a transition, based on their mutual recognition of the legitimate interests of all three protagonists.