The United States and the Afghan Taliban have finally agreed to sign a long-delayed peace deal at the end of February, raising hopes of restoring peace to the war-ravaged country. However, there are still threats to the peace deal, or more importantly to lasting stability in Afghanistan as the Taliban continue to launch deadly attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
According to the Afghan Taliban, they had concluded talks with Washington in the Qatari capital of Doha in which both sides agreed to sign a peace deal by the end of February. US President Donald Trump also announced that his administration was very close to sign a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban.
If the peace deal between the US and Afghan Taliban is ultimately signed, it would be a great leap forward by any yardstick in the decades-long efforts to restore order and stability to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban have been waging an insurgency against the Afghan government and the US-led NATO forces, which had ousted the Taliban regime in November 2001 after the watershed terrorist attack by Taliban-ruled Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda on the American mainland. The NATO forces, with one-time presence of more than one hundred thousand troops, could not defeat the Taliban in the last 19 years and there have been ups and downs in the fighting with no side decisively prevailing over the other.
An important aspect of the would-be peace deal between Washington and the Afghan Taliban would be that within no time there would be intra-Afghan peace negotiations in which the insurgents would sit with the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani and other anti-Taliban Afghan groups. Lasting peace in Afghanistan would depend upon the rounds of intra-Afghan dialogue in which the Taliban would try to have more and more power and perks. However, the most painstaking would be the process of dialogue between the Afghan groups. If history is any guide, intra-Afghan dialogue for peace and power-sharing has always been problematic and disruptive. For instance, when the occupying Soviet Union forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the seven anti-Soviet resistance groups could not come to a power-sharing formula for years and instead launched heavy militant attacks against each other, resulting in large-scale deaths and destruction. This was the situation from which the Afghan Taliban emerged in 1994, ultimately to capture power in September 1996 by overrunning Kabul.
The main contenders for power in intra-Afghan dialogue would not only be the Taliban and the Ghani-led Afghan government but also important minority Tajik and Uzbek groups. It is important to note that only on February 18, the Afghan Election Commission announced the results of the last national election after months of delay as the polls were held in September 2019. According to the results, the incumbent President Ghani retained power by winning more than 50 percent of the polled votes. However, the main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, yet again rejected the result, calling it “fraudulent.” It is important to note that in 2014 also both Ghani and Abdullah were the main contestants for the highest post in Afghanistan but when the former won, the latter refused to accept the results. The result declaring Ghani as winner is not at all a surprise because Ghani is ethnically a Pashtun and belongs to the largest Afghan Pashtun tribe, Ahmedzai. Traditionally, since the establishment of modern Afghanistan in 1747 by Ahmed Shah Abdali, the country has always been ruled by the Pashtuns due to their clear ethnic majority in Afghanistan, whereas no one from the sizable Tajik and Uzbek minority groups could get power. This suggests that voting in Afghanistan has always been on ethnic lines and particularly the Afghan Pashtuns have been jealously voting and working to bring a member of their ethnic community to rule Afghanistan by considering it their right due to their majority.
However, times have changed and the Tajik and Uzbek as well as Turkmen in Afghanistan are quite aware of their political rights and have been doing their every bit to come to power. Dr. Abdullah’s two bids to win presidential elections are a case in point. It is important to note that one of the Afghan vice presidents, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord leading the minority Uzbeks, after the recent declaration of the triumph of Ghani in the presidential elections, declared that he along with Tajik Abdullah would form a “parallel” government in Afghanistan. It is indeed disconcerting as yet again there are cries of formation of alternative authority structures in the war-devoured country which would further push it to instability and chaos. On one hand, when Ashraf Ghani would try to take control of the governmental matters after getting the people’s mandate and the opposition groups would try to set up hurdles to his way, intra-Afghan talks could be very problematic. It seems that the US has deliberately delayed the peace deal with the Afghan Taliban in order to give time to Ashraf Ghani to be re-elected, so that intra-Afghan peace negotiations could be facilitated. However, the outcome of the talks has made the prospects of their success quite dim.
Now, the situation is quite conducive for the Afghan Taliban to exploit and win as much power as possible by taking advantage of fissures among their opponents. The Taliban would do their utmost to take time by the forelock. Already, war-weariness is quite obvious within the ranks and files of the militia and they would do their best to secure the best for themselves. Seeing his own position getting weakened, President Ghani may join hands with the Afghan Taliban to remain in power. In the unfolding political situation in Afghanistan, there is all likelihood that President Ghani and the Taliban may come to some sort of a power-sharing agreement to the exclusion of other Afghan power stakeholders.
This is fundamentally because of the fact that both Afghan Taliban and Ghani are Pashtuns and they at least share a cause of keeping Afghanistan firmly in the hands of Pashtuns. Moreover, Abdullah and Dostum have been bitter enemies of the Taliban since the birth of the latter and have been engaged in deadly violence with each other. The Taliban may also take a twist and improve relations with Tajiks, led by Abdullah and son of former Mujahideen commander, Ahmed Shah Masud, as well as Dostum, in order to appropriate power and also to give a message to the world of having the potential of coming to terms with their enemies. This way, the Taliban could also sideline President Ghani, who is the legitimate power centre in Afghanistan today. Let’s see what happens in Afghanistan in the coming few weeks.