Why Afghanistan needs peace before elections

President Ashraf Ghani’s insistence on holding elections in September could derail peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Taliban delegation
Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, leave after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow on May 30, 2019 [Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina]

Today there is a good chance for peace in Afghanistan – more so than at any other moment in the past two decades. At this critical juncture, it is crucial that there is a clear and coherent strategy for the way forward. But at least in some quarters this does not appears to be the case.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, for example, has maintained that the United States will pursue a peace settlement with the Taliban while also supporting the Afghan presidential elections scheduled for this September.

However, given the current dynamics in Afghanistan, these appear to be two rather contradictory objectives. The potential for success of the peace process will diminish dramatically if elections are to be held before an agreement with the Taliban is reached, especially if the incumbent wins. 

A real prospect for peace

The Taliban has consistently made four major demands regarding a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan: direct talks with the US, withdrawal of international forces, the formation of an interim government, and revision of the Afghan constitution.

For years there was no progress on any of the four issues, but prospects for peace in Afghanistan dramatically improved in the second half of 2018, when Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells met with the Taliban, Mr Khalilzad was appointed the State Department’s Special Representative for Reconciliation, and President Donald Trump signalled his intention to withdraw half of the US troops deployed in Afghanistan. 

Washington’s willingness to withdraw its forces if provisions are made to ensure Afghan stability has facilitated the emergence of a consensus among major world powers, including Russia and China, and important regional powers, such as Pakistan and Iran, since all the parties desire the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. This has further buttressed the prospects of peace in Afghanistan.

On the other end of the negotiations table, the Taliban has evolved from being an internationalist Islamic group to largely a national Afghan force. This transformation makes it easier for the Taliban to sever ties with international “terrorist” organisations and focus more on acquiring political power within Afghanistan. This, in turn, enables them to meet Washington’s demand that they prohibit the use of Afghan territory for “terrorist” activity. 

The Taliban’s denial of basic social and political rights to all citizens in general, and women in particular, during its rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s, is a major concern for advocates of women’s and civil rights.

It is difficult to take promises made by political groups at their face value. Nevertheless, the Taliban on numerous occasions – including at the 2016 Pugwash conferences and the February 2019 inter-Afghan dialogue in Moscow – has expressed support for Afghan women’s rights to education, employment, and political participation.

Similarly, the Taliban’s support for holding elections after an interim period indicates its willingness to accept a republican form of government. These changes in the Taliban’s social and political views bodes well for the likelihood of an agreement between Afghan politicians and the group regarding domestic political issues.

Elections or peace?

The main obstacle for peace is the Taliban’s insistence on the formation of an interim government and the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani‘s strong objection to that. Ghani’s motive is clear: He wants to run again and remain in power for another five years. A peace agreement leading to an interim government will mean his government must be replaced. 

Ghani’s refusal to put the prospects of a much-needed peace above his desire to remain in power has caused tension between him and Afghanistan’s major international supporters and is at odds with the position of most of the Afghan public and political leaders.

Indeed, any candidate who wins the presidential election will naturally be inclined not to cede power to an interim government after just having been elected. This would make concluding peace after the elections much more difficult.

Therefore, a strategy of simultaneously supporting both elections and an interim government will not help achieve peace. Meanwhile, both the government and the Taliban are endangering the peace process.

Ghani has refused to step down after his term expired last month. Instead, he has insisted on staying in power until new elections are held, a move which was legalised by a Supreme Court decision in April. His opponents have threatened protests and warned of political chaos if he persists in his refusal.

The Taliban, on the other hand, appears to have been emboldened by reports of the imminent withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, and have intensified their deadly attacks on troops and civilians. Last month, the group rejected an offer for a ceasefire over the Eid holiday and vowed to continue fighting.

However, the Taliban should realise that even if the withdrawal happens, as long as donors are willing to financially support the Afghan security forces, the group will not be able to achieve a complete military victory. It is in its own interest as well to seek a negotiated settlement at this time. 

Afghanistan needs peace more than fraudulent elections, and Washington’s strategy should be to throw its weight behind the negotiations. The window for successfully concluding an agreement is rapidly closing.

The current round of peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar, should have a successful conclusion no later than early August. Failure to reach an agreement by then will necessitate holding elections, and a newly-elected government will not be inclined to agree to an interim government.

Thus, if this round of negotiations ends without a peace agreement it will mean fighting will likely continue for several more years. Let us not miss this opportunity! Peace must come before the elections.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.