With Taliban Talks Soon to Start, Afghan Government Splits Apart

The Afghan government may be proving to be its own worst enemy on the eve of U.S.-orchestrated peace talks with the Taliban, with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah rejecting the results of the recent election that gave a thin victory to President Ashraf Ghani and declaring that he would form his own “inclusive government.”

Many Afghans worry that the election dispute plays right into the hands of the Taliban insurgents, who this month agreed with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to initiate peace negotiations in March, following a seven-day truce that began Saturday. The Taliban have rejected the legitimacy of the current Kabul government, describing it as a “puppet regime” they will not negotiate with; instead the Islamist militant group agreed to hold talks with “intra-Afghan” factions, as a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it.

Ironically, until recently it was the government that regularly portrayed the Taliban as a nonunified movement it was unable to negotiate with. But now it is Kabul that seems more split than ever before.

“Instead of fighting each other, they need to find a solution. Inner problems between these politicians affect all of us. They cast a poor light on all Afghans, and this needs to stop,” Muneer Ahmad Niazi, a university lecturer from Kabul, told my colleague Abdul Rahman Lakanwal, a journalist based in the capital. “We need a government that represents all people.”

Over the last several days, Abdullah, rejecting the claim of victory by Ghani, barred electoral officials from traveling out of the country and nominated officials and governors in two provinces in the north of the country, Sar-e-Pul and Jawzjan. “Our team is the winner of the election based on clean votes, and we announce our victory and the formation of an inclusive government,” Abdullah said. He also described the election outcome as “national treason,” “illegal,” and “a coup against democracy.”

Reportedly, Abdullah is even willing to take an oath of office as president of his parallel government.

Abdullah is backed by political figures such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who until recently was Ghani’s official vice president (although he had no real power and even left the country after accusations of rape). But before the election tally was released, Dostum criticized the government in a speech and claimed that he would not accept any “fraudulent results.”

With the government in turmoil, intra-Afghan talks among all kinds of political factions are back on the table. Or at least the Taliban will argue for that, many Afghans worry. “Unfortunately, some people are not satisfied with the results. I understand that, but a lot of them also just look for their personal benefits. We as the Afghan people have to stand together to face our enemies with our heads held high. It’s the enemy that will profit from this crisis,” said Mohammad Hanif, a medic from Kabul.

The legitimacy problem is an abiding one; this is the third presidential election in row in which Abdullah has refused to accept the official results and accused his opponent of fraud. In 2009, Abdullah lost against former President Hamid Karzai. In 2014, it was Ghani who beat Abdullah after a runoff. In the end, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had to intervene several times personally to reconcile the opponents. Until today, many government critics believe that it was not the vote of the Afghan people that made Ghani president but Kerry’s decision.

At the moment, Khalilzad may be taking up that role. After he arrived in Kabul, the U.S. envoy met with several members from both government camps and is busy with what some observers described as a “second peace process.” Reuters on Monday reported that Khalilzad is asking Ghani to delay his planned inauguration to a second five-year term because of the dispute, but with many Afghans deeply worried about a Taliban takeover of the country once again, Abdullah is also facing rising criticism.

“I don’t accept what [Abdullah] is doing. I believe it’s against the law. He can’t nominate officials and build his own government. He doesn’t even have a budget,” said Ahmad Fawad, who is deployed as a government official in Kabul. Others share his opinion. “All candidates have to accept the results. The ongoing peace efforts must not be undermined,” said Mohammad Karim Afghan, a local civic activist.

“All candidates have to accept the results. The ongoing peace efforts must not be undermined,” said Mohammad Karim Afghan, a local civic activist.

Part of the election dispute goes back to ethnicity. While Ghani is considered the preferable candidate of the majority Pashtuns, Abdullah is seen as the first choice for non-Pashtuns, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others. At times both candidates have sought to portray themselves as transcending ethnic lines—even as they also identified with specific ethnic groups when they believed that they could benefit from it. For example, Abdullah’s ethnic background is Pashtun-Tajik, but in Tajik regions such as Panjshir, he portrays himself more as a Tajik, while in Pashtun regions like Kandahar, where his father is from, he presents himself as a Pashtun. Ghani’s background is Pashtun, and he explicitly played the “Pashtun card” during the 2014 elections when he added his tribal name “Ahmadzai” and then dropped it after he won.

As Abdullah makes his move, political trouble is bubbling up especially in the province of Khost, which lies in Afghanistan’s southeast close to the Pakistani border and is largely Pashtun. According to official numbers from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), the total majority of voters in Khost—96 percent—elected Ghani. Unsurprisingly, many are not happy with Abdullah, according to Mohammad Zaman, a local journalist. “Many people here welcomed the announcement of the election results. Now, we need to go forward. Those who lost should stop complaining,” said Mohammad Omar, a resident of Khost city.

Still, election observers say Abdullah may have a point: There is reason to question the official results. “There is strong evidence that the IEC and the government were involved in voter suppression,” said Thomas H. Johnson, the director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. According to Johnson, who is going to publish a detailed report about “Ghani’s fraud,” as he describes it, large parts of the election process took place in Ghani’s favor.

“An assessment of the polling places that were closed before the election almost exclusively took place in Abdullah strongholds and was based on 2014 voting results. This accounted for the suppression of nearly 200,000 votes and suggests that explicit voter disenfranchisement of Abdullah’s supporters was well thought out and calculated before the election took place,” Johnson said.

Johnson and other critics say the whole election process should be scrutinized. At the time of the election, Afghanistan had 9.7 million registered voters, according to the IEC, but only 1.9 million of these voters—20 percent—exercised their right to vote, and more than 100,000 of the registered voters, approximately 1 percent, were found invalid.

For these and other reasons, the Taliban may find themselves on more solid ground than the Americans thought when they insist on meeting with representatives other than those from the official government.