Standoff between Afghan President Ghani and rival Abdullah threatens Taliban peace deal

The most dangerous place in the Afghan capital today isn’t under threat from Taliban or Islamic State insurgents. A single block near the presidential palace, bristling with guns, has become ground zero in a surreal war of nerves between two civilian politicians both claiming to be the country’s legitimate leader.

Just a short walk from the compound of President Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent whose reelection was announced last month, gunmen in armored vehicles guard the smaller palace of his archrival Abdullah Abdullah, who insists he was cheated out of victory and is forming a parallel government. Across the street, gunmen guard the office of Abdurrashid Dostom, a former army general now allied with Abdullah, who has reoccupied the compound he once used as a vice president under Ghani.

No shots have been fired, giving the confrontation an eerie, stage-managed feel. But as the standoff drags into its second week, many Afghans fear the slightest incident could ignite a violent conflagration between rival camps, plunging the country into chaos and dooming planned negotiations between the government and the Taliban to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war. The insurgents have vowed to continue their attacks if no settlement is reached.

“All the cards are in the Taliban’s hands now,” said Zalmai Rassoul, a former Afghan national security adviser. “If there is no breakthrough within the next week to ten days, something could happen that makes things spin out of control.”

Ghani has said little about the standoff since Mar. 9, when he and Abdullah held competing inauguration ceremonies at the same time a block apart. He has postponed naming a cabinet and refrained from using force to clear the contested city block. Abdullah has pressed on, naming his own governors in several provinces, but Ghani’s team is continuing to meet privately with intermediaries in hopes that he will eventually accept a compromise.

“This is a very unfortunate situation, given the peace process that is very fragile and could get destroyed,” said an adviser to Ghani, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic. “The Taliban is next door, and the public is angry and fearful. But we think there is still room to bargain. Abdullah and his people know that if things get out of control, nobody can put them back. It will be a disaster for Afghanistan for many years to come.”

Others say Abdullah, diplomatic by nature, is now stuck out on a limb, having enlisted hard line ethnic minority bosses to bolster him in his grudge match against Ghani, who defeated him in fraud-marred elections in 2014 and 2019. Last time, the two rivals were forced into a tense power-sharing arrangement under U.S. mediation; this time, despite the hasty patching-up efforts underway, the idea is anathema to both politicians.

Many Kabul residents lived through both the government collapse and civil war of the early 1990s, which destroyed much of the capital, and the years of Taliban religious repression that followed. Many now fear a similar scenario is developing, involving some of the same individuals, the same ethnic and regional tensions, and the same potential for the Taliban to fill the breach and seize power.

Two other factors are adding to the sense of anxiety. One is the looming withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of a recently signed U.S. deal with the Taliban and the declining international interest in their country’s fate. The other is the coronavirus, which has been constantly in the news here as it ravages more developed countries and is now starting to strike in Afghanistan, a poor country with inadequate health facilities.

In conversations across Kabul the past two days, residents struggled to keep their composure as they expressed deepening concern.

“Everyone is worried,” said Abid Sherzai, 45, who runs a grocery while his wife teaches school. “We have Corona, and the Taliban, and the same mujahideen leaders taking sides who once fired rockets at our houses.

“We want peace and calm to bring progress. We want one president, not two,” he said. “We want good educated leaders, not a bad king on every corner. We want to move forward, not back. But with the Americans leaving, who will help us now?”

Most people interviewed said they preferred Ghani over Abdullah, but several said the difference hardly mattered now, compared to the far more important risk that the current power struggle between them could sabotage negotiations between Afghan and Taliban leaders. Those talks were scheduled to begin this week, but they have already been sidetracked by a dispute over the proposed mass release of Taliban prisoners.

Several observers said that the Taliban were already feeling strengthened by the concessionary terms of the U.S. accord signed on Feb. 29, and that the political conflict in Kabul had further lowered their opinion of the Afghan government and political elite. Last week, the Taliban announced that their religious leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is the country’s only legal ruler.

The feud complicates Ghani’s effort to create a diverse delegation to meet with the Taliban. Abdullah has demanded to send his own group.

More worryingly, it has complicated the military situation in the countryside, where Afghan forces have been battling the Taliban for years. Abdullah is attempting to replace provincial officials with his own allies, potentially dividing security forces that already struggle to put national loyalties over ethnic and personal ones.

“We are on the edge,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief. “If things deepen, it would only take one spark. We could end up with government troops fighting the Taliban and each other. We could end up with triangular negotiations and the country divided into three territories.”

If Ghani and Abdullah don’t find a way to end their standoff and salvage peace talks, Nabil said, “whatever happens will only favor the Taliban.”