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Difficult days ahead for Afghanistan

Recent days have produced two major developments for Afghanistan. One is a seemingly out-of-the-blue decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw 7,000 American troops from the country in the coming months (though a White House spokesman claimed that a withdrawal order hasn’t been issued just yet).

 

The other is Kabul’s announcement that it will be postponing the Afghan presidential election, previously scheduled for April, for several months in order to fix the flaws that marred the electoral process during parliamentary polls in October.

The drawdown and election decisions will shape Afghanistan’s future in a big way—whether for much better or much worse.

The optimist will argue that these two developments could help launch a long-elusive yet desperately needed peace process for Afghanistan. The skeptic will contend that they could plunge the country into a new era of uncertainty and instability. Unfortunately, barring the implementation of ambitious correctives, the grimmer prediction is more likely to prevail.

For the optimist, the thinking goes like this: Trump’s drawdown decision represents a major concession to the Taliban, which has long demanded the withdrawal of foreign troops before it agrees to sit down with Kabul to negotiate an end to the war. Now that Trump has given the Taliban what it wants, the insurgents can now be more easily coaxed into making a big concession of their own — such as agreeing to a truce and to talks to end the conflict.

In the optimist’s view, the postponement of the election will enhance the prospects for a peace process. In effect, the delay will buy time to lay out a road map for peace. Then, after the election finally takes place, the new government — which would presumably be viewed by the Taliban as a more legitimate administration than its predecessor, which was formed through a US-led negotiation resulting from a failed election — will be able to launch a formal peace process with the insurgents.

It’s a powerful, positive vision. Unfortunately, it may be cursed by too many big “ifs,” overly Pollyannaish assumptions and notable omissions to become a reality.

Indeed, take off the rose-colored glasses and give way to the jaundiced eye, and a more troubling future for Afghanistan comes into sharp relief. 

First, Trump’s drawdown decision gives the Taliban a major disincentive to talk. Even before his decision, the Taliban had little reason to stop fighting, given the gains — including territorial seizures — it was enjoying on the battlefield. The withdrawal of half the US troop presence in Afghanistan gives the Taliban a major battlefield advantage, which it is unlikely to pass up for formal peace talks. This translates to a strengthened insurgency. So, while the optimist will hail a troop drawdown as an encouraging move toward peace, the skeptic will lament it as a trigger for greater instability.

Second, delaying the election could precipitate political unrest and prevent the emergence of a peace process.

The current national unity government, which took office in 2014 and is led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, is riven by dysfunction, with much of it rooted in personality disputes between the two leaders and their respective aides. Over the last few years, politicians loyal to Abdullah, both within and outside the government, have chafed at Ghani’s perceived attempts to centralize power. 

A delayed election will provide a pretext for these aggrieved political players — and for other foes of Kabul that cannot accept the idea of the current government ruling beyond its five-year mandate — to push back, and perhaps take to the streets. Faced with such problems, a beleaguered Afghan government would be hard-pressed to present the common front necessary to be a credible partner in a peace process.

So, while the optimist will regard a delayed election as a tactic to buy more time for peace, the skeptic will view it as a spark for a major political crisis that could well turn violent.

To reduce the likelihood of the skeptic’s forecast coming true, Afghanistan and the international community will need to take some ambitious steps. 

One is a full-court diplomatic press led by America and by key Taliban influencers such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which somehow convinces the Taliban that talking — and, eventually, talking to Kabul — is the right move. For that pitch to be successful, interlocutors will need to dangle the possibility of generous inducements and concessions for the insurgents.

Also, robust efforts will be needed to ensure that the election, whenever it occurs, is as smooth and credible as one can be in Afghanistan, and that preparations for the polls aren’t jeopardized by violent political protests and internal government turmoil.

Is this all possible? Sure. Unfortunately, however, these policy correctives are rife with tall orders and hard sells. 

Ultimately, Afghanistan could face some difficult days ahead, thanks in great part to two big recent decisions that may mean well but are unlikely to end well.

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