A possible deal between the United States and the Taliban following months of negotiations casts a shadow over Afghanistan’s current democratic political system, which promises the best path toward lasting stability, sovereignty, and development.
Some opposition politicians are trying to create uncertainty about whether the presidential election will be held as planned on September 28 or whether it will be postponed or altogether scrapped to pave way for an interim government to conduct future negotiations with the Taliban.
Afghan elites are speculating, which casts doubts over elections. An online rumor mill and government critics pursuing their own and often competing interests spread more confusion. Two previous delays in the presidential polls, rising insecurity, and a somber mood in the runup to the vote has further complicated debates about prioritizing peace over elections.
Speculation by outside observers and Western officials that elections might be abandoned in favor of a comprehensive peace agreement adds to the ambiguity. Unrelenting violence prompts many Afghans to yearn for a cease-fire, which ultimately will be a byproduct or precondition for a peace agreement. As a result of last year’s chaotic parliamentary election, many Afghan voters now ask whether their votes matter.
There are compelling reasons to press ahead with the election because they serve Afghanistan’s interests best.
Despite the progress in U.S.-Taliban talks, President Ashraf Ghani remains skeptical that a lasting comprehensive peace deal determining the country’s future political shape is imminent anytime soon. This realization primarily prompts him to oppose postponing elections.
As someone who has worked with the president and been privy to the conversations in close circles, I am confident that elections and peace talks can go hand in hand.
Realizing comprehensive peace, on the other hand, is a lengthy process. It took veteran Zalmay Khalilzad almost 10 months to entice the Taliban into an agreement, which in not final yet. Now how long it will take the hard-line Islamist groups to square away its differences with the Afghan government is anybody’s guess. Whereas, despite delays, all preparations are on schedule for elections.
The presidential election is critical because it will give the Afghan government a mandate and authority to hold direct negotiations with the Taliban.
Till now, much of the focus of talks between Washington and the Taliban has been on the American presence in Afghanistan. But Ghani has made it clear that diminishing the influence of Pakistan’s powerful military over the Taliban is a prerequisite for the success of an intra-Afghan dialogue aiming at a peace settlement with Taliban.
Holding the presidential vote is key to preserving the current democratic political system. In its more than 270-year history as an empire and as a modern state, Afghanistan has witnessed few peaceful transfers of power. We now need to establish and consolidate this important democratic tradition through elections.
As a diverse society, Kabul needs to provide masses a stake in governance. In the current circumstances, providing the Afghans an opportunity to elect their leader through direct vote, continuation of the constitutional order under the framework of the Islamic republic is the only way to maintain stability in the country.
Ghani has restored people’s trust in the government during the past five years by restoring our national identity and rebuilding state institutions. Perhaps for the first time in the Afghan history, the periphery is wholeheartedly behind the reforms emanating from Kabul. The ongoing centennial celebration of Afghanistan’s independence are an indication of the public mood. This motivates Ghani to soak up every pressure to make sure the republic sustains and cements in the next five years.
The republic’s continuity can guarantee lasting peace. The upcoming election is critical because it will give the incoming Afghan government a mandate and authority to implement the agreement. The next president of Afghanistan must have a mandate for peace because peace is going to require tough decisions and compromises after hard bargaining.
Even after a peace deal is reached, it will need to be endorsed by the Afghan people. Depending on the scope of the compromise, there are three mechanisms for achieving such backing currently.
The bicameral parliament, Loya Jirga or grand assembly, which is officially sanctioned as the “highest manifestation of the will of the people” in the Afghan constitution; and a referendum. Afghanistan will need an elected government to implement any of these mechanisms to win public approval for a final peace agreement.
It is worth noting that Afghanistan’s current supreme law does not allow for an interim setup. Thus, any such step would be an extra-constitutional move and essentially a coup.
Afghanistan’s recent history tells us that interim government are inherently weak and divided and doing away with the country’s political system for a “peace agreement” can result in catastrophe.
Many Afghans point to the similarities with the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Afghanistan’s then socialist President Najibullah attempted to achieve a reconciliation among Afghans but his Pakistan-based mujahedin enemies refused to talk to him and demanded that he relinquish power. He ultimately relinquished power in early 1992 under UN auspices. But it solved nothing, and our country entered a new fratricidal war. Today’s Taliban, also sponsored by Pakistan, have refused to talk to the Afghan government by labeling it a “puppet of the U.S.”
To many Afghans, a power vacuum in Kabul and dismantling the current political system will only attract storms, which will ultimately result in the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians and forcing millions into displacement.
Luckily, Afghanistan’s state and society have come a long way from the dark days of the 1990s. We currently have international support for elections. Both the European Union and the U.S. support the process and have committed $59 million for the costs.
Finally, negotiating a lasting resolution to the conflict with the Taliban will be a protracted process. Even after directly talking to Washington for nearly 10 months, the Taliban have refused to engage in a cease-fire. This indicates that they have not given up on violence as a strategy to win power. This realization hardens the Afghan resolve to strengthen their current political system.
Keeping this in view, a government without a mandate from the people will lose legitimacy among people. On the other hand, the Taliban will be preying on the Afghan people by intensifying their violence and eventually trying to topple the government.
In conclusion, the upcoming presidential elections are not only determining stability in Afghanistan but across the region.
Former President Hamid Karzai recently revealed that in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in June he proposed that elections should be postponed and Ghani should continue in power.
I am witness to the fact that Ghani rejected the proposal outrightly. He reiterated that he does not seek a mandate from the elite but from the people of Afghanistan. He believes Afghanistan’s real sovereignty is vested in people’s freedom.
In previous elections, Afghans braved Taliban bombs and rockets to exercise their right to vote to ensure democracy prevails in Afghanistan.
They have shown their overwhelming loyalty to their republic, and now it is the duty of all Afghan political elites to show that they prefer public trust and national interests over personal and parochial gains.
Samim Arif is a former deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He is now working on Ghani’s election campaign. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.