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Truce Amid Election Dispute Tests Afghan Unity

FILE: (L-R) Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghan former Jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf and Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in May 2017.
FILE: (L-R) Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghan former Jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf and Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in May 2017.

A truce promising a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan has been overshadowed by a dispute over the country’s presidential election.

As the weeklong reduction in violence begins early on February 22, there are no signs that Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah is backing down from challenging incumbent President Ashraf Ghani’s win in the presidential polls held last September. Abdullah declared victory after the Afghan election commission named Ghani the winner on February 18.

This dispute and numerous other disagreements among the Afghan political elites loom large over a phased peace process that is ultimately aimed at uniting Afghan under a stable political system to put an end to more than four decades of war that began after communist military coup in 1978.

While Washington and the Taliban seem to have found some common ground after 18 years of fighting, the Afghan elites appear bitterly divided. Once again, their disagreements overshadow what some view as an opportunity for achieving lasting peace through a negotiated settlement.

“The only way to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is for Afghans to come together and agree on the way forward,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on February 21.

“This is an important step on a long road to peace, and I call on all Afghans to seize this opportunity,” he tweeted after the Taliban and the United States announced their understanding for a significant weeklong reduction in violence across Afghanistan.

Washington is preparing to sign an initial peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. “Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan,” Pompeo said.

But there is still little clarity over the negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan society, which are anticipated to begin in Norway days after the February 29 signing.

“Both parties will … make arrangements for the release of prisoners, structure a path for intra-Afghan negotiations with various political parties of the country and finally lay the groundwork for peace across the country with the withdrawal of all foreign forces and not allowing the land of Afghanistan to be used against security of others,” a Taliban statement said on February 21. “So that our people can live a peaceful and prosperous life under the shade of an Islamic system.”

But most Afghan oppose the Islamic system the Taliban implemented during their control over most of the country in the 1990s. Formally called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban government implemented strict Islamic punishments called Hudood, and harshly policed the country’s multiethnic cities to enforce a strict moral code called Munkirat.

Taliban leaders are clearly bent on cultivating an image of inclusion and tolerance in the runup to signing an agreement with the United States.

"If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks," the group’s deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an optimistic op-ed in the New York Times on February 20. He is considered the leader of the Haqqani network, which is blamed for some of the most devastating attacks on Afghan civilians. The FBI still offers a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest.

Afghan elites, on the other hand, are not so optimistic.

“I have already shared my concerns with the people that holding elections in a situation where conducting a fair and transparent election is not possible will lead to a crisis and will also disturb the peace process,” former President Hamid Karzai said.

“Strong U.S.-Afghan relations are possible only when the U.S. proves its good intentions through active support for a peaceful, united and sovereign Afghanistan,” he tweeted after meeting the U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on February 21. “Contradictory remarks by the international institutions involved in the elections are a clear sign of external efforts to divide the Afghan people and weaken the country.”

Karzai was alluding to Abdullah’s criticism to of a senior EU official’s message congratulating Ghani over his victory.

The Indian government, the president of Sri Lanka and the Amir of Kuwait have congratulated Ghani. The United Nations Assistance Mission says it “stands ready to welcome and work with the future administration” but has taken note of “concerns that have been made by candidates and their supporters following the announcement of the final results.”

But Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that her country is “concerned about the controversy around the results of the presidential election in Afghanistan, which could further worsen the political situation in the country.”

The United States, however, has refrained from congratulating Ghani. “Our priority, and what we believe to be the priority of most Afghans, remains peace and the peace process,” said Molly Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy at the State Department.

In Kabul this week, Khalilzad met with all sides of the Afghan political divide. If the past 18 years are any indication, Washington might broker deals among the Afghan political elites.

Afghanistan’s predatory neighbors, however, are capable of fomenting and accentuating divisions among its leaders and their supporters. While Pakistan claims to be wholeheartedly supporting and to have helped the peace process, Iran still remains a wild card. Tehran’s tensions with Washington could serve as an incentive to preserve what its leaders see as their interests by fragmenting a fragile neighbor.