Power-sharing and intra-Afghan dialogue

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By Rustom Shah Mohmand

The stalemate has finally been broken. After months of endeavours, the two rivals—President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah have signed an agreement on power sharing. According to the accord, Abdullah will be heading the National Reconciliation Commission that is tasked with opening negotiations with the Taliban. In addition, half the cabinet positions will be allocated to his nominees. The agreement also creates a new position of a ‘marshal’ for Abdul Rashid Dostum—the Uzbek warlord who will be head of the armed forces.
The deal will end the uncertainty that followed last September’s election in which the two rivals claimed victory. To break the deadlock, US secretary of State Pompeo also visited Kabul but his intervention did not work to bring about a compromise. He then announced a cut of $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan to show Washington’s disgust regarding the continued bickering over power sharing in Kabul. American anxiety was understandable because with a disputed election outcome, it was not possible to begin the long overdue intra-Afghan dialogue envisaged in the February agreement signed with the Taliban.
The power-sharing agreement is certainly a small breakthrough but it does not really hide the fact that there are deep differences within the ruling elite in Kabul; it is a house divided. The US understands the delicate balance of power between the two power blocks, both on weak wickets as far as mass following is concerned. But it needed a semblance of political convergence between the two leaders in order to kickstart the dialogue that would enable Washington to complete a troop withdrawal from the country.

KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah sign a power-sharing agreement at the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday.

One key outcome of the deal is the restoration of power for the controversial Rashid Dostam– a former vice president who is accused of, and widely believed to be, involved in war crimes. His appointment as chief of the armed forces will raise concerns about the intentions and integrity of the new government both inside and outside the country.
This marriage of convenience may not last long. But it can help facilitate peace talks with Taliban– at least in the short term. The post-September political confrontation has further added to the stature and political strength of the group, who continue to present a united front with a clear vision and policy.
As the prisoner swap continues at an agonizingly slow pace, conditions are being created for the commencement of talks with Taliban. Both Abdullah and Ghani will try to extract maximum benefit from a deal with Taliban. There are however no signs yet of any real progress intra-Afghan dialogue could make, unless Ghani gives up his dream of heading a government that includes Taliban representatives. That seems nowhere in sight for now. For Taliban to accept positions in a government headed by Ghani will be political suicide for the group.
Inevitably, there will also be discussions on the formation of an interim government that is brought about by a ‘loya jirga’ or grand assembly.

the restoration of power for the controversial Rashid Dostam– a former vice president who is accused of, and widely believed to be, involved in war crimes. His appointment as chief of the armed forces will raise concerns about the intentions and integrity of the new government both inside and outside the country.
This marriage of convenience may not last long. But it can help facilitate peace talks with Taliban– at least in the short term. The post-September political confrontation has further added to the stature and political strength of the group, who continue to present a united front with a clear vision and policy.
As the prisoner swap continues at an agonizingly slow pace, conditions are being created for the commencement of talks with Taliban. Both Abdullah and Ghani will try to extract maximum benefit from a deal with Taliban. There are however no signs yet of any real progress intra-Afghan dialogue could make, unless Ghani gives up his dream of heading a government that includes Taliban representatives. That seems nowhere in sight for now. For Taliban to accept positions in a government headed by Ghani will be political suicide for the group.
Inevitably, there will also be discussions on the formation of an interim government that is brought about by a ‘loya jirga’ or grand assembly.

The recent uptick in violence has created more doubts about any real turnaround. Although the two deadly attacks last week–one on a maternity ward in Kabul and the other on a funeral procession in Jalalabad, are both attributable to Daesh, Ghani ordered a new wave of attacks on Taliban.
US chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, asserted that the two attacks targeting innocent civilians were carried out by Daesh and not Taliban who have denied responsibility. Ghani’s reaction took some by surprise and the new surge in government attacks on Taliban is seen as vitiating the atmosphere for talks that are expected to start soon.
In a climate of distrust between the Taliban and Ghani government on the one hand, and the continuing rift between the two antagonists on the other, the talks are not expected to deliver any quick outcomes. 
A breakthrough can only be achieved if Washington brings more pressure to bear upon the regime in Kabul. The prospects for that to happen are brighter now because the US can resort to playing one against the other (Ghani and Abdullah), to bring about a consensus on governance systems in the wake of Taliban’s induction into the government. 
It will depend on the diplomatic skills of Khalilzad and the extent to which Washington will go in enforcing its agenda to finalize a comprehensive deal for a durable peace in Afghanistan. Ghani will fight to the end to ensure the continuation of his position as President at whatever cost. Only by sticking to a clear stance and utilizing the clout of Abdullah can the machinations of Ghani be countered in the larger interests of peace.
For Abdullah to remain relevant to the scheme of things, he will have to demonstrate flexibility and acumen at a time of great uncertainty. A resolution can be expedited if the unity and integrity of the country are to be protected. Alternatively, the hazards of a continuing conflict could lead to chaos at a time when the region is grappling with a deadly pandemic.
(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)