With Peace Deal Looming and Election Results Announced, Where Are the Afghan People?

An Afghan pigeon fancier sits on a rooftop in Herat province. (HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images)

This week, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission announced President Ashraf Ghani as winner of the election five months after the poll took place. The news came days after the United States and Taliban revealed that their second round of peace negotiations would likely result in an agreement being signed. The voices and concerns of ordinary Afghan citizens have been excluded from each process, yet both have deep implications for the future of Afghanistan and its people.

In terms of Afghanistan’s democratic project, the presidential election was the fourth since the US invasion and overthrow of the Taliban. The contention between candidates throughout the election period and lack of clarity around the election itself are particularly worrisome trends for the strength of the democratic process and the government’s legitimacy. Last year, before the previous round of peace negotiations was cancelled, there was a strong belief that the presidential election might not end up taking place. There was also a sense in the country that an interim government would need to be formed that included the Taliban. For his part, President Ghani insisted on holding the election from the beginning of the US-Taliban talks, relying heavily on the constitution to bolster his case. He also claimed a victory of sorts after the talks were cancelled: the election took place and preliminary results were announced.

Nevertheless, the never-ending political drama between Ghani and his primary challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, continued after the election. Both claimed victory well before the results were announced. After they were finally announced—with Ghani taking 50.63 percent of the vote to Abdullah’s 39.52—both Abdullah and the Taliban rejected them. Abdullah immediately called for the formation of an “inclusive government.” There is a fear that further political drama will lead to a weakening of the government and loss of trust by the people.

Another issue is the low turnout in the election, which was especially low compared to previous years. In 2014, out of 12 million eligible voters, around 7 million people voted. However, in this election, less than 2 million people voted out of 9 million who registered. This is not surprising given the political uncertainty, people’s loss of trust in the government, and the increase of violence and terrorist attacks by the Taliban.

With respect to the peace talks between the US and Taliban, Afghan people have continually expressed their concerns. One issue is the focus of the US on expediting the talks, which has been largely viewed by Afghans as evidence that the US is interested in a politically palatable exit strategy for its troops, not long-term peace in Afghanistan. At the outset of peace talks, the US lead negotiator and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that he hoped to finalize a peace agreement before the presidential election. His recent public statements have been more cautious, though he described himself as “cautiously optimistic” about a peace deal being signed. The Afghan government has not been present throughout all stages of the talks and has only been occasionally consulted.

Another issue is the complete lack of trust that the majority of Afghans have in the Taliban. The erosion of trust continued after the Afghan and US governments decided to release three major Taliban prisoners in a prisoner exchange. The releases were not welcomed by the Afghan public, especially since one of the prisoners was Anas Haqqani, who was previously the Taliban’s military operations leader and played a significant role in fundraising for the organization.

Afghans were further dismayed to see the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, write in the New York Times about what the organization wants from peace negotiations without once mentioning the reality on the ground or the decades of violence experienced by the Afghan people. Most concerning is the references Haqqani makes to building an “Islamic system” in Afghanistan, which it is reasonable to assume would incorporate many of the extremist and harsh measures taken by the Taliban in the 1990s. The deep suffering of women and minority groups during that period must not be forgotten.

In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US will sign a peace deal with Taliban on February 29 as long as a “nationwide reduction of violence” is fully implemented and upheld. With the election results announced, the question remains whether the Taliban will come into direct negotiations with the Afghan government after the period of reduced violence ends. The peace deal includes the start of “intra-Afghan negotiations”—a step that the Taliban is unlikely to implement as they have always refused to engage with the government, who they view as an “illegitimate puppet regime.”

The hope is that the period of reduced violence will lead to a ceasefire, but it is unclear what a “nationwide reduction in violence” means in practice. Furthermore, it seems almost certain that the US will withdraw all or half of its troops before any potential negotiations begin between the Afghan government and Taliban. According to US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper: “there is a reduction in violence period, and then we have to consider whether or not to move forward with the agreement, with the peace agreement. There will be a reduction (of US service members stationed in Afghanistan) to a certain number over time 8,600 and from there—actually from the beginning it’s all conditions based.”

Amid all of these negotiations and political disagreements, the voices of the people of Afghanistan have often been undermined, particularly those who are affected by daily violence and instability, and who have endured stagnant economic growth and poor public services. As a result of more than four decades of war, many Afghans are still living as refugees in neighboring countries. After Syria, Afghanistan has the second largest number of citizens who are forcibly displaced, whether internally or as refugees and asylum seekers elsewhere. At a Refugee Conference in Pakistan this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that “Afghanistan and its people cannot be abandoned,” and the ongoing “peace efforts leading to intra-Afghan negotiations will pave the way, but sustainable peace and security hinges on better integrating our work on humanitarian, development and peace efforts.” The exclusion of the Afghan people, especially minority groups and women, in both the government and in negotiations between the Taliban and the US, undermines integration efforts. If it continues, the dream of sustainable peace will remain impossible for the people of Afghanistan.