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Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Undated handout picture of U.S., Taliban and Qatar officials during a meeting for peace talks in Doha, Qatar. Handout via REUTERS/Qatari Foreign Ministry
Q&A / Asia

Behind Trump’s Taliban Debacle

On 7 September, U.S. President Donald Trump made the startling announcement that he had invited Taliban leaders to Camp David for talks – and then cancelled the gathering. Crisis Group Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and consultant Graeme Smith explain what happened and what it means for prospects of ending Afghanistan’s war.

What was the U.S. goal in inviting the Taliban to Camp David?

The U.S. has not said what was planned for Camp David, the wooded Maryland retreat that has hosted several peace summits, but the outlines of its intentions seem clear. A week earlier, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said negotiators had reached an agreement with the Taliban, adding that he would announce details imminently, pending President Donald Trump’s final approval. The likely explanation for the Camp David meeting is that, in light of significant criticism from various quarters, Trump was not prepared to sign off on the deal, which the parties had painstakingly negotiated over the last nine months, and wanted to better its terms for the U.S. side.

What is not yet clear is whether, by also inviting President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David, the U.S. intended to try to broker a grander bargain, including resolution of issues between the Taliban and Afghan government. If so, Trump would have been aiming for a moonshot in a peace process where victories are measured in inches. No diplomatic groundwork has yet been laid for a peace agreement among the Afghan parties, and there is no reason to think that either side would have been willing to deal on the fly.

U.S. diplomacy’s main achievement in the last year has been to persuade the Taliban to open negotiations with the Afghan government after concluding an initial agreement with Washington. Officials have indicated that the draft U.S.-Taliban agreement included a commitment by the Taliban to commence what are being termed “intra-Afghan negotiations”.  

The Taliban’s concession may sound modest, but from their perspective it is not. For years, the insurgents had vowed never to speak to a government they dismissed as a “puppet” – and never to negotiate over their country’s political future while American boots remained on Afghan soil. Months of careful diplomacy, conducted with disciplined secrecy on both sides, coaxed the process to the brink of historic intra-Afghan talks. If and when those talks start, they will undoubtedly be lengthy and complicated. 

The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

Why did the planned meeting fall apart?

Trump said the primary reason why the deal fell apart was the Taliban’s recent attack in Kabul that killed one U.S. soldier, but that explanation is not credible. Both sides have been hammering each other on the battlefield, seeking leverage at the negotiating table – indeed, in the wake of the Camp David cancellation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out how many Taliban fighters the U.S.-led coalition had recently killed. Taliban-inflicted violence had been ramping up throughout the negotiating process, and fifteen U.S. troops had already been killed during that time, in addition to many more Afghans. For Washington’s part, its declared policy is to use military pressure to obtain Taliban concessions. The U.S. is dropping munitions on Afghanistan more frequently now than in any year since 2001. The intensified bombing has pushed up the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war. In the first half of 2019, the UN recorded more civilians deaths at U.S. or Afghan government hands than at the Taliban’s – including a marked increase in deaths from airstrikes.

More likely, plans for the meeting never truly came together in the first place because the Taliban leaders were prepared to visit the U.S. only after the deal they had already negotiated was signed and announced.

What are the consequences for the peace process?

The U.S. president has said that the talks are “dead”, but it may not be the last word from him, given reversals in similar rhetoric he has employed in other circumstances. The 10 September departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is known to oppose making a deal with the Taliban, adds another wrinkle. At a minimum, however, the debacle will mean some delay in finalising a deal that had seemed on the verge of completion. And the U.S. will need to find a face-saving way to bring itself back to the table, if the process is to resume. The Afghan government, which had openly celebrated the breach in the U.S.-Taliban process, may also need to save face.

Negotiators among the Taliban and Afghan government told Crisis Group that they continue to prepare for intra-Afghan negotiations in case the U.S. returns to the table. The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

The question is therefore not whether the U.S. will return to negotiations, but when. A quick resumption of talks could jolt the process back on track. Without that, the most plausible scenario is that the U.S. and Taliban heighten their military confrontation. The Taliban may feel compelled to make good on their threat to disrupt Afghanistan’s 28 September presidential election. The year 2019 may be remembered as the most violent ever, judging by recent trends.

What do the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan government want out of a U.S.-Taliban deal?

Both the Taliban and U.S. seek the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the end of America’s longest war. They disagree, however, over the terms and pace of a U.S. exit.

The Taliban want to regain control of centralised government, allowing them to install what they call an “Islamic system” in Afghanistan, though they seem to understand that their desires will collide with opposing views at the negotiating table. The degree of Taliban willingness to compromise on this matter is unknown, raising questions about whether they will be able to make peace with the Afghan government. It will also help determine whether Afghanistan’s donors, who pay most of the security sector and civilian government’s bills, will bless a peace deal.

The U.S. wants a peace agreement offering guarantees that the Taliban will combat the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate. This pledge should be easy to obtain considering that the Taliban battle daily with the Islamic State, which they consider a sworn enemy. Getting the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda, as Washington would also like, could be more difficult because some of the Taliban’s hardline supporters idolise Osama bin Laden. The Taliban seem ready, however, to deliver at least on the U.S. demand for a public declaration not to allow terrorists to abuse their territory as a staging ground for international attacks.

For Kabul, the U.S.-Taliban agreement could have been a first step toward kick-starting talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government. To their credit, some Kabul officials continue working toward the eventual moment when they sit down with the Taliban and both sides compare visions of Afghan state structure and ways of drafting a new constitution.

What can be done to revive talks?

Trump scuppered the talks, and the onus is on Washington to press ahead with diplomacy. Taliban interlocutors say they are puzzled by U.S. behaviour and, though they have indicated their continued openness to concluding talks, they are unlikely to take the initiative in pressing for a restart. Washington will also need to manage criticism of the deal out of Kabul, which has spiked in the wake of the Camp David debacle.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul
Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul