Afghanistan, ‘peace’ discussions, presidential elections: opportunities or priorities?

28 juin 2019

In the disaster-stricken security context that is no longer presented – between 8 February and 9 May, the UN counted 5249 ‘security incidents[1]’ nationwide[2] -, the spring twilight of 2019 is dominated by two themes focusing the attention (and tension) of the actors of the Afghan « Great Game »: the organisation of a presidential election in autumn, and the continuation of peace talks between the many stakeholders, both domestic (Taliban; government) and external (USA, Russia, China, Pakistan). Originally scheduled for April 20, 2019, before being postponed a first time to July 20, the presidential election is at this time ‘planned’ at the end of September 2019. Provided, of course, that the necessary security conditions for this sensitive event are in place, which cannot be taken for granted at the moment…

It is little to say that this national political rendezvous is taking place – eight months after a parliamentary election[3] that took a semester to validate its results[4] – in a feverish context[5], reinforced by the growing mistrust of the Afghan electorate towards its political leaders, whoever they are, regardless of their projects or their past (mis)deeds. The fact that the head of state in power since 2014[6], the stubborn and disputed Ashraf Ghani, should have constitutionally resigned on 22 May 2019 – but will finally remain in the presidency until the end of September – and has recently replaced, in advance of the election in question, various personalities in sensitive positions in the Ministry of Defence and in the police ranks does not precisely serve the image of the administration in place and its very relative concern for good governance…

At the same time, since the end of 2018, various Afghan actors (Taliban; former government officials; civil society) and a selection of foreign capitals (Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, Tehran) have been active in a dispersed manner over preliminary peace talks. These are driven in particular by the will of the White House and its stormy tenant to eventually (under conditions) withdraw American troops (about 8,000 men) from the Afghan quagmire and the principle of the future association of the Taliban insurgency with the management of national affairs (by cooperating with traditional political actors); a prospect that leaves many Afghans and observers perplexed…

At the end of April 2019, the Ghani administration succeeded in organizing a Loya Jirga (large traditional assembly) in the capital, with 3000 participants gathered for five days to discuss the preparatory conditions for peace talks with the Taliban; a rendezvous in which the government number 2 had refused to participate, like a majority of opponents of President Ghani, considering that this impressive assembly was giving priority to his re-election plans. In the final communiqué sealing the dividends of this event, the president insisted on various points, including his wish to agree on a ceasefire (if the Taliban also subscribe to it) or the possibility of releasing some 175 Taliban prisoners to ‘create trust’ between parties.

From the dismal political and security panorama outlined above, it seems difficult to extract some tangible reasons for optimism in the short term. This is true both for the organization (if not the opportunity) of the September presidential election – will the deteriorated security situation only make it possible for this political event to be possible at the national level – and for the chances of reaching consensus among the various pieces of the Afghan puzzle (and actors outside the agendas that do not necessarily converge) on the outlines, general framework and details of a very hypothetical peace agenda.  On May 28, a large Afghan delegation led by former President Hamid Karzai and some 15 Taliban leaders[7] were welcomed to Moscow as part of the official celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan. Following Afghan-Afghan meetings relocated to Moscow, the actors concerned reported  »progress on some points[8] »… and the need to further extend the discussions (a magnificent euphemism, certainly…).

For all intents and purposes, it should be recalled that at the beginning of the year, the current tenant of the White House (who entered the campaign for re-election on June 18) was pleading for a withdrawal of American (and foreign) troops from Afghanistan according to a timetable stretched over three to five years. And Washington to then propose to the Taliban peace negotiations likely, in the long term, to associate them with a government of national unity; it is up to the Taliban, for their part , to  »commit » to prohibit access to Afghan territory to all terrorist groups that have any intention of attacking the United States of America.

On the multiple battlefields where the regular Afghan forces (assisted by US and international troops) and the Taliban and fighters of the Islamic State[9] (EI) meet, from north to south and from the western provinces to the eastern perimeter of the country, on the eve of summer, we remain very far from these electoral and peaceful enterprises.

The absence of structured discussions between the Ghani government and the Taliban (the latter refusing to speak to the president), the relative credit of the current Head of State to his constituents, his ambition for re-election at all costs, the front[10] that its 17 challengers[11] intend to oppose him, or the worrying readiness of the US administration to bring the Taliban hierarchy (particularly in Qatar) to the peace negotiation table despite limited appetite for the exercise and eloquent ferocity on the ground, will necessarily temper the positive approach relayed in various places.


[1] Including 3207 armed clashes….

[2] The southern (cf. Helmand) and eastern (cf. Ghazni) provinces being particularly affected.

[3] Parliamentary elections held on 20-21 October 2018.

[4] Official publication on May 14, 2019.

[5] ‘’Long, Rowdy Feud in Afghan Parliament Mirrors Wider Political Fragility’’, The New York Times, 19 juin 2019.

[6] The author of this paper had the privilege of being in Kabul during the first round of the 2014 presidential election.

[7] Including the influential Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the « head of operations » of the Taliban insurgency.

[8] Report of the General Assembly of the United Nations Security Council, 14 June 2014.

[9] Especially in its strongholds in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. Between early February and early May 2019, this jihadist organisation was involved, according to the United Nations (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan – UNAMA), in 113 attacks and security incidents.

[10] ‘’His term’s up. But Afghanistan’s president is defying critics to stay put and run for re-election in the fall’’, The Washington Post, May 26, 2019.

[11] Among the latter are various familiar figures, including Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive (a kind of Prime Minister), Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a former National Security Advisor and Minister of the Interior, Rahmatullah Nabil, the former Director of the National Directorate of Security, Zalmai Rassoul, a former Foreign Minister, and the notorious and devious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
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