On the 28th September, Afghanistan electors will be called to decide their next President for the fourth time since the proclamation of the Islamic Republic in 2003. Peace process seems to be at a blind corner, attacks, airstrikes and dozens of deaths are, sadly, an everyday occurrence.
The Taliban keep on repeating that they are keeping the door open to the United States, if their administration decides to resume the peace talks to put an end to a conflict underway for 18 years. Two weeks ago, after an attack where one US soldier and 11 others were killed, Donald Trump deleted the secret meeting with the Taliban, declaring the talks “dead”. But the chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai insisted negotiation remained “the only way for peace in Afghanistan” during an exclusive interview with the BBC. He also dismissed American concerns, telling that the Taliban had done nothing wrong.
Former Afghan President Karzai, who ruled the country from 2004 to 2014, has told to Associated Press agency that “the vote now is like asking a heart patient to run a marathon”, as it could ignite Taliban attacks that will put the nation into complete chaos. “This is no time for elections,” he said. “We cannot conduct elections in a country that is going through a foreign-imposed conflict. We are in a war of foreign objectives and interests. It isn’t our conflict – we are only dying in it”.
Graeme Smith, Canadian author and researcher, works as a consultant for the International Crisis Group in the organisation’s office in Kabul and is one of the world’s leading experts of Afghanistan. We have spoken, in an exclusive, with him about the forthcoming Presidential elections, the peace process and the outlook for a country, torn apart by war.
Can you explain us which is the mood in Afghanistan on the verge of the Presidential elections?
It’s always better to ask Afghans how they are feeling, but you can observe a few things as an outsider. The first is the lack of campaign rallies and candidates travelling to the provinces. In previous elections the contenders invested time and money to seek votes. This time around, the participants seem less interested in the electoral process. Everyone knows that the main contest for power will happen at the negotiating table with the Taliban, so the upcoming vote has inspired less enthusiasm.
Terrorism doesn’t stop, is it a way to try to influence the elections?
“Terrorism” is one way of describing it. At a time when the United Nations says pro-government forces are killing more civilians than anti-government forces — and since neither the United States nor the United Nations list the Taliban as a terrorist group — I’m not sure it’s a useful label. Maybe your question is about the high levels of violence. You can check the latest 31 August airpower summary published by the US military: during the period of negotiations in 2018 and 2019, the US dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than during any previous years. I have also seen non-public data showing that Taliban attacks in Kabul have increased in recent months—and there’s certainly a public perception in Kabul that the Taliban have ratcheted up violence. It’s fair to say that both sides have applied military pressure as the politics get intense during negotiations. That’s a good reason to get a full-scale peace process underway and work toward a mutual de-escalation.
There are many candidates at the elections: Who are the favourites? Ghani and Abdullah?
Ghani is the clear favourite, and seems likely to win if the voting proceeds. His victory would be contested by rival candidates who claim that Ghani controls the mechanisms of the election and has mobilised state resources to help his re-election campaign.
What about the Taliban? Are they becoming strong again? Which role do they have in the elections and who they support?
The Taliban have promised to disrupt elections if they go ahead. They have the military capacity to follow through on their threat. I’m worried the elections could be bloody. No matter what the Taliban decide to do, turnout will likely be low. During the parliamentary elections last year, fewer than one in five eligible voters were reported to have participated. The caveat “were reported” is important, because usually Afghan elections are marred by fraud that causes over-reporting of the turnout.
Can you see a possible turning point for Afghanistan in these elections?
No, the elections will not significantly change the course of the Afghan war. President Ghani will likely remain in office.
How can you explain the decision of Donald Trump to cancel Camp David?
Trump was upset that the Taliban did not want to follow his script for the peace process. It’s unclear whether the negotiations can be revived. What is clear is that the United States lacks military options, so will likely return to diplomacy—sooner or later.
Is a future of peace still possible in Afghanistan?
Yes. A political solution would be the best option.