The nine rounds of peace talks between US Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban eclipsed the election campaign in Afghanistan. The news of reaching a final accord with the Taliban and their meeting with President Trump had further dampened the hopes of elections being held on the scheduled date of September 28. The Taliban had declared the elections as hoax. In their demeanour, they had been acting as if they would get the major share of the power cake even before the elections and thus started dictating the future course of power politics. Taliban’s dream of ascending to power, however, was shattered with President Trump’s announcement declaring the talks as dead which in turn provided new impetus to the elections in Afghanistan.
The elections were held in a very challenging environment amidst threats and intimidation followed by naked aggressions in the form of bomb blasts and firing to deter the Afghan people from exercising their voting right. Many analysts expressed their doubts about the elections as according to them the Taliban held 50% of the area. But the people of Afghanistan proved to be resilient by making an uphill task possible demonstrating that the road to peace is through the ballot and not through the bullet. Many stories reported in the media bring hope and enthusiasm for the future of Afghanistan. For instance, beaming with enthusiasm, Najmia Popal, 18, accompanied with her mother, headed to a polling centre in Kabul to cast her vote for the first time. She voted because she hoped to live in a secure country. The exuberance of such zeal among the youth braved all the opposing currents of terrorism and defeated obscurantist forces.
Although the Taliban tried to project themselves as the sole representatives of the Afghan people, asserting that the government in Kabul was a puppet regime and therefore refusing to talk to them, the successful elections have changed the entire scenario. This is the fourth consecutive election leading to further democracy in the country. The incumbent President, Ashraf Ghani, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are the front runners. Whosoever ultimately wins, results are a good omen for peace and the people of Afghanistan.
The elections will give fresh legitimacy to the new President, head and shoulder above the rival forces in future talks. This has also given credence to the claim that Afghanistan is a democracy. Emergence of new realities underscores the point that successful resumption of broken peace talks will not yield desired results without engaging the elected government of Afghanistan. In this context, the Taliban will have to accept the legitimacy of coming elected government. All parties to the parleys have to be mindful that the Afghan people are the real stakeholders who are represented by their chosen representatives.
Amir Ullah Saleh, the running mate of Ashraf Ghani, has rightly stated that the most significant step towards peace was the successful completion of the presidential elections of 2019. Only a government with a proper mandate and legitimacy can reach out to friends and negotiate with the enemy. Only a stable Kabul can ensure a meaningful peace process. Many leaders in Pakistan also welcomed the outcome of the elections stating that it would augur well for the restoration of peace in the region.
Now the question arises as to what would be the implications on the peace talks in the post-election scenario? Soon after the elections, an Afghan Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as well as US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, visited Pakistan. Both met Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Taliban Spokesman Sohail Shaheen said that the group was ready for resumption of talks with Washington, not mentioning the Afghan government. In response, Afghan Government’s Spokesman Sediq Sediqi stated that the government should be involved in any peace process that takes place and that “no progress will be imminent if peace is not owned and led by the Afghan government”.
The election results also pose some other disturbing questions. In what capacity do the belligerent Taliban hold talks with sovereign countries? Were those not bilateral issues for the elected government of Afghanistan to take up? Why did treatment to a delegation sound like talks with the government of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? This whole scenario recalls the situation in Swat in 2018, where despite much skepticism due to insurgency, elections were held amidst all challenges as those holding the guns were never accepted and termed as an existential threat to the state. As the people were not ready to embrace the “demon of extremism”, the terrorists were ultimately defeated.
The new developments clearly demonstrate that the Taliban are just a small fraction of the Afghan society drawing their strength from the barrel of the gun. We have to be careful in facilitating this tradition. Embracing groups with extremist ideologies has not paid off in the past and is no longer a feasible option now. After the recent elections there is no scope for obscurantist forces. The only viable option for the Taliban is to accept the new realities by joining the mainstream politics of Afghanistan like Gulbadin Hikmatyar and others did. Any party claiming to be carrying the support of the people must wait for the elections. That is the only medium to gauge the popularity of a person or a party. Any other shortcut may lead to anarchy or dictatorship.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2019.