Will the Ghani-Abdullah rivalry undermine Afghan peace process?
The power struggle between the leaders and their supporters has come to the fore recently [AFP]
Hours after Afghanistan’s incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was declared on Tuesday the winner of the September 28 presidential election, runner-up Abdullah Abdullah contested the much-delayed results, highlighting the power struggle between the two leaders.
Following a recount and a total delay of nearly five months, Abdullah, who served as Afghanistan’s chief executive for the past five years, yet again questioned the fairness of the country’s electoral process, in a repeat of the 2014 election that was marred by irregularities.
On Tuesday, Abdullah announced that he would be setting up a parallel government and a day later, in his capacity as chief executive, he barred electoral officials from travelling out of the country.
His moves come ahead of possible intra-Afghan talks between the government and the Taliban armed group aimed at reaching long-term peace.
The talks are predicated on the successful signing of a peace deal between the Taliban and the US government, delineating the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s pledge to not allow Afghan territory to be used as a launchpad for attacks outside the country.
On Saturday, the Western-backed Kabul government, US and Taliban announced the beginning of a week-long “reduction in violence” (RIV) that should culminate in the signing of the peace deal on February 29.
Hours after the RIV pact took hold, reports emerged of Abdullah replacing the governors of Sar-e-Pul and Baghlan provinces. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed concern over the action, saying it could jeopardise the peace process.
“Resorting to force or any other unlawful means at the very time that efforts are ongoing to realize a reduction in violence – with the expectation that it can lead to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations on peace – jeopardizes the population’s hope for peace,” the statement said.
Chief executive of Afghanistan
After bitterly disputing the results of the 2014 election, Abdullah and Ghani were brought to the negotiating table by the US and agreed to run the government together – but fissures within the national unity government often came to the fore.
Their five years of partnership were often fraught with disagreements, bickering and rifts, bringing the government to a standstill on several occasions.
But the recent dispute between the country’s two most senior leaders could not have come at a more sensitive time for Afghanistan.
US President Donald Trump initiated talks with the Taliban in 2018 as part of his campaign promise to bring US troops home. The two sides are on the cusp of reaching a deal, which may see the end of nearly 19 years of war.
The Taliban has been fighting NATO and Afghan government forces since 2001 when the group was toppled from power in a US-led invasion.
If the US-Taliban deal is signed, Taliban and Afghan leaders would sit down to discuss the political future of the country. The Taliban made the deal with the US its condition for agreeing to speak to the Kabul government, which for years it dubbed a “puppet” of the US.
A broad political consensus is critical when Kabul sits face-to-face with the Taliban as part of the intra-Afghan peace talks. However, the Ghani-Abdullah rivalry could spill over into violence that would weaken the Afghan government’s hand in the negotiations.
“This has created fragmentation in Kabul government. This will certainly lead to a weaker position of Kabul when they sit face-to-face with the Taliban at the intra-Afghan dialogue,” Habib Wardak, a Kabul-based security analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“But before we even reach to the point of sitting with the Taliban, it will be a challenge to form an all-inclusive team and build confidence among the political elites, most of whom reject the outcome of presidential elections.”
As well as struggling to maintain consensus, the Afghan government is also faced with mounting socioeconomic issues, including unemployment, deteriorating security conditions and a collapsing economy.
Mariam Solaimankhail, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament, said the election results should indicate a clear mandate to the government “to partake in any discussion of national significance”.
“The election results were necessary for the continuation of the democratic process. No discussions with any group should disrupt the constitution, democracy and the overall achievements of the last two decades,” she said.
Shrouded in controversy
The counting of votes in the September 2019 election has been shrouded in controversy since the beginning, with repeated delays to the results election officials attributed to technical issues, allegations of fraud and protests from candidates.
The Taliban’s announcement at the time that it was boycotting the elections and its threats of violent disruptions combined with a general distrust of politicians and corruption to prevent many Afghans from exercising their ballot.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced preliminary results in December, saying Ghani had won re-election by a slim margin in a vote that saw a total turnout of more than 1.8 million. Abdullah dismissed the results as fraudulent.
On Tuesday, the IEC announced the final results after a recount, saying Ghani had won with 50.64 percent of the vote, beating Abdullah who secured 39.52 percent.
The Abdullah camp was swift in its rejection, casting a shadow over the future of the democratic process in the war-torn country.
“They took Ghani’s side. They were working directly for them. They surrendered to their power, status, influence and money,” Faraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesman for Abdullah’s campaign team, told Al Jazeera.
“That is why, not just us, but also the electoral complains commission, monitoring organisations and other teams did not participate in the audit and recount process of votes and this process had lost its legitimacy and credibility. That is why the result and outcome do not have legitimacy too.”
Addressing Abdullah’s announcement of forming a parallel government, potentially creating a constitutional crisis, Khwazoon said: “Our government will conduct its oath-taking ceremony … We have already formed groups and we will also announce our high-level appointments.”
Saif Khalid Sadat, a senior member of Ghani’s electoral team, rejected the Abdullah camp’s allegations, saying the election results had been announced by the IEC, as was within their legal authority, and “should be implemented by all means”.
“The elections have successfully been conducted on the basis of all electoral laws and procedures. Ghani gives high priority to the peace talks with Taliban and I believe it will be better for an elected government to negotiate with the Taliban,” he told Al Jazeera.
Some analysts have accused Abdullah of pursuing narrow political interests.
“Abdullah’s grievances are not political and it is based only on his very personal narrow interest and the interests of many warlords part of his political coalition,” Harun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“President Ghani has campaigned over preservation of the republic and the democratic constitutional political process. However, Abdullah Abdullah and his coalition partners hope that through a new provisional government, they might be able to preserve their government seats and political influence.”
Sadat, Ghani’s aide, reiterated the importance of having all Afghan political forces come together under the umbrella of “the government of Afghanistan” when doors for intra-Afghan talks open in the near future.
“All sides should reach a common goal which could put an end to this war forever.”
With reporting by Mohsin Khan Mohmand in Kabul