Power struggle in afghanistan: government in kabul thwarted

U.S. special envoy prevents Afghanistan from splitting in two politically. Peace negotiations with the Taliban begin in March.

Abdullah Abdullah, here at a press conference, does not recognize the election results Photo: Rahmat Gul/ap

This Thursday, incumbent Mohammed Ashraf Ghani was actually scheduled to be sworn in for a second term as Afghanistan’s president in Kabul. Kabul’s streets were already flagged. On Tuesday of last week, the election commission had declared the 70-year-old Pashtun from Logar province, an anthropologist, ex-World Bank employee and finance minister, the winner with 50.64 percent of the vote.

The problem: His rival Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s partner in a less than successful National Unity Government (NUG) since 2014, does not recognize the election results and claimed victory for himself. Abdullah also wanted to be inaugurated as president. He already appointed his own provincial governors for his strongholds in the north and threatened to form a parallel government. Abdullah argues that one-sixth of all votes cast were disputed, but that the election commission had declared them valid across the board and without thorough scrutiny.

According to the Electoral Complaints Commission, which assists the Electoral Commission, 20 to 30 percent of them were invalid. That could have pushed Ghani’s share below 50 percent and led to a runoff. Abdullah’s supporters saw political pressure from Ghani behind the decision. They assume that he wanted to enter the peace talks with the Taliban as president and sole representative of his country. They are scheduled to begin in March.

The danger that Afghanistan’s government camp could be politically split in two and that the troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, which was painstakingly negotiated over a year and a half, could be thrown into disarray, put the U.S., the main protector and financier of the previous Ghani/Abdullah government, on the spot.

Power-sharing revisited?

The agreement is to be signed this Saturday in Qatar. Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad moved the rivals to concede after days and nights of intense shuttle diplomacy. Both swearing-in ceremonies would be postponed for two weeks, announced Tuesday night Kabul time the U.S. State Department. Abdullah’s spokesman confirmed it. Nothing was heard from the angry Ghani.

How things will continue between the rivals is unclear. Washington spoke out in favor of an "inclusive government." Ghani, however, rules out a new edition of the NUG. But Abdullah is unlikely to settle for anything less than a half-and-half solution. Moreover, both have yet to agree on a team for the Taliban talks.

The longer an agreement fails to materialize, the greater the risk that fighting will break out again after five of seven days of a partial cease-fire between Taliban, U.S. and Afghan forces. Since last Saturday, the number of battles has dropped by 80 percent. Both Kabul parties are looking mainly to their share of power, while the population expects peace and better living conditions. 55 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

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