As the US withdrawal gathers pace and the Taliban seize strategic districts, it is worth remembering how the Afghan government’s Triumvirate, paved the way for the current state of affairs.
In 2014, Ashraf Ghani ascended to the Presidency of Afghanistan. His assumption of the reins of power was mired in controversy. He was declared President only with the mediation of US Secretary of State John Kerry. This was after a protracted dispute over the results of the elections: now and then an indelible feature of the post-2001 supposedly democratic order in Afghanistan.
Ghani ran on a pro-peace, anti-corruption ticket. In doing so, he capitalised on long standing resentment over the US’ war in the country, which worked hand in glove with the eye watering corruption of figures placed in power by the US itself. Ghani’s first visit was to Pakistan, where he met then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the generals of Pakistan’s powerful Army. The underlying rationale was that strengthened bilateral ties would translate into the Taliban, seemingly a Pakistani proxy, being coerced into negotiating and making peace with Ghani’s new administration. To this end, Ghani went as far as publicly laying a wreath at a monument dedicated to fallen Pakistani soldiers. This was a bold risk given the widely held suspicion in which Pakistan’s security establishment was and is held across Afghanistan. Ghani succeeded to some extent, as the Taliban in 2015 sat down for informal talks with Kabul in Pakistan’s Murree resort. Talks were derailed, however, with the abrupt announcement that the group’s founder, Mullah Omar, had actually passed away two years ago.
The war against his government persisting and intensifying, Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan had backfired. President Trump’s assumption of the Presidency led to a further surge in the conflict that resulted in the Doha Agreement in February 2020. Since then, the attitude of Kabul’s Triumvirate, consisting of the President, the Vice President Amrullah Saleh, and the National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, has been a marked departure from Ghani’s earlier appreciation for peace. An overt obstinacy has since characterised the Triumvirate’s posture toward the idea of peace.
The Doha Agreement stipulated a prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Kabul to usher in thorough intra-Afghan negotiations, due to be launched on 10th March, less than a fortnight after the signing of the Agreement. Barely a day had passed before Kabul made its stance clear. The release of prisoners was solely the prerogative of Kabul, not Washington. The issue was one of sovereignty. To many Afghans the stance, theoretical and abstract in its nature, problematised a nascent, even if flawed, peace process. Ghani’s insistence on the primacy of his government on the principle of sovereignty was dubious; his first action as President was signing the infamous Bilateral Security Agreement. The BSA ensured the presence of roughly 14,500 US troops, enjoying full immunity from Afghan law: a privilege they (ab)used prolifically by conducting repeated night raids together with allied militias. Curiously, at that point, sovereignty seemed the least of Ghani’s concerns. Neither was it merely the Doha Agreement that Ghani had been opposed to; his apprehensions about even the earliest US meetings with the Taliban had been reported.
The pressure exerted by Washington meant that President Ghani was compelled to comply, despite his protestations, with the Agreement. Ghani did succeed, however, in massively delaying the talks. The prisoner exchange supposed to be completed by 10th March was finalised only by September, after six months and a shambolic presidential election, the results of which were, once again, predictably disputed. The inauguration of President Ghani took place a stone’s throw away from the inauguration of Dr. Abdullah, who had also, once again, proclaimed victory. Even more predictable was the fact that this impasse between the same two supposed victors of 2014, was resolved only, once again, through US mediation.
In the meantime, however, attacks rocked Afghanistan. The most chilling of these was the May 2020 attack on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) maternity ward in Kabul’s predominantly Shia Hazara inhabited Dasht Barchi neighbourhood. Gunmen stormed the maternity ward on a shooting spree. The death count totalled 40 people, consisting entirely of pregnant women, newborns and their mothers. The attack shocked Afghanistan, the site of four decades of war, to the bone. The Taliban condemned the attack. Responsibility for attack was not claimed, yet President Ghani wasted no time in using the massacre to announce the launch of offensive operations against the insurgents, even as it was unclear as to why the Taliban, on the cusp of increasing national and international legitimacy, would attack newborns and their mothers. Ghani’s declared launch of offensive operations was whilst the prisoner exchange stipulated by the Doha Agreement was being conducted at a snail’s pace, which Ghani was being strong-armed by the White House into abiding by.
A similar parallel could be observed with the March 2020 attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul, barely a month after the signing of the Doha Agreement. Unlike the attack on the maternity ward, this attack featured a claim of responsibility by Daesh. Even this did not stop Ghani from blaming the Haqqani Network: widely and incorrectly perceived as an autonomous faction of the Taliban.
There is, however, a clear rationale for blaming the Taliban, even if their involvement is unclear or precluded by claims of responsibility from other groups (like Daesh). That rationale is underpinned by Kabul’s strenuous attempts not just at derailing a President Trump inspired peace process. It is also to equate the Taliban with Daesh in a way that would delegitimise the insurgents, inversely legitimising Ghani’s government, or Triumvirate, and its stranglehold on political power and the country at large.
Kabul is not personified solely by President Ghani, who leads what is now a Triumvirate. The inevitably chaotic Presidential elections that Ghani was controversially declared the winner of had another standout feature. Ghani’s running mate was Amrullah Saleh. Saleh was the head of the NDS, notorious Afghan intelligence agency. By selecting Saleh, Ghani was attempting to stem the tide of increasing Taliban and American pressure. Saleh was noted for his prolific use of torture during his tenure as NDS chief. It was in this capacity too that under the Presidency of Hamid Karzai, Saleh, a Tajik, was noted for his vociferous opposition to making peace with the Taliban. Saleh’s anti-peace stance was, according to Steve Coll, rooted in his fear that peace with the Taliban was actually part of an ethnic Pashtun conspiracy, possibly leading to perceived Pashtun hegemony. That Ghani had branded himself a fiercely patriotic Pashtun to his base only adds to the irony of the marriage with Saleh.
In any case, Saleh’s attitude since his assumption of the Vice Presidency aligns seamlessly with his previous stances. He has been prominent in linking the Taliban to Al-Qaeda, and even Daesh, against whom the Taliban fought a bloody war in the country’s east.
In response to the March 2020 attack on the Sikh Gurdwara claimed by Daesh, as well as the attack on the MSF maternity ward, Saleh tweeted:
Talibs & ISIS share the same ideological gene, operational platform & strategic aim i.e. unroll democratic order to impose reclusive clerical rule by violence & torture.The massacre of Sikh families in their place of worship is a crime against humanity. Facts will surface 1 day.
— Amrullah Saleh (@AmrullahSaleh2) March 27, 2020
Terrorists Taliban, their current or former allies or their ideological twins attacked a maternity hospital & a funeral procession killing mothers, newborn babies & innocent civilians.This is the behavior of the changed Taliban after they took courses on humane conduct in Doha.
— Amrullah Saleh (@AmrullahSaleh2) May 12, 2020
Ironically, neither Saleh, nor Ghani for that matter, seem to understand how self-defeating their attempts to equate the Taliban with Daesh and Al-Qaeda are. If it were indeed true that, as Saleh tweeted, the Taliban share an ‘ideological gene, operational platform & strategic aim’ with Daesh, it beggars the question as to why the government Saleh is Vice President of is busy negotiating with the Taliban in Doha. After all, would any government negotiate with Daesh? If the answer is that Kabul was coerced by the US to negotiate with the Taliban, it would only vindicate the Taliban. After all, would this not prove that Kabul was merely an extension of the White House, wholly dependent on and subservient to Washington’s whims, entirely unfit to carry the mantle of a historically cherished Afghan sovereignty?
The youngest member of the Triumvirate is the current and somewhat notorious National Security Advisor: Hamdullah Mohib. Mohib’s appointment as NSA, with his PhD background in graphic design, raised eyebrows. Irrespective of his credentials or lack thereof, Mohib’s demeanour illustrates a perfect unity with that of the President and Vice President. Prior to the Doha Agreement, he had brazenly accused US Envoy Khalilzad of aiming to replace Ghani’s government in order to serve as Viceroy of a new administration. Washington’s response was swift; it ceased all official correspondence with Mohib. It wasn’t the last of Mohib’s impulsive outbursts. On a recent trip to his native Nangarhar, he berated Pakistan by invoking long-standing slurs about what is Lahore’s poorly concealed red-light district. Pakistan too ceased all official correspondence with Mohib; Prime Minister Imran Khan even reportedly cancelled a scheduled phone-call with President Ghani. Elsewhere, Mohib described the Taliban as merely a proxy of Pakistan’s ISI. This description has two possibilities. Either the Taliban are as described, or they aren’t. If they are, the same logic that applied to Saleh applies equally to Mohib. How can Kabul claim sovereignty or even respect, if brow-beaten by a second country into negotiating with the proxy of a third country? Furthermore, why not then negotiate with Pakistan directly?
Intra-Afghan negotiations were doubly handicapped at the outset. There was firstly the naive expectation that even with good faith, a four-decade long conflict, with its subnational, international and ideological roots, could be concluded swiftly. The difficulty of negotiations was exacerbated by the multiplicity of factions on the government side: Islamists, feminists, and generally ideologically fluid warlords represented by their sons. President Ghani’s 2019 ‘State Builder’ presidential campaign was contradicted by his appointment to his Republic’s negotiating team of the sons of Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor, two warlords he had bitterly feuded against. Added to this is the Triumvirate’s demonstrated lack of appetite in meaningfully partaking in a peace process it was always apprehensive about. In Afghanistan, accusations were made that Ghani was gambling on a Biden victory in US Presidential elections, and a potential change of policy that would bring. As recent days have shown, that gamble, if taken, failed miserably.
That isn’t to say that violence would have been eliminated had the Triumvirate pursued a different course; few peace processes involve a complete halt in hostilities. Yet the prevalent attitude finds itself coupled with the Taliban using violence increasingly effectively to apply political pressure where the Triumvirate are decidedly non-receptive. The recent Taliban blitzkrieg took by surprise many an apparent expert, many of whom seem suspiciously determined to emphasise solely the regional or ethnic dynamics of the conflict. Major advances took place not in the movement’s traditional strongholds in the south, but in the north, where it had struggled to gain ground in the late 90s. Its pincer movement nationwide has seen it take border crossings, from Islam Qala on the border with Iran, Sher Khan Bandar on the Oxus with Tajikistan, encircling Boldak by Pakistan and capturing Torghundi by Turkmenistan. The Triumvirate’s control extends over an archipelago of further isolated urban centres: cut off from Kabul, one other, and border crossings, accessible only by air. The turn of events was not inevitable, yet its self-defeating seeds were sown by a Triumvirate willing to go to the brink in plunging the country into the abyss, to salvage any shred of power.
A successful peace process would, for the Taliban especially, necessitate the Triumvirate’s replacement. This is equally true for select members of the Triumvirate’s negotiating team, less willing to negotiate with the Taliban as they are to write opinion pieces for international media decrying them, unwittingly vindicating the Taliban’s charge that their power and support is derived not from Afghans, but foreigners. Successful negotiations for the Taliban, on the contrary, would mean greater legitimacy at home and abroad and a smoother path to its ultimate governance. The dichotomy in the priorities of both sides could not be starker.