On March 7th, Afghan media released a copy of a letter addressed to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani from the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The letter pointedly stated that the May 1st deadline for a complete US troop pullout was still on the table, but the main thrust was Blinken pressing the Afghan president to cooperate with other Afghan leaders to find a “quick and permanent” solution for a ceasefire and a subsequent peace agreement. The letter stated that the US would work in tandem with regional leaders and the UN to support this process. Around the same time, the US proposed an interim government to replace the current one until new elections could be held and a new constitution could be drafted.
Interim Government: Old Recipe With New Packaging
The letter and the proposed interim government solution are meant to signal the firm and resolute intention of the US to reach a sustainable peace agreement. However, among other problems, the speed called for in the peace plan is not realistic, and could be potentially catastrophic for the Afghan people. A precipitate withdrawal of troops conjures memories of the Soviet pullout, which led to a civil war followed by the Taliban regime.
The current timetable was the result of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, which was mainly driven by short-term gains that scored domestic political points. In the case of Afghanistan, the US followed a “make-it-work-at-any-cost“ approach. In 2019, many Afghans concluded that the US was basically selling the Taliban’s proposal to form an interim government, disregarding the Afghan presidential elections to be held at that time.
In any event, quick-fix solutions calling for an interim government in Afghanistan are not new.
Now, the Afghan opposition bloc–ostensibly the junior partner in the current Afghan government–has stated its support for an interim government solution, perhaps in hopes of gaining a greater share of power in a future coalition government with the Taliban. So, the US, the Taliban, and the Afghan opposition currently back an interim government solution; however, according to the data available, only 13% of the population support one.
The Problems With an Afghan Interim Government Solution
As the US tries to re-package a "new" interim government solution in order to enable its “graceful exit” from Afghanistan, several concerns and challenges arise.
First and foremost, there is the question of legitimacy and accountability. To whom would the proposed interim government be accountable? From what would it derive its authority? What would guarantee that an interim government would hold for two to three years if any one party dropped out and decided to re-engage in armed conflict? And, most importantly, do the Afghan people want an interim government solution?
Unlike the former interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, which was conceived in Bonn in the political vacuum that followed the defeat of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is currently run by an elected government that enjoys international recognition. The current government consists not only of the winner of the election but also includes other major candidates who won significant numbers of votes in the last election. These leaders do not favor an interim government solution.
The transition from the Karzai-led interim government to a permanent government was guaranteed through elections supported by a committed and determined international community of mostly Western nations who were still haunted by images of 9/11. It remains uncertain who and what the guarantors of an election in 2024 will be. Now, the same stakeholders are suffering from “Afghanistan fatigue,” the Taliban continues to reject the idea of elections, and it is highly doubtful that countries named in the plan — China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India—will help a fledgling state progress toward a rights-based democracy. These countries are not healthy democracies, or democracies at all.
Moreover, an elite-based consensus interim government--which is what an interim government in the current proposed form would be--will most likely result in the dismantling of almost 20 years of sustained efforts to build a sense of self-determination among Afghans who have begun to see themselves as the source of the government's legitimacy, at least in principle. No matter how short-lived, flawed and malfunctioning Afghans' experience with democracy has been, it should be reformed, improved and strengthened--not discarded.
Afghanistan’s history bears witness to such illegitimate strong-arming, such as when President Daoud Khan, ending a decade of democratic reforms, conducted a coup d'etat to gain power in 1973, setting a precedent for coups and coup-attempts in 1975, 1976, 1978, 1990, and 1993, and thus instilling a lingering fear that persists to this day. The formation of an interim government from the top, and not the bottom--while an elected government remains legitimate--will not only embolden anti-democratic forces now, but will set a precedent for decades to come that any armed opposition force that remains determined and brutal enough in its tactics will have a realistic chance of overthrowing an elected government.
The Intra-Afghan Peace Talks Need Time
The agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, signed on February 29, 2020, took almost 18 months and several rounds of talks behind closed doors, and was conducted on a completely bilateral basis. Think how much more complicated the intra-Afghan peace negotiations will be with many international, regional and domestic players and agendas and under public scrutiny.
Further, the real challenge is that a workable solution must be found between two diametrically-opposed definitions of statehood--namely, a republic and a theocracy (according to the definition of the Taliban.) The intra-Afghan talks were expected to take a year.
Instead of pushing for an interim government solution, the intra-Afghan peace-negotiations, which only began in September 2020, should be supported with good faith by international stakeholders and especially the US. The two sides should be rewarded when compromises are reached, but also held accountable and sanctioned when the terms of the agreement are violated. Both Afghan sides will probably have to concede to second or third-best options for their demands, rather than first choices. If anything, the five months of the intra-Afghan negotiations demonstrated that for an effective and permanent peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban to be realized, a lot of groundwork and time are essential.
Maryam Baryalay is a political and risk management analyst focusing on South and Central Asia. She is co-founder and currently CEO of the Kabul-based Organization for Social Research and Analysis (OSRA).
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