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An expected peace deal with the Taliban shades upcoming Afghanistan Presidential elections

By Ahmad Shah Katawazai

U.S. special envoy for reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has arrived in Doha for his crucial meeting with the Taliban. The meeting is aimed to broker a deal on a ceasefire, put an end to the decade’s long war, and pave the way for U.S. troops reduction in the country. This meeting happens when in early July, both sides decided to take a break in order to consult leaders for a final decision. 

On Thursday Khalilzad met with the key Pakistani officials in Islamabad, known for backing and supporting the Taliban. After meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Khalilzad tweeted that he had the “most productive visit” to Afghanistan since he has taken his job as special representative.

Meanwhile, Abdul Salam Rahimi, newly appointed State Minister for Peace Affairs announced that they had finalized the list of 15 individuals for intra-Afghan talks that would start after the Taliban and the U.S. announced a peace deal.

One aspect of the current talks that differs from the past agreements is the fact that from the very beginning, the U.S. has been in an effort to achieve a regional and key players consensus. From Washington to Europe, Moscow to China, Middle East, and South Asia, Khalilzad has been traveling throughout the region in order to brief and have the consensus of stakeholders involved in a strategically important country, like Afghanistan. In July, Khalilzad left for China after achieving an unprecedented joint declaration on civilian casualties and intra-Afghan dialogue for the first time between the Afghan officials and the Taliban. A pause followed Intra-Afghan dialogue in the seventh round of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha. 

Both sides recognized the mutual sufferings of others as a result of the continuing 18 years of war. They shared the tales of relatives and friends lost to the attacks of either side. Unofficially, the two sides agreed on a roadmap as to how to reach a peace deal? Soft-targets like schools and children will be off-limits in the conflict for now. 

Despite that, as the talks continue both the Taliban and the Afghan government are pulling their punches on the battlefield. Both sides are in an effort to maximize leverage with continuing attacks ahead of the peace settlement. Violence has ratcheted up as the talks continue. A roadside bomb tore through a bus in western Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least 35 people. Before that Afghan vice-presidential candidate and former spy, Amrullah Saleh was targeted in an attack that left 20 people dead. According to last week, UNAMA report conflict in Afghanistan has caused 3,812 civilian casualties, including 1,366 deaths in the first six months of the year. Afghan and international coalition forces killed more civilians in Afghanistan than by the Taliban and other militant groups in the first half of 2019, a U.N. mission to the country said Tuesday. 
At a time when peace talks are its peak and close to inking an agreement, rather slow and uncertain presidential campaigns have already kickstarted. To the surprise of many, out of 18 candidates, only three candidates have held rallies so far. As uncertainty looms over the election, presidential candidates and people are less enthusiastic for this election compared to the past one. Away from the capital Kabul, in the provinces, there have been no evident signs of a campaign. Peace talks and presidential elections, two essential processes are continuing in parallel. Peace deal success or failure will determine whether the upcoming presidential election will happen or not? 

The country’s long-overdue presidential elections are scheduled for late September. However, the possible peace deal and security fears have added to the deep uncertainty over the presidential elections. Many of the presidential candidates have threatened to boycott the vote, alleging that the current government is manipulating the election process in its favor. Some candidates favor delaying the election and installing an interim government as the peace deal is about to be brokered. 

There are undeniable tensions between peace efforts and election. Taliban have opposed taking part in the presidential elections. Taliban will most likely agree to terms with an Afghan administration it knows will soon be out, thus paving the way for a government where the Taliban are part of. 

Western technocrats like Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal and Hekmat Karzai have put all their energy and focus on brokering a peace deal, as they consider this a golden opportunity to end the ongoing war. Failing to reach an agreement with the Taliban will be a catastrophic situation which could pose unimaginable damages to the country. 

The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared his opposition to upcoming presidential elections. Speaking during a press conference in Kabul, the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai one of the vocal critics of the U.S. policies in Afghanistan, said that elections would not be good for the country considering the current situation in which peace process should be prioritized. He also criticized that the ongoing peace process is not Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, emphasizing that the process should not be handed over to other countries. 

On the other hand, President Trump has already expressed impatience with the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Trump seems desperate to bring home his country troops, one of his promises during his campaign in 2016 elections. Perhaps President Trump wants to fulfill this promise partially, if not fully before the 2020 presidential elections in the United States, by bringing at-least half of the troops. Thus, time is limited for brokering a deal with the Taliban insurgents. 

For the United States, the expected deal will be a peace deal, paving the way for U.S. troops reduction and fulfilling President Trump promise of troops reduction before 2020 U.S. elections. For the Taliban, the deal means withdrawal of the foreign forces. While for Afghan people still, this is an uncertain situation where no one knows the aftermath of the deal. The post-2001 generation doesn’t know what will happen to their lives in post-peace agreement government structure, and what about the freedom they won under the blessing of the West after the Taliban? Any decision taken in a rush or hijacked by short-term political purposes could jeopardize all the investment that has been made in the country. Afghan constitution, institutions, rights of women, and democracy with guaranteed preservation and growing capabilities of the Afghan Security Forces should be prioritized and protected in any scenario. 

Ahmad Shah Katawazai is the member of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan and a former diplomat and national security expert in Afghan Embassy Washington D.C. Mr. Katawazai has a master degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University and a master in International Legal Studies from American University. Katawazai is a published writer. You can follow him on twitter @askatawazai 

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