Over the last 18 years, Afghanistan’s fragile democracy has limped and stumbled its way through election fraud, corruption and gross incompetence, but it has somehow managed to survive all that, and Pakistan’s persistent subversions, and the Taliban’s ceaseless, bloody assaults, besides. But now that this year’s twice-delayed presidential election campaign is finally underway, a more disturbing question is making the rounds in Kabul: Can a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic survive U.S. President Donald Trump?Related
Incumbent president Ashraf Ghani is adamant that the election, scheduled for Sept. 28, will not be derailed again. But the Trump administration is determined to strike an agreement with the Taliban that will allow the U.S. to pull its troops out of the country entirely, and there’s a lot of talk making the rounds that a pre-election deal could include measures for an interim Afghan government with the Taliban playing a major part in it.Ghani’s government, which has been frozen out of the eight rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks that have been conducted since last fall in Doha, Qatar, is dead-set against the idea. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban leadership likes it a lot, and so does Pakistan’s notoriously meddlesome Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Some Afghan opposition figures are content with it too. The uncertainty has left Afghans not knowing for sure whether the constitutional republic they’re being expected to elect a president to lead will even exist when they head to the polling stations two months from now.The uncertainty has left Afghans not knowing whether the constitutional republic they’re being expected to elect a president to lead will even exist when they head to the polling stations two months from now.U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he’s aiming for an agreement by Sept. 1, and an overwhelming dread of betrayal is eating away at the mood of national optimism that usually accompanies election cycles in Afghanistan.No matter the nonsense the Trump White House is peddling about a Taliban that can be trusted not to harbour anti-American jihadist outfits like al-Qaida again, Afghans are under no illusions. In its 14th annual comprehensive survey of Afghan opinion, the Asia Foundation found that Afghans have not been warming up to the Taliban in the slightest. Eighty-two per cent of Afghans say they have “no sympathy” at all for the cruel, obscurantist and notoriously misogynistic movement that ruled the country in the five years leading up to the atrocities in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.Afghans clearly don’t want to go backwards. Seven in 10 Afghans agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home, and 84 per cent say women should have equal opportunities in education. Nearly two-thirds of Afghans say they’re satisfied with Afghanistan’s democratic institutions. Women hold senior positions in several Afghan ministries, and women are increasingly winning elections as mayors and provincial governors. Of Afghanistan’s 11 million Afghan children, nine million are enrolled in schools.
Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani (Centre) attends the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul on July 28
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This a night-and-day comparison with the years the Taliban held sway in Afghanistan. Women were beaten for appearing in public unless accompanied by a man and covered in a head-to-toe burqa, girls were not allowed to attend school, and transgressors from the Talibs’ absurd theocratic strictures were summarily executed. In remote districts of Afghanistan where the Taliban has lately regained control, it’s just like the old days, and it’s “ridiculous and harmful” to suggest that the Taliban had lightened up, says Human Rights Watch senior researcher Heather Barr. “Women know better – but is anyone listening to them?”Afghans want peace as much as anyone does. A UN report this week found that while the January-June casualty toll for 2019 is lower than it’s been since 2013, for the first time most of this year’s civilian casualties, including 717 deaths, are attributable to the military operations carried out by Afghan forces and Afghanistan’s military allies. The Taliban, the Islamic State’s Afghan proxy and other militants killed 531 people, at least 300 of whom were deliberately murdered.While Afghans want an end to the bloodshed, they’re not fools. Opinion polls have consistently shown that Afghans would support their elected leaders entering into peace talks with the Taliban to end the carnage, so long as Taliban leaders first renounce violence. But the terror continues, and the Taliban refuses to recognize the Afghan government as legitimate anyway, so Taliban leaders refuse to talk directly to Afghan government representatives. The Americans, beginning with former U.S. president Barack Obama, have placed no ceasefire conditions in their negotiations.
An electoral poster of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah appears on a building under construction during the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul on July 28, 2019
WAKIL KOHSAR /
On Wednesday, at least 34 people were killed on the Kandahar-Herat Highway when a bus was blown up by a Taliban mine planted at the side of the road. Most of the dead are women and children. In Kabul on Sunday, the first official day of election campaigning, a coordinated suicide-bombing and armed assault on the headquarters of Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s vice-presidential running mate, left 20 people dead and 50 severely injured.Ghani’s main contender is Abdullah Abdullah, the veteran democrat who shared offices with Ghani in a joint administration after coming close to winning the most votes in the disputed presidential elections of 2014. But several other presidential candidates who registered for this year’s race have suspended their election campaigns, fearing that the Afghan armed forces won’t be able to provide adequate security.A near-total troop withdrawal of the kind Trump is hoping for would leave the ill-equipped and poorly trained Afghan National Army with possibly insurmountable challenges. While Ghani insists that only 22 of Afghanistan’s 400 polling districts are fully controlled by the Taliban, U.S. military analysts say the Taliban are in control of perhaps half the Afghan countryside.There are about 14,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan, down from a high of about 50,000 following Obama’s troop surge in 2009. Another 9,000 non-U.S. troops from a 38-nation NATO-led alliance, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Poland, Australia and the Netherlands, continue to assist the Afghan national forces in their operations. After losing 158 soldiers, Canada pulled its troops out of Afghanistan in 2014.Whether the NATO mission would continue after an American troop pullout, and in what form or to what purpose it would carry on, are very much open questions. As has been the case from the outset, the views of Afghans, especially Afghan women, are not exactly figuring prominently in any of the American debates about what kind of military commitment to make, if any, in Afghanistan.Trump faces no significant domestic restraint on his apparent willingness to abandon Afghans to their fate. He’s doing exactly what the “troops out” forces in the NATO capitals have been wanting all along. In the Democratic Party, a military retreat from Afghanistan can’t happen fast enough.Whether this is what the Afghan people want, as usual, doesn’t even enter into it.Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.ALSO IN CITIZEN OPINIONS:Spannagel: A federal election is almost here and we don’t care enoughLivermore: ‘Havana Syndrome’ – Canadian government must act more quicklyCohen: The case of Al Franken – conscience and fair play don’t matter anymore