Resolving the Ghani-Abdullah impasse in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul, Afghanistan March 23, 2020. Afghan Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS     THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just returned from an emergency trip to Afghanistan. His mission there did not center on the war against the Taliban, the peace process with the Taliban, or even the global coronavirus pandemic. Rather, his visit was intended to resolve a major dilemma within the Afghan government itself—the fact that the Afghan government now exists in two versions in the aftermath of last fall’s disputed presidential elections. President Ashraf Ghani, the previous incumbent, claims to have won reelection by a comfortable margin, a result confirmed by the Independent Electoral Commission in Afghanistan. He held an inauguration ceremony earlier this month, attended by U.S. officials, to begin his second term. Simultaneously, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, now a three-time presidential runner-up at least according to official tallies, claimed victory in a vote that he said was fraudulent—and held his own inauguration. Secretary Pompeo was unsuccessful in getting the two men to agree to a power-sharing arrangement, so upon his departure he stated that the Trump administration would cut $1 billion out of the several billion dollars in aid that, in addition to its military presence there, the United States now provides to the government of Afghanistan.

We have not been supporters of President Trump’s often off-the-cuff dismissiveness of the importance of the Afghanistan mission to U.S. security, or of his frequent threats to radically curtail or end the U.S./NATO mission there. However, this time, Pompeo’s threats are commensurate with the strategic situation as well as the stakes at hand. The American taxpayer cannot be expected to support duplicative—or even competing—Afghan governments that will have no realistic chance of bringing peace to that country. As Abraham Lincoln rightly said, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Pompeo, who stopped by Doha, Qatar, on his way home from Afghanistan to have an amicable conversation with Taliban negotiators, should be careful not to overdo his friendliness toward our longstanding adversary in this conflict, even as a tactic to pressure Ghani and Abdullah. But it remains true that the Taliban will benefit from any enduring weakening of the Afghan government that results from this impasse.

Give each Afghan leader his due. Both have shown remarkable commitment to their nation and its partnership with the United States over the last two decades. Ghani was finance minister and partner to one of us on the repatriation of Afghan provinces to national control in 2012. He held other positions before being elected president in 2014. Abdullah was foreign minister in the government of President Hamid Karzai and then, for many years, the effective leader of the “loyal opposition” to Karzai, using peaceful and political means to challenge modern Afghanistan’s first elected president. Both Ghani and Abdullah lost the presidential race to Karzai in 2009. Abdullah, still technically within his rights to insist on a second round of voting as the runner-up, instead conceded defeat for the broader good of the nation. He did the same thing in an even closer race in 2014, when Ghani was said to have defeated him—even though vote counts were probably too close for anyone to be sure of who really won. The Brookings Institution hosted Abdullah that same year for an event, at which we thanked him for putting his ego second and his nation first. Ghani was himself a gracious winner; with Secretary of State John Kerry as midwife for the arrangement, Ghani and Abdullah then worked out an extra-constitutional arrangement that made Adbullah “chief executive” as a kind of consolation prize.

Alas, the camaraderie did not last. Ghani increasingly marginalized Abdullah in recent years, prior to the 2019 presidential campaign. Thus, when another murky electoral result came out of the September vote, Adbullah chose not to go gently this time, and instead declared himself the winner. His frustration was understandable—but his action has no realistic prospect of achieving anything other than a chaotic Afghan government, worse U.S.-Afghan relations, and of course a much worse prospect for either a successful military campaign against the Taliban or a successful peace process.

What to do? As Americans, we can only offer ideas, of course, and would do so from positions of great respect for both leaders. Most anything that Ghani and Abdullah can work out would most likely be acceptable to Washington, as it should be. The main point is to impress upon the two Afghan leaders, and their respective followers, that Pompeo and Trump look very serious to us—and would likely have the support of most Americans of both political persuasions should the Afghan government’s division ultimately lead America to decide to abandon this mission and go home. Former Vice President Biden might even do the same were he president. We would be worse off for such an outcome—but at some point, the actions of our Afghan partners might leave little choice.

All that said, there may be one idea worth considering. Ghani and Abdullah could agree that the peace process with the Taliban, already postponed for two weeks due to a dispute between Ghani and the Taliban over prisoner release, could be led on the government side by Abdullah. He would not be Ghani’s delegate so much as the representative of what Afghan patriot and media leader Saad Mohseni calls “the republican side” of the country—all those who believe in a constitution like that developed in 2004, and in a modern democratic system of governance and human rights. Such a group is the rightful counterpart to the Taliban in any peace talks. Since those talks could envision fundamental political reform, they require a broader representation than just one particular Afghan government at one particular moment. Indeed, Ghani is now in effect a lame duck, since the current constitution limits any president to two consecutive terms. So, it is not clear how he could be the sole decision-maker on the peace process for the Afghan polity in any case.

A stronger, more inclusive, and more diverse negotiating team needs to pursue peace with the Taliban. Having such a broad group, which must also include prominent women, would also help drive home to the Taliban and its backers in places like Pakistan that a wide swath of Afghan political and civil society insists on certain basic protections in any future Afghanistan—like rights for women, minorities, and political dissidents. The Taliban will surely try to portray Ghani as a lackey of Washington and illegitimate leader of the nation. This narrative needs to be defeated, and in this the United States and international community must play a role. Thus, as many Afghans as possible must form a united front in pursuing the kind of country they all want in the future—and that the Taliban may not want.

Abdullah is an excellent choice to lead such a broader team representing Afghan political leaders, parties, Afghan women, and civil society. As noted, he has worked with former President Karzai—himself an important player in all of this—but also been an opponent to Karzai. He has worked with, and campaigned against, Ghani. He has served his country as foreign minister. He has helped his country survive two contentious previous presidential elections. And his mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage makes him a natural unifying figure, as well. Importantly, Abdullah is deeply respected in the United States and around the world.

With Ghani as the reelected president, and Abdullah as the lead negotiator—as well as lead decision-maker—on any deal with the Taliban, Afghanistan would be resolving a serious impasse that if allowed to fester could sink the entire mission for which Afghans, Americans, and many others have sacrificed so much for so long. That the mission has been frustrating, with huge cost in blood and treasure, does not make it worthless. The Afghan government still controls a substantial majority of the country. It helps provide education, health care, and basic human rights for the majority of its citizens while working with the United States and NATO to prevent any al-Qaida or ISIS presence that could again threaten the West from the nation’s territory. These are not accomplishments to give up lightly over a personal feud that should be resolvable.