President Ashraf Ghani has raised the curtain on his peace plan and agreed to the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan. Ghani summarised his plan in a speech at the 9th Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul Process – a gathering of regional and other states on security and cooperation in Central Asia – in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe 30 March 2021. With this, he accepted a major demand of the US, which brought increased pressure to bear on Ghani to ‘accelerate the peace process’ – but the plan is conditions-based. It seems Ghani has abandoned his, hitherto, rejection of an interim government but not his resolve to only hand over power to an elected successor. He also insists that all steps toward “the end state” of a neutral and peaceful Afghanistan should be within the current constitution’s framework, possibly in an amended but not completely re-written form. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at the plan’s outline, assesses its nooks and crannies, and compares it to the situation that led to the fall of a former president.Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani during his speech at the Heart of Asia meeting in Dushanbe on 30 March 2021. Photo: President's website.
What is in the Ghani proposal?
President Ashraf Ghani has raised the curtain on his plan for peace in Afghanistan. Ghani made the remarks at the Heart of Asia Conference in Dushanbe on 30 March 2021, but the full plan will likely be announced later this month at an international gathering in Istanbul. The planned Istanbul conference is the Biden administration’s push to resuscitate the ailing Afghan peace process and facilitate the completion of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by 1 May 2021, a deadline agreed with the Taleban (AAN analysis here). While a date for the Istanbul conference has not been announced, the US is, reportedly, making efforts to convene it in the first half of April, before the start of Ramadan, which is expected for 14 April. However, hopes are diminishing that this will be the case due to – among other reasons – regional tensions that came to the fore during the recent Afghanistan-related meeting in Moscow organised by the Russian government and also attended by the US peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. (An AAN analysis of this meeting will follow.)
Central to Ghani’s proposal, amounting to a counter-offer to the US plan, is establishing an interim government, without using this term, with a mandate to organise an “internationally supervised and monitored presidential election … to ensure a free, fair, and inclusive election process.” Ghani used the term “a government of peace-building,” slightly different to the two alternate terms the US had suggested in its plan, “Islamic Power-Sharing Government” or “Islamic Peace Government.”
This government would be composed of “the current elected leadership and other Afghans,” which could be read as referring to the Taleban and those who are part of the current Islamic republic system but in opposition to Ghani. It would be temporary (“with a time-bound mandate”), ie until a presidential election is held. Its members would not be allowed to run “in the next election.” Ghani asserted that he would “hand over authority to my elected successor.”
The “principles for forming a government of peace-building” would be a product of what Ghani called a “genuine political settlement that results in [an] agreed-upon end state of a sovereign, democratic, united, neutral and connected Islamic Republic Afghanistan,” in other words a peace agreement.
The envisioned settlement would include agreements on “implementation arrangements for moving toward the end state, legal mechanisms, constitutional authority, governance and development programs, and security, counterterrorism and ceasefire monitoring.” It would further include a “ceasefire with international verification and monitoring … principles to ensure international and regional guarantees for neutrality of Afghanistan, and a framework on counter-terrorism objectives” – the latter referring to a major US concern – as well as an agreement to maintain “the ANDSF,” Afghanistan’s National Defence and Security Forces, usually referring to the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and the National Directorate of Security. The political deal would need to be “endorsed by a Loya Jirga.”
In the “long-term,” which could mean after an agreement is reached and a new, permanent government established (elected according to Ghani’s plan), the peace process would address the “reintegration of combatants and refugees, defining our new security, development and governance priorities” and “a political compact on national reconciliation.”
Ghani referred to the June 2018 three-day ceasefire as “the first comprehensive ceasefire in the last 42 years” and “a true national celebration and manifestation of the will of the Afghan people to embrace the future, overcome the past and show that the Taliban really could be engaged in dialogue and discussion.”
Ghani’s extensive plan reflects both the government and the Taleban’s approach to the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha. Its slow progress prompted the US initiative to ‘accelerate’ the peace process, as indicated in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letters to Ghani and the High Council for National Reconciliation (and, as they have confirmed, to the Taleban). If the Afghan parties were to undertake Ghani’s suggested agenda, the ‘government of peace building’ would be long in the making.
Ghani suggested that the government of peace-building would be established “within the framework of the [current] constitution.” He added that the constitution had “built-in mechanisms” to amend it and suggested that “a commission should be formed to implement any amendments.” (See full English transcript of the speech here). Also, the confirmation of a peace agreement by a Loya Jirga conforms with the current constitution.
Well-played card or last-ditch effort?
By agreeing to an interim government, Ghani accepted a major demand of the US and his opponents in Afghanistan. Whether it is enough to narrow the gap with the (still unclear) ideas of his main internal opponent, the Taleban, remains to be seen.
The US has increased pressure on Ghani to agree to a new peace plan, focusing on a ‘Bonn style’ international-cum-Afghan ‘peace conference’ hosted by Turkey. Although the 2001 Bonn conference was not a peace conference, it also had power-sharing aspects, however not between factions fighting each other (see AAN analysis here). The desired US outcome is a peace deal signed by the Afghan government (as part of a so-called Islamic Republic of Afghanistan delegation that also includes the domestic opposition) and the Taleban, including arrangements on the ‘principles’ of a post-agreement government. Both plans agree on this point.
Ghani’s concession, however, came with a number of conditions and raised some questions. For one thing, his insistence that he would “hand over authority to my elected successor” does not make clear what this would mean in practice. It appears that Ghani does not intend to step down in favour of this peace-building government, as demanded by parts of the internal opposition (and implied by the US), and envisions himself as its head. There is also the question of the constitutionality of such a government.
Suppose the next presidential election is held under a new or amended constitution, it might even offer Ghani an opportunity to stand for a third term that would be barred under the current constitution. The question of whether he would be eligible to stand again would be another problematic legal issue and depend on how the terms ‘new’ and ‘amended’ – and the difference between both – are interpreted and whether the president technically would be part of the government or ‘above it.’ Given the experience of past elections, this would likely cause significant and difficult to solve disputes.
Ghani’s reference to presidential elections, with no mention of other elected bodies, could indicate that he envisions a continuation of the current de facto (not de jure) quasi-presidential system with a weak parliament – or possibly without one at all.
The biggest question is how the Taleban would react to Ghani’s plan. On the idea of an interim government, they have kept their cards close to their chests. Their spokesperson rebuffed reports that they had rejected it, saying that the US plan was still “under consideration,” but this does not mean that they will support this idea or Ghani’s plan. They have already rejected Ghani’s earlier proposal to hold a snap election.
The Taleban have generally sidestepped questions about their designs for the Afghan government and state’s future structure. They cleverly left this to the US, which obliged with a proposal to add a high council of religious scholars to the state structure. This council would “provide Islamic guidance and advice to all national and local government structures” and on “social, cultural, and other contemporary issues,” – something that is likely in line with the Taleban’s vision of good governance, which would see the ulema [religious scholars] in control of all state institutions. Moreover, the Taleban have not indicated whether they would support a general election of any kind.
The idea that the interim government function within the framework of the current constitution, which the Taleban oppose (not so much because it is ‘unIslamic’ but, as they have repeatedly stated, because it was drafted ‘under US occupation’), even if amended, will possibly draw strong resistance from the Taleban. Constitutional amendments that would limit or delete the rights of women to elect and be elected, as provided under the current constitution, might get their agreement but would likely draw strong opposition from large parts of the Afghan population and international public opinion.
Finally, the sequence of steps laid out in Ghani’s speech might represent a timeline for his peace plan (which is possible but unclear); the current government would convene the Loya Jirga after a peace agreement but before the interim government is formed. It can be assumed that the Taleban would not agree to participate in such a meeting if they see it as being convened and/or dominated by the current government.
In one aspect, Ghani’s proposal is politically astute. With one eye on existing political uncertainties concerning the Taleban’s position and vision (and playing to major US concerns), Ghani put the ball in their court. Much now depends on whether Washington is ready to extract clarifications and compromises from the Taleban, and its willingness to do so might be limited by the 1 May withdrawal deadline. So far, the Taleban have given no sign that they would be willing to compromise on this date. At the same time, it would be difficult for the US to oppose Ghani’s insistence on the current constitution (or at least some of its principles) to appease the Taleban. The US has publicly committed to protecting key components related to the human and political rights and freedoms of all Afghan citizens. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council on 23 March that a peace agreement “must preserve … [the] gains … of women and girls of Afghanistan … respect the universal human rights of all Afghans, including women, girls, and members of minority groups” and that the US would not “give an inch” on this issue.
The current period in Afghanistan has often been compared to the last years of President Najibullah. His protector, the Soviet Union, withdrew its troops by February 1989, and three years later, in 1993, Russia stopped all military and financial aid. This finally led to his overthrow in the same year, caused more by the erosion of his regime and defections (including Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum who is still a leading player in Afghanistan) than the onslaught of the mujahedin.
The gap between that troop withdrawal and regime collapse was three years, approximately the survival time US intelligence analysis gave the Ghani government without US troop support, as the New York Times reported. Unlike 1989-92, a complete end to financial aid does not seem on the table. However, the Times also quoted some US officials warning that “history shows that once American troops are withdrawn, Congress moves quickly to cut financial support for partner forces.” But it is not only about maintaining financial assistance but also about preventing the massive waste of the past two decades, with much of it going to corrupt channels.
Ghani’s – even conditioned – acceptance of an interim government recalls the beginning of the end for Najibullah and several short-lived UN plans to form an interim government and ‘bring in’ the mujahedin. At first, Najib hoped to safeguard a place in government for himself or his party, which the mujahedin successfully opposed, even as they were in a much weaker political position than the Taleban are today, as they were not a party to any official negotiations. Then as now, Pakistan fenced for the Afghan insurgents, while the US wanted to get rid of Najib’s ‘communist’ party entirely. The next step was a UN proposal that the then Kabul government should be represented in an interim set-up by “good Muslims,” ie people acceptable to the mujahedin and not members of Najib’s party. These included some recent additions, brought into the government by Najibullah during his ill-fated ‘policy of national reconciliation.’ Finally, former allies dropped their leader in favour of their own (political and physical) survival and prompted the collapse of the Najib regime. They invited the mujahedin to walk into Kabul and take power. The victorious, but fragmented, mujahedin groups accepted Najib’s high ranking military officers, while most civilian politicians vanished into exile and oblivion. The realignment happened along ethnic lines.
On the face of it, Ghani’s peace plan disclosed in its outline in Dushanbe is a well-played card. While Ghani, whose government is wholly dependent on US and allied support, is not in a position to set conditions for Washington, he is still able to manoeuvre. He did so by including the constitution-related caveat to pave the way for an interim government under a different name and with himself still in a key role, if not presiding over it.
But it is definitely not a political breakthrough toward peace. While it tries to address some US concerns, rebut perceptions that he is ‘obstructive’ to US ideas and safeguard his position, it might not be enough to bridge the gap with the Taleban. It would be surprising if the Taleban, who persist in their refusal to talk to Ghani in his capacity as head of state, accepted a continued role for the current Afghan president even in an interim period, either before or after a peace deal. It is also unlikely that they would accept Ghani setting terms – such as the Loya Jirga – that might favour him if convened by an interim set-up in which he is still present. Although his government is the internationally recognised one, its legitimacy is precarious. Ghani’s position is significantly weakened by repeated US inclinations to give in to Taleban demands in pursuit of its own aims with regard to Afghanistan. Ending ‘America’s longest war’ was not only one of former president Donald Trump’s ambitions; it is also one of President Joe Biden’s campaign promises.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 1 Apr 2021