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Will Taghir herald a new Afghanistan?

Neena Gopal is Resident Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru
Published : Oct 20, 2018, 1:14 am IST
Updated : Oct 20, 2018, 6:17 am IST

No representative of the Ghani government has participated in talks so far when as many as 11 members of the Taliban were present in the last round.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (Photo: AP)
 Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (Photo: AP)

The shooting on Thursday that eliminated one of the country’s chief anti-Taliban crusaders, Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, 39, the man responsible for keeping the Taliban at bay in their notional capital, Kandahar, underlines how much is at stake, as this deeply divided nation goes to polls on Saturday.

With the ill-fated Afghan general at the event was one of the United States’ top commanders in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller. Gen. Miller escaped in his helicopter, unharmed.

The Taliban attack comes barely a week after they held back channel talks in the Qatari capital Doha on October 12, with newly-appointed US envoy and Afghan native Zalmay Khalilzad that followed on from a meet last July with US deputy secretary of state Alice Wells. The talks have not come in the way of a systematic attempt by the Taliban to undermine elections to the 250-seat Wolesi Jirga, the Afghan Parliament, which has seen more young, well-heeled Afghans, standing for polls than at any time in its fragile history.

Many of the candidates are sons and heirs of powerful warlords like Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Junbish-e-Milli party, Hazara leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, Hezb-e-Wahdat’s Karim Khalili, Herat strongman Ismail Khan, and the Hezb-e-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, alongside the progeny of many second rung mujahideen leaders as well as wealthy businessmen, media moguls, representatives of civil society and even glamorous TV hosts whose posters now dot Kabul and other cities.

The first polls, after the Taliban were ousted 17 years ago, had ushered in the men who fought alongside the fiercely anti-Taliban leader, the Tajik commander, Ahmed Shah Masood, as part of the India-leaning Northern Alliance. This time, some of Mr Masood’s Panjsheri kin are in the fray, but the alliance itself is not as it once was. Presidential hopeful, Abdullah Abdullah is reported to have come to an understanding with long-time rival, the Pashtun leader and current President Ashraf Ghani, whose own long running feud with former President Hamid Karzai, who fell out of favour with Washington, has divided both Pashtun and Tajik ranks. Tajik stalwarts like Younus Qanooni, for one, is staying out of the fray.

But the enthusiasm across the board signals the ordinary Afghan’s desperate quest for peace — for “Taghir”, or change — the slogan that has become the all enveloping catchphrase for this poll campaign in the face of the Taliban’s sustained campaign of violence to derail the polls, or worse, declared as not being representative of the collective will of the people; which they of course, claim to represent.

On Wednesday, the Taliban, with their growing presence in the villages, had set off a mine in Helmand at candidate Abdul Jabbar Qahraman’s campaign office, making him the fifth candidate to be assassinated since the election campaign began, reducing him to just another statistic in poll-related violence that has claimed thousands of innocents over the last year. It is the inability of authorities to provide foolproof security for this, the sixth election since the Taliban were forced out of power in 2001 by the US that now stands to deprive the entire province of Ghazni, among others, of the right to exercise its franchise. Barely 5,000 odd polling booths will be functional across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Barely half of its 15 million voters, able to vote.

As alarming as the prospect is, of a Parliament that only represents the will of a fraction of the country, equally worrying is the concerted effort by the Taliban through its politics of intimidation and violence to target polling booths and poll officials. Willy-nilly that could affect the turnout on Saturday. How many of the 8.8 million voters, who have registered to vote, will brave the Taliban threat to disrupt polls and come out to vote in the face of the Taliban’s renewed call for a boycott, is the question. Polls to Parliament have already been on hold for more than three years. This round paves the way for next year’s presidential polls, which for President Ghani, who has publicly bought in to Washington’s line that the “Taliban are Afghan”, is critical, for his own survival.

For Washington, he is the “devil” they know, still their man in Kabul; although some say, that the US may yet fall back on trusted former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh or even cede to Hanif Atmar, a former national security adviser, albeit with close ties to Russia, who broke with Mr Ghani, just as polls were announced.

But in holding parallel talks with the Taliban — once fully funded and backed by the Saudis, the UAE and Pakistan — under a Trump administration that works closely with the new power centre in the Gulf kingdom, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, and whom Washington wants back in the game, the US is raising the prospect that they could be open to the return of the Taliban to Kabul. The US claim that these talks are “Afghan led, Afghan owned”, and that it will not affect the primacy of the Afghan government must warm the hearts of the votaries in Pakistan of its strategic depth game.

No representative of the Ghani government has participated in talks so far when as many as 11 members of the Taliban were present in the last round.

In fact, in round after round, both sides have not given an inch. The US’ primary focus is the safety of its soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, as they seek assurance of a safe exit with a proffer of a share in power in the US-backed dispensation in Kabul. The primary aim of the Taliban — which continues to be backed by Pakistan’s deep state which gives its operatives sanctuary, runs raids on US positions, and has brought their man, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar back into the game — is to see an “end to the occupation” of their land by all foreign forces.

Islamabad’s proxy, Taliban, will not rest until it retakes Kabul. Any hope the Taliban will facilitate an end to America’s longest war in return for a seat at the table, is a fallacy. The polls are nothing more than a means to an end.

Tags: ashraf ghani, taliban