Saleh, in particular, has been a longtime foe of the Taliban, opposing former President Karzai’s peace outreach to the Quetta Shura.
Through 2001, as the Taliban and Al Qaeda-backed Hezb-e-Islami rained bombs down on the mountain redoubt of Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massood as his forces defended the Panjsher valley to the last man, his chief aide would unfailingly reach out to the media via satellite phone to brief them on how the Tajiks were keeping the hated Pakistani proxies at bay.
Abdullah Abdullah has long since outgrown that role of spokesman, becoming not just foreign minister in the first post-Taliban government led by President Hamid Karzai, but taking a shot at the post of President, albeit unsuccessfully, as he lost not one but two successive elections. In 2014, the poll results were so fractured — and questionable — it required then US President Barack Obama to assign his secretary of state, John Kerry, to broker a deal that to bring Mr Abdullah in as chief executive and his arch rival, former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, as President, to succeed Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai.
Mr Abdullah, who is facing off once more against Mr Ghani in Saturday’s presidential election, is however a different man on Pakistan, with many of his former fellow Panjsheris questioning his shifting allegiance, his unspoken leaning towards the Taliban. The suspicion that Mr Abdullah has dropped his anti-Talib stance were underscored no doubt by the last television debate before campaigning ended 48 hours before the vote, that saw Mr Abdullah and the Hezb’s Gulbadin Hikmatyar, mocking Mr Ghani, together, for refusing to participate in the show. While Mr Abdullah’s Stability and Integration ticket’s popularity ratings continue to put him well ahead of Mr Ghani’s State Builder team in this 15-man presidential race, whether the residents of Kabul will be able to look beyond the blood feud unleashed by the so-called “Butcher of Kabul”, who earned that sobriquet for levelling Massood’s bunkers in the 1992-96 civil war, will be interesting to watch. Rehabilitated in 2017, Mr Hikmatyar only returned to the Afghan capital after a Pakistan-inspired deal with Mr Ghani and the assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani removed another key player.
The Panjsheris, not to mention the slew of other powerful warlords seeking to maintain a lock on their own provinces, and whom India have long seen as a bulwark against the Islamabad-backed Taliban, are waiting to see how far the Abdullah-Hikmatyar dalliance will go after the elections. Thus far, Mr Abdullah’s Tajik ancestry has held him back from claiming residency of Arg, the presidential palace, even though he is part-Pashtun. Is he angling for that elusive Pashtun backing with his tacit endorsement of a Taliban return?
The other complication is that if, as election officials fear, voters simply refuse to come out to vote for fear they could get killed, this will cast doubts on the very legitimacy of such an electoral process and open the doors to a possible Taliban takeover by force; with or without America’s blessing. The Taliban have upped their bloody campaign to scupper the presidential elections these past months, and now control virtually half the country, including Kunduz, Takhar and Ghazni, as well as Logar province, from where ironically, Mr Ghani hails. In back-to-back bomb attacks, one, going off perilously close to Mr Ghani at an election rally last week, the other destroying Mr Ghani’s running mate and former spy chief Amrullah Saleh’s office while he was in the process of talking to them, with the bomb explosion in the next room taking the life of his nephew and many on his campaign team, the Taliban are intent on eliminating political rivals.
Mr Saleh, in particular, has been a longtime foe of the Taliban, opposing former President Karzai’s peace outreach to the Quetta Shura. Mr Karzai, a Pashtun, who persuaded the Taliban to withdraw when US-led forces arrived in 2002 to settle scores with Al Qaeda after 9/11, and held several rounds of talks in a bid to reintegrate them into the polity, continues to insist -- mistakenly — that peace must prevail before polls.
Indeed, before US President Donald Trump baulked at signing off on a peace agreement, the well-armed Talibs were primed to waltz into Kabul and take the ultimate prize. In unleashing successive suicide bombers on hapless Afghans at hospitals, weddings and crowded markets (with officials under pressure not to report the full scale of the violence), they were clearly banking on one thing — that the United States, which under President Trump wants a quick and safe exit for the first batch of some 5,000 troops from five American military bases, would bring them in as a trade-off.
The Taliban’s single-point agenda in the nine rounds of talks with the US administration, that have been held in the Qatari capital Doha and elsewhere, at the instance of Washington and US-appointed Afghan-born interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad, before they were summarily called off, has been to call into question the very legitimacy of the Ghani government. Kept out of the talks with the Taliban, which dismissed the Ghani government as stooges of the United States, it’s not surprising that Mr Ghani, who had rattled New Delhi with visits to Islamabad while seeking to forge a deal to end Taliban sanctuaries on Pakistan soil, knows he has no friends in Islamabad or Rawalpindi; and that he cannot arrive at a compact that gives the Talibs legitimacy. Backed by a number of Panjsheris, he must be India’s bet on keeping Pakistani machinations at bay.
With the “shooting while talking” modus operandi that the Talibs borrowed from the Americans still in play, Afghanistan, lying as it does at the heart of an all too obvious battle for control between India and Pakistan, is now paying the price for US President Donald Trump’s reckless pursuit of a backroom deal with Pakistan — a Kabul exit in return for Kashmir? The US President had with characteristic disregard for niceties cut the very government that Washington picked to run the country out of the picture, and now, has all but delegitimised polls that would have strengthened the hands of the very Afghans who are needed to end the fractious 30-year war.
Whoever’s ahead when the results are announced on October 19, the US has lost out on playing the trusted mediator. While Mr Khalilzad may easily be the most hated man in Afghanistan, Mr Trump can now add Afghanistan to his long list of follies.