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A Blunt Letter From US Secretary Blinken To Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – Analysis

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The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has written a blunt letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposing a UN-led conference in Turkey of representatives of six countries to discuss a “unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan”.

In the letter sent on February 28, 2021, Secretary Blinken signaled that the Biden administration had lost faith in faltering negotiations between President Ghani’s government and the Taliban. He asked President Ghani to “understand the urgency of my tone,” reflecting American frustration with the Afghan president’s “often intransigent stance in stalled peace talks.”

The letter states that the US would ask the UN to convene foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and US. It is stated in the letter that the US will ask Turkey to host a senior-level meeting of “both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also point out the importance of Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation (SRAR) Khalilzad’s recent proposal for achieving an inclusive peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The letter states that Khalilzad’s proposal is aimed at accelerating discussions and negotiating a settlement and ceasefire.

It is worth to mention that President Biden extended the role of Khalilzad after joining the office. Khalilzad has negotiated a controversial peace agreement with Taliban militant last year. Khalilzad is accused of unnecessarily empowering of Taliban and given an upper hand to Pakistan on Afghan peace process while isolating the elected Afghan government.

President Ghani and Khalilzad relations have deteriorated after the US-Taliban peace agreement was negotiated by isolating the Afghan government. The two graduates from the American University of Beirut and trained in the US played a major role in the politics of Afghanistan in the last four decades.

President Ghani has openly rejected Khalilzad’s proposal of forming an interim government and said that the only way to form a government should be through fair, free and inclusive elections, insisting he would not compromise on the country’s constitution.

In the opening of third term of legislative National Assembly in Kabul, President Ghani said: “The transfer of power through elections is a non-negotiable principle for us,”, stopping short of outrightly rejecting the proposal for an interim government.

“I advise those who go to this or that gate to gain power that political power in Afghanistan has a gate, and the key is the vote of the Afghan people,” he said, without directly referring to the proposed international conference. President Ghani added.

“We stand ready to discuss holding free, fair and inclusive elections under the auspices of international community. We can also talk about the date of the elections and reach a conclusion.” President Ghani further added.

President Ghani won a second five-year term in the controversy-marred Afghan presidential election two years ago. He shared power with his rival Abdullah Abdullah. The later become the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.

Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September as part of a February 2020 agreement between the militants and the US. But the talks have faltered over issues like a prisoner exchange and reductions in violence.

While no doubt brining Taliban to the negotiation table was a historical progress for achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan, however many believe that the agreement negotiated by the US with Taliban was extensively in the favor of Taliban. A large number of experts on Afghan politics and peace around the world think that the Taliban didn’t deliver their promises laid down in the agreement. The Biden administration has also said the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to reduce violence and to cut ties with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The US-Taliban agreement wants a substantial reduction in violence from the Taliban. But despite of the agreement, Taliban looking for more leverage has considerably increased the violence from the last year. At least 21 pro-government forces and 22 civilians were killed in Afghanistan the past week. According to the New York Times at least 3378 security-force and 1468 civilian were killed in Afghanistan in 2020. While the fact remains that the real data is far higher than the official data.

Coming back to the letter, secretary Blinken wrote that the US had not decided whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, as outlined in its agreement with the Taliban. He expressed concern that “the security situation will worsen and that the following a US withdrawal, the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.

As per the New York Times, the State Department declined to comment on the letter but said in a statement that “all options remain on the table” regarding the withdrawal of American troops”. “We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1,” the statement said.

The existence of the letter was reported after Khalilzad delivered an outline of US policy options to President Ghani’s government and Taliban negotiators last week. The proposals, intended to reinvigorate the stalled peace negotiations, included a road map for a future Afghan government with Taliban representation, a revised Afghan constitution using the current one as an “initial template” and terms for a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.

Significantly, the New York Times pointed out that the proposals called for national elections after the establishment of a “transitional peace government of Afghanistan.” The Taliban have opposed elections, dismissing them as Western interference.

The proposals also include guaranteed rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, and protections for a free press.

The outline presented by Khalilzad proposed a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to advise an independent judiciary to resolve conflicts over the interpretation of Islamic law. The proposals recognized Islam as the country’s official religion and acknowledged the importance of “Islamic values” in a future Afghan state.

The outline proposed that the government and the Taliban each name seven members to the High Council, with a 15th member appointed by the Afghan president. Similar arrangements were proposed for a commission to prepare a revised constitution and for a Joint Cease-fire Monitoring and Implementation Commission.

The proposals also called for the Taliban to remove “their military structures and officers from neighboring countries.”

An introduction to the document said it “sets forth principles for governance, security, and rule of law and presents options for power sharing that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war.”

The Biden administration has said the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to reduce violence and to cut ties with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Times pointed out. “But Washington has also grown impatient with Presdient Ashraf Ghani, who has refused to consider an interim government that would almost certainly end his second five-year term as president.”

Secretary Blinken’s blunt letter expressed impatience with the pace of negotiations, saying the US intended “to move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

In response to Secretary Blinken letter, Ronald Kobia, the EU Envoy to Afghanistan tweeted in his twitter account,” Afghanistan has a Constitution, had elections, held Loya Jirgas, has Joint Declaration with the US, is engaged in Doha process. The IRA has the support of vast majority of international community + the world in UNSC and Geneva has committed to protect achievements & Republic.”

In Afghanistan the letter of Secretary Blinken was received with mixed sentiments. Some officials from the Afghan government considered the letter as an insult to Afghanistan as a strategic ally of the US. Vice President Amrullah Saleh speaking on 7th anniversary of the death of Mohammad Qasim Fahim on Monday said that the letter will not change their commitment for Afghanistan. He said, “the US has the right to decide about the presence of their 2500 veteran, but we are responsible for a nation of 35 million people and we are not going to abstain our nation from their basic rights including the rights to vote”. VP Saleh said, Islamabad is a direct party to the Afghanistan conflict and treating it as a normal neighbor would not help the peace process in the war-torn country. “I prefer to die from the Taliban and Pakistan’s bullets on my chest, but not ready to deal on the nation,” he said.

It is worth to mention that Pakistan has been long blamed for harboring and providing support to Taliban in Afghanistan. It is no secret that scores of top Afghan Taliban leaders are hidden in Pakistan. In December, a series of videos surfaced showing senior Taliban leaders meeting their followers and Taliban fighters in Pakistan.

Others in Afghanistan especially the opposition saw the letter as the consequences of President Ghani’s wrong policies. They welcomed the letter and emphasized on the urgencies of ending the war and achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

This letter is sent to President Ghani in a time that he is in an extremely weak political position. President Ghani twice (2014 and 2019) shared power with his rival Abdullah Abdullah. He is now having few choices and apparently a very little influence on the peace talks. He played almost his all cards. His government has become extremely unpopular among Afghans. He compromised constitutional values for the short term political gains. He acted on Machiavellian political principles and tried to divide his political opponents – in which he was highly successful. But his populist approach and Machiavellian policies led to damaging of his image as an authentic leader of the nation.

His peace efforts delivered mixed results. He initiated the first unconditional ceasefire with Taliban which led to peace talks between the Trump Administration and the Taliban. He negotiated a historical peace deal with Gulbadeen Hekmatyar (Leader of Hizbe Islami). But Last Friday, Hekmatyar called a peaceful demonstration and said President Ghani didn’t deliver on his promises as agreed in the deal. It is worth to mentioning that Hizb –i- Islami now is apparently the biggest and most powerful opposition party to Ghani’s government- keeping the fact that Jamiat-i-Islami candidate Abdullah shared the power with Ghani.

President Ghani’s most controversial decision about peace process was the release of more than 5000 Taliban prisoners as a part of US-Taliban peace agreement. While some praised his decision as bold for achieving a lasting peace in the country, others saw Ghani’s as a weak and sympathizer of Taliban.

President Ghani is accused of sabotaging the peace process to complete his second term. This is a debating issue, but his recent stance and positions on the peace process show he is probably unwilling to negotiate anything with the Taliban until he could complete his second term.

On the economic side, Ghani’s efforts for building and rehabilitating historical monuments were highly successful. He rebuilt and reconstructed almost all the monuments which were destroyed by the Mujahideen during the internal wars.

His regional connectivity and management of Afghanistan water resources achieved historical success for Afghanistan, but his other economic policies couldn’t deliver what were intended. His handling of Covid-19 was relatively good in the region.

It is worth to mention that almost all the economic indicators of Afghanistan have fallen in Ghani’s administration. The rate of poverty and unemployment are all time high in the last 19 years.

His governmental reforms are partially successful, but he is blamed for political despotism and concentration of power. His administration created authorities and positions which are not only against the constitution, but also led to centralization of power and isolation of ministries and other governmental agencies.

His policy of terminating US trained security officials and installing his own people with no security education and experience led to politicizing and weakling of Afghanistan national defense and security forces. His direction of hiring Afghans from abroad with little or no knowledge of how to serve in Afghanistan context has led to conflicts and increasing of corruption and grouping in governmental agencies.

His insisting of keeping the rejected ministers as acting while it is utterly against the constitution of Afghanistan has dramatically damaged his public image as a technocrat and a democratic leader who claims to be safeguarding the constitution of the republic. There are many reliable reports that clearly show violating of constitution by President Ghani and hundreds of laws and regulations by his administration.

His fight on corruption couldn’t achieve what was intended but helped Afghanistan secure a relatively better score in Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. But, cases like the allegation of corruption on Administrative Office of the President specially misusing of Budget Code 91 led to spoiling of his image and raised serious questions about Afghan government’s commitment to fight corruption. Reports from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and other international agencies about corruption by senior government officials are raising serious questions about the political will and efficiency of Ghani’s administration to fight corruption.

In addition to that, trust on Ghani’s administration is the lowest on any government in the last 19 years. The main reasons remain failure of government in security, fighting corruption, building a strong economy and establishing a dynamic diplomacy. Similarly, US support is reduced to all time low, regional consensus is lost, Taliban control has expanded and assignations of elites are disturbingly common especially in Kabul.

Considering these factors it won’t be incorrect to say that Ghani’s government is extremely weak and looks quite fragile. In such a position, if the US continue betraying of President Ghani, it will be unlikely for him to complete his second term or negotiate a favorable peace deal.

It is unclear that what the recent policy changes of Biden Administration will deliver to Afghanistan, but it is obvious that the Biden administration may have no good options. The key question now is, what will become of Afghanistan? A US exit-depicts a country that could easily descend into civil war and a permanent presence is not a rational solution. Therefore, the only viable solution seems to be negotiating an inclusive peace deal with the Taliban – A peace deal that can end the conflict in Afghanistan through a comprehensive political settlement that ensures Afghanistan remains sovereign, unified and democratic and is at peace with itself and its neighbors and can preserve gains made over the last 19 years.

– Zarif Aminyar is the former Sr. Economic Advisor to Administrative Office of the President Ghani. He is alumnus of Harvard and Columbia University. He teaches at MTI College in Sacramento, CA. He tweets at ZarifAminyar and can be reached at [email protected]

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