Afghanistan | Words and Peace

A new president hopes to negotiate with the Taliban.

01 February 2015
Until recently, many Afghans saw Ashraf Ghani as an outsider.
Haron Sabawon / Anadolu Agency / Gety Images

ON THE MORNING OF 29 SEPTEMBER, Ashraf Ghani arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul wearing a black blazer, a white shalwar kameez, and a black lungi—a kind of fanned-out turban. The lungi is a typically Pashtun headdress, usually reserved for social occasions such as weddings. But Ghani had chosen to wear it for a much more somber event: his swearing-in as the next president of Afghanistan.

Ghani, a Pashtun himself, kept the lungi on throughout the ceremony, and when he rose to deliver his inauguration speech, it rose with him. The speech, filled with calls for conciliation and peace, was a departure from the obstreperous style of leadership of the past decade, under the presidency of Hamid Karzai. It pleased many international observers and foreign ambassadors, who were happy to see a new face in the presidential palace after Karzai had alienated much of the donor community with his vociferously anti-US rhetoric. It was also a welcome respite for ordinary Afghans, who had endured months of tense political wrangling in the wake of controversial elections. Ghani seemed determined to not leave anyone out of his embrace, and called on his political opponents to join in the work of helping the country progress. He also reached out to the Taliban, perennial foes of the Afghan government since they were toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001. Ghani called the insurgents to the negotiating table. “Fighting is not a solution to political differences,” he said.

Since then, Ghani has put opening talks with the Taliban high on his agenda. His enthusiasm, and the present concatenation of Afghanistan’s circumstances, give reason to hope for a negotiated end to the thirteen years of fighting between the insurgents and the government. Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban never led to meaningful dialogue. But a new government, a July report from the influential London-based think tank Chatham House notes, “is the sine qua non of progress on political reconciliation.” Ghani’s project could also benefit from a possible lull in tensions following the reduction of the US military presence in the country. (Most US combat troops were withdrawn by the end of 2014, though eleven thousand still remain with yet no certainty as to when they will go.) “A new president and the departure of most foreign combat troops mean that a window will briefly open” for negotiation, the Chatham House report says.

The report, optimistic as it is, came out before the result of the election was clear, and could not have predicted Ghani’s ascension to the presidency. But the fact that he has assumed the post, and not his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, has further boosted the hope of talks. There are rumours—and some evidence—that the Taliban look favourably upon Ghani, and that factions of them even put their weight behind him in the polls.

This is perhaps surprising, since until recently Ghani was an unlikely candidate for their support. The new president has spent most of his adult life outside Afghanistan, and before this election was seen by his fellow Afghans as an outsider. The Western suits he preferred, and his prominent foreign qualifications—US degrees and a career at the World Bank—won him little popularity. In a presidential election in 2009, his first bid for elected office, Ghani came in a distant fourth, and earned the nickname “Mr Three Percent”—a reference to the share of the vote that he won.

This time, he knew he would have to do things differently, and play down his worldliness. This is where the lungi, which Ghani wore at various times while campaigning, came in. It highlighted his Pashtun roots, and signalled to voters that he stood for tradition, not a departure from it. Many believe this helped him electorally. Although Afghanistan hasn’t had a census since 1979, it is widely understood that Pashtuns remain the dominant ethnicity. Ghani did very well in the south of the country, where the Pashtuns are dominant, and won a large majority of the Pashtun vote nationwide. Abdullah, though half Pashtun, is largely perceived as a Tajik, and his main support came from the north. The Taliban, who are mainly Pashtun, are thought to have preferred Ghani over Abdullah; better a Pashtun president than a Tajik one, the thinking may have been.

This may help explain the extraordinary turnout in the country’s south, where the Taliban hold greater sway than the federal government. That turnout, though contentious, was key to Ghani’s fortunes. The first round of voting, in April, was met with unbridled optimism, and set up a

second-round contest for the presidency between Ghani and Abdullah. But the euphoria was short lived, as allegations of fraud emerged over the closely fought second vote, in June. Chief among these was the Abdullah camp’s claim of large-scale malfeasance in the southern and south-eastern provinces—including in the province of Khost, where turnout from one round to the next jumped from 130,000 to 400,000. Ghani’s office retorted that this was the result of better campaign organisation, including the provision of buses to polling centres on voting day and encouragement for more women to vote. Abdullah, who had lost to Karzai in the 2009 election despite clear indications of fraud, made it known that he would not be cheated again. Tense months followed, with both Ghani and Abdullah threatening violence and nearly pushing the country to civil war. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, flew into Kabul twice to mediate. The resulting deal, midwifed by the United States and the United Nations, formed a coalition government, with Ghani as president and Abdullah in the newly created office of chief executive officer.

There is likely truth to both sides’ explanations for the surge in turnout in the south—that there was fraud, and that the Ghani campaign performed better in the latter round. But there is also likely more to the story: local tribes mobilising themselves around Ghani. Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, the governor of Khost, stressed this when we met in early November, in the immaculate garden of his official residence in Khost city. Pine cones dropped occasionally to mark the passing of time. Wearing shades against the early winter sun, Naeemi told me that, crucially, the Taliban did not disrupt voters on the day of the second vote, despite earlier threats to do so. “Why? Because elders spoke with the insurgents and asked them, please do not disturb us.”

Others agree. A June dispatch from Khost published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think tank, also reported that tribal elders asked the local Taliban not to interfere. The militants informally agreed not to attack voters on election day, and kept their promise. Wagma Arzo, a provincial council member from Khost, whom I spoke to on the phone soon after the second round of voting, was explicit on the Taliban position. “The Taliban are happy about Ghani,” she said. “He is their man. They want him to become the president of Afghanistan. Then and only then will they talk.” Influential clerics also helped draw voters out for Ghani. One of them, the Afghanistan Analysts Network dispatch stated, “drove from village to village to appeal directly to the people, telling them it was wajib (compulsory according to religion) to vote and wajib to vote for Ghani.”

But much will depend on the new president’s ability to secure Pakistani cooperation. His trip to China, and an earlier one to Saudi Arabia, were preludes to a November visit to Pakistan, a country disproportionately involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

Relations between the two neighbours have long been strained, with both sides accusing each other of harbouring militants hostile to the other. But here too, Ghani’s ascension offers an opportunity. Karzai was a harsh critic of Pakistan, and accused it of knowingly hosting Taliban leaders. On his visit, Ghani tried to distance himself from past acrimony, well aware of the need for neighbourly understanding especially as Western military forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Ghani seems to have learned from Karzai’s mistakes. Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, Amir Ramin, a member of the High Peace Council, a body appointed by Karzai to lead reconciliation efforts, agreed on the need to include regional powers in any future talks. He also posited that “progress at the negotiations level has been hampered over the past four years, mainly by former President Hamid Karzai’s inconsistent and unclear policy on reconciliation.” Ramin argued that Karzai’s “monopolistic approach” and “strong emphasis on ensuring sole ownership of the process” had deterred the HPC from doing its job. Ghani, hopefully, will do better.

But concerns remain, mainly over whether Ghani has enough political capital to unite a fragmented polity behind peace negotiations. The creation of a coalition government has prevented conflict between supporters of Ghani and Abdullah, but it has also created multiple centres of power and diluted the power of the president. Indeed, Abdullah has not shown much enthusiasm for talks. To quote the Chatham House report, the Afghan government remains “a network of actual stakeholders who do not necessarily agree with one another.”

Besides, despite showing a preference for Ghani during the elections, the Taliban still consider the Kabul administration a puppet government, and they haven’t scaled back their regular attacks. On the day Ghani first addressed Afghanistan as president and appealed for talks, the insurgents dismissed his call, and stated that their fight will continue until all foreign troops withdraw. To underscore their point, they launched an attack near Kabul airport. Casualties were feared, but not confirmed.

May Jeong May Jeong is a Kabul-based freelance writer.