It has become almost a cliché among Afghan observers to say that the two men supposed to make peace with the Taliban would make a near-perfect team – if only they could work together.
Between the alleged eye for details of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the alleged skills of the people of Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, it is possible that they form a strong front against the Taliban.
In practice, it is an awkward marriage between two ex-rivals marked by years of power sharing – men who differ in background, temperament, experience, and vision, say people who know them.
However, the fate of this battle-worn country depends in part on their relationship.
On September 12, the Taliban and an Afghan delegation began complex peace talks. A clash between the president and the man responsible for peace efforts could jeopardize Kabul’s ability to force the Taliban to lay down their arms and convince the militants to advocate the country’s fragile democracy. More than a month after the opening ceremony, the talks are slow and the violence at home has not subsided, but both sides remain at the table.
A chance for peace is at stake. Day after day, more Afghan men, women and children are caught in the crossfire of a conflict that began some four decades ago with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979 – before the Taliban was even formed.
Between 2009 when the United Nations began documenting the impact of the war on the civilian population, and over the past year around 28 civilians were killed or injured every day – more than 100,000 victims.
Decades of wars made the country a haven for al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden planned the attacks on the United States from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. The conflict has brought desperation, poverty and dependency Pay donors for 75 percent of total public spending in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, corruption in Afghanistan continues to undermine US reconstruction efforts. according to John Sopko, Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, whose office was set up by Congress to oversee reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Sopko has warned that peace will not be sustainable unless corruption is tackled.
The answer to many of these questions rests on the shoulders of two long-time rivals, Ghani and Abdullah.
“The big question now is whether, given their experience and background, their views complement peace and war or come into conflict,” said Omar Samad, former advisor to Abdullah and former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France. “The average Afghan wants peace, and preferably a just and inclusive peace. … you don’t think more bloodshed is the answer. “
Ghani, 71, is a short, bald man with a glimmer in his eye who is often depicted in traditional clothing. He is considered an ambitious outsider with a sharp tongue and a vision for the modernization of Afghanistan who has observed his country from abroad for years.
In contrast, Abdullah, who was born to a Tajik mother and a Pashtun father – the two dominant and sometimes belligerent Afghan ethnic groups – saw most of the conflict in Afghanistan. He has dark, bushy eyebrows and a penchant for Western suits, as well as a reputation for being forgiving but having a vision that is difficult to communicate.
The couple clashed repeatedly.
After two hard-fought presidential elections and years of bitter power-sharing, some fear that disputes between the people over Ghani and Abdullah could lead to a breakdown.
“That’s the real danger of their disagreement – that they are sabotaging any chance to end the war,” said Ashely Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute.
Ghani and Abdullah spokesmen did not answer questions from NBC News.
An existential threat
The Taliban, composed mostly of Pashtuns, has an estimated 60,000 full-time fighters and controls or denies more than half of the country.
It has created huge shadow agencies, taken over state hospitals and schools, and operated a shadow justice system while denying the legitimacy of the government in Kabul and presenting itself as a waiting government.
These men pose a threat to those in power – especially Ghani. And their rhetoric will no doubt worry the President and his supporters.
A senior Taliban commander in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because he had no authority to inform the media, said the Taliban had agreed to a general amnesty but would expel the president , the “mortally endangered. “It remains unclear whether his views mirrored those of other Taliban leaders.
Even so, transfers of power in Afghanistan over the past 40 years have often been violent.
“In the past it was exile or a coup or assassination, and it goes back to that sense … in Afghan politics you are out of luck if you are out of power,” said Scott Smith, the politician director of the relief mission United Nations in Afghanistan from 2017 to 2019.
“If you’re an Afghan politician who is playing at these high stakes, you have a legitimate reason not to expect Afghanistan’s political DNA to have changed so much,” he said. “Especially when you are dealing with people like the Taliban who have shown that they are not afraid to be inconsiderate.”
It is clear that the Taliban direct their anger most violently at the president and paint him as an American puppet.
“He is even worse than the Americans and there is no way we can solve our problems peacefully with him,” said a high-ranking Taliban leader in the Afghan province of Helmand on condition of anonymity.
Cut from another fabric
Born in 1949 into an influential family from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group of Afghanistan, Ghani was outstanding from the start.
He attended the prestigious Habibia High School in Kabul before spending most of his college years and early career abroad. He first went to Lebanon, where he met his future wife, Rula, and later to the United States, where he taught anthropology, before joining the World Bank in 1991.
“He was usually the best-read and most articulate student in the class,” said Richard Bulliet, Columbia University professor emeritus who served on Ghani’s doctoral committee.
Bulliet said Ghani’s dissertation, which examined Afghanistan’s ungovernability largely from the perspective of its political economy, was “remarkable”. His work, which examined each district, meant he had an understanding of the overall structure of the country, which put him in a common position among Afghan political and military figures who are more regionalists, Bulliet said.
In 2001 Ghani returned to Afghanistan after 24 years after the US invasion. He later entered politics and gained a reputation for surrounding himself with Afghans who had studied and worked abroad, often in the West.
“He’s been abroad for years and many Afghans don’t know him very well,” said Khalil Roman, who once served as advisor to the deposed Communist President Najibullah and was deputy chief of staff to former President Hamid Karzai.
Roman said he later advised Ghani when he chaired the transitional coordination commission, which helped transfer authority from international forces to Afghan security forces.
“He was also unaware of the situation in Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” said Roman, repeating a routine charge against politicians who had spent years of the crisis abroad. Roman was a fellow campaigner for a minor candidate in the 2019 presidential election.
The foreign roots of Ghani’s wife, who was born into a Christian family in Lebanon, have also been used against him.
As first lady, Rula Ghani has taken over one more public profileThis was a sharp break with her predecessor, President Hamid Karzai’s wife, who rarely appeared in public. She left the decision with both admirers and critics.
The couple have two children – a daughter, Mariam, a New York based artist, and a son, Tarek, an economist for the International Crisis Group, which works to prevent war, in Washington D.C.
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Those who have worked with Ghani in Afghanistan say he has an academic and technocratic approach to governance and a vision to overtake and modernize the country. But he also reportedly has a violent temper.
Abdullah, 60, is cut from different fabrics.
Abdullah was born in 1960 and remained in Afghanistan for most of the 40-year conflict that devastated the country.
In the 1980s, he became an advisor to the Nordic resistance hero and Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose militants fought against the Soviets and later the Taliban after they came to power in 1996.
Massoud, who is still widely admired in Afghanistan, was murdered on September 9, 2001 by al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. Abdullah shows a photo of himself with Massoud on the top of his Facebook page.
Abdullah has a strong following among the ethnic Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and is a member of the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami party. He is known for being personable and for building alliances, but also for lacking a clear vision for the country.
He is married and has three daughters and one son. Abdullah’s family also reportedly live overseas in New Delhi, but NBC News has not been able to independently confirm this.
Afghan observers and former colleagues spoke more easily about his appreciation for sharp suits than about his politics.
“It’s not clear what he stands for other than that he’s not a Ghani and represents some of the political elites who are excluded from Ghani,” Jackson said. And unlike Ghani, she added, there were no “horror stories” in which he yelled at people.
The rivals’ apparent potential to complement one another must thwart those who yearn for peace.
However, the competitive presidential elections of 2014 and 2019 – and a joint term in office in an infighting government of national unity – have made reconciliation a bitter pill to swallow.
In the government of national unity, their dissension was due to the vagueness of the power-sharing agreement drawn up by the United States. Abdullah believed the deal gave him an equal stake in the government, and Ghani and his advisers insisted that final power rest with the presidency the International Crisis Group.
Both sides stacked the government and security agencies with allies, mostly on ethnic grounds, with Ghani favoring Pashtuns and Abdullah who favored Tajiks, according to the group.
Trust collapsed to such an extent that in 2017, when a series of explosions broke through a funeral attended by Abdullah and members of his Jamiat-e-Islami party, some speculated that the government had allowed the attack, Smith, now a senior expert on Afghan peace processes at the United States Institute of Peace, said.
Since then, Abdullah has contested the results of a second presidential election last September, in which Ghani was declared the winner. The depth of the crisis was evident to all in March when rivals held parallel swearing-in ceremonies for the president.
Two months later, both forced to surrender, the two men signed their second power-sharing treaty, in which they agreed that Ghani would remain as president while Abdullah took responsibility for the peace process with the Taliban and was also empowered to appoint half of Ghani’s cabinet.
There are areas of consensus, however.
When it comes to peace with the Taliban, Abdullah and Ghani believe the country should remain a republic and women’s rights should be upheld, said Anwar-ul-haq Ahady, a political ally of Abdullah and former minister of trade and industries under Karzai.
In terms of future governance in Afghanistan, however, they are likely to be very different from their Taliban opponents.
Founded in the early 90s From Afghan Islamic fighters who fought the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989, the Taliban took power in 1996 and ruled the country as an emirate, led by an emir rather than a president.
Under their rule, Afghanistan had no parliament, no elections and the judiciary was based on Sharia law. Most of the women were blocked from attending school, from jobs or leaving their homes without a male companion.
Later in 2001, they were evicted in the American-led invasion after refusing to give up bin Laden. Since the fall, the Taliban have declared that they will not compromise Sharia law and have refused to vote. They indicated that they would be less draconian towards women and girls than before, but offered little detail.
It is dangerous to be an opponent of the Taliban. No Afghan leadership team has been able to defeat or negotiate peace with the group since it was founded some 30 years ago.
The deposed communist President Najibullah was killed and then hanged near the presidential palace in Kabul when Taliban militants invaded the capital in 1996. Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated in 2011 when a man posing as a Taliban envoy detonated a bomb that was supposedly hidden in his turban. Several Taliban commanders have confirmed to NBC News that the group was behind both attacks.
And in August, Fawzia Koofi, one of four women on the team negotiating with the Taliban, was shot dead while traveling through Taliban-controlled territory. While the militants publicly denied they were behind the attack, two Taliban commanders admitted to NBC News it was them.
This is the force that Ghani and Abdullah compete against. This was recently backed up by the signing of an agreement with the United States that would allow all US-led foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan by May in order to preserve the Taliban’s security guarantees.
US troops have been in Afghanistan for 19 years and the withdrawal would bring Trump a foreign policy coup. However, the Taliban will also demand foreign troops leaving Afghanistan as victory.
Excluded from US-Taliban negotiations, the Afghan government has much to lose. While the agreement provided for peace talks between the militants and an Afghan delegation, the withdrawal of US troops is not linked to the success of these talks.
A coalition withdrawal could make the Afghan government more vulnerable to the Taliban uprising. After the February deal, Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces have increased, according to Sopko, Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.
On June 22nd, a spokesman for the National Security Council of Afghanistan said Last week was the deadliest in 19 years. In attacks by the Taliban, 291 members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces were killed and around 550 others injured.
In other words, Ghani and Abdullah are facing an extraordinary challenge even for a united Afghan leadership team. And maybe the biggest challenge is when asked to relinquish power.
Last year, Abdullah said he would step down from his former role as CEO of Afghanistan if that would ensure peace. In contrast, Ghani was careful not to make promises and told a virtual event in June that Najibullah made the “mistake of a lifetime” by announcing that he would resign.
“Abdullah has said on a number of occasions that he is ready to step down for peace, Ghani has not said so yet,” said Samad.
“If their perspectives continue to differ or contrast, it could lead to a situation where you have a peace against a war lobby,” he said, adding, however, that there was hope for a broad and inclusive peace agenda.