The Afghan way to a deal with the Taliban

President Trump’s scuttled talks with the militant group can now lead to a focus on an election that will further show the source of power in Afghanistan.

Afghan women attends an election campaign rally by President Ashraf Ghani, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 5.

After nearly a year of negotiations with the Taliban, President Donald Trump abruptly ended the talks on Saturday with a string of Twitter messages. The reason: The Taliban killed 12 people last week, including an American soldier. With so little regard for life or the equality of Afghans, the terrorist group could hardly be expected to make good on a deal that would have required a cease-fire leading to withdrawal of United States forces.

The news brought a sigh of relief to many Afghans who worry Mr. Trump might be putting a U.S. pullout ahead of preserving the country’s progress in basic rights and democratic freedoms. Even more than relief, the breakdown in talks renews a focus on exactly what the Taliban most oppose: elections.

On Sept. 28, Afghans of all ethnicities and religions will cast ballots for president, the seventh election since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban. For all the flaws of voting in an insecure environment and infighting among Afghan leaders, the ballot box still confers a moral legitimacy far above that claimed by the militants, who rely on guns to impose unelected religious authority.

“Now the important question for the people and government of Afghanistan, and the international community, is what will happen to the elections,” says a spokesman for President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.

Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries and one with frequent terror attacks, Afghanistan still manages to pull off an election. In last year’s parliament elections, around 4 million out of 8.8 million registered voters showed up. Yet in rural areas controlled by the Taliban, voting doesn’t even happen. The country keeps learning how to improve the process. Many former warlords now compete for votes on the campaign trail rather than with bullets on mountain trails. And for the current election, as many as 18 candidates were in the running at one point.

Elections help Afghans realize they are inherently equal in civic life despite their differences. Women especially appreciate the new social norm. They occupy 27% of government jobs while 39% of school students are girls, a sharp contrast to life under the Taliban in the 1990s.

The country remains highly dependent on the U.S.-led international donor community. And its neighbors meddle in ways that hinder democracy. Yet the best answer to these challenges lies in Afghans steadily, if fitfully, gaining trust in their institutions by exercising a right to vote.

Negotiations with the Taliban will fare better the longer that group keeps seeing Afghans brave threats and line up for hours to cast ballots. Voting in Afghanistan is a sign of triumph over fear.

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