The shape of Afghanistan’s future remains murkier than ever this week after an announcement by President Hamid Karzai that he would not run for reelection and a report claiming the Taliban peace talks have stalled.
Mr. Karzai told lawmakers Thursday that “the constitution of Afghanistan does not allow anyone to run for the presidency for more than two terms” and so he “will not try to run for the presidency for the third time,” according to a statement from his office. Political rivals have long suspected that Karzai would try to engineer an illegal third term, which would spark further instability.
Many Afghans are unlikely, however, to be convinced by this pledge. Karzai has a habit of stepping back from dramatic pronouncements. And this one involves an election light years away in Afghan political time.
“Those who are suspicious of him and what he’s trying to do won’t necessarily be reassured by a statement three years before the election,” says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. She says it might rather be a goodwill gesture to the incoming US ambassador after a long era of US-Afghan tensions.
A lot could happen by 2014. The US plans to mostly withdraw by that date, but also seeks a controversial long-term agreement on military bases. Another major uncertainty is whether a peace deal with the Taliban ever materializes and, if it does, which Afghan factions and governments in the region would respect it.
Given these looming uncertainties, Afghanistan’s elite are less focused on day-to-day concerns than jockeying for position ahead of the future power shifts.
“A lot of people are much more concerned with long-term processes,” says Ms. van Bijlert. She says political players are asking themselves, “In the longer term, who is going to be on top, and how can I make sure I’m not the one who can be kicked down in this whole process?”
She interprets the recent wave of assassinations, and the fear they have engendered, as part of these political calculations and rivalries.
One of the biggest future wildcards is the Afghan peace process. The goal, according to US and Pakistani officials, is an inclusive political settlement that would put an end to decades of fighting.
The process could eventually become a structured arena for divvying up power. For now it’s in an extremely early phase – and may already be stuck.
According to a report from the Telegraph, the Taliban have withdrawn from talks because news of them leaked.
A source close to the talks told the Monitor earlier this summer that the Taliban have insisted negotiations remain secret while foreign troops are in Afghanistan. The source explained that the Taliban has publicly staked out a position of not talking until the troops are gone; for this reason, leaking the talks amounted to an act of “sabotage.”
Taliban watcher Waheed Mujda explains that the Taliban have set up these parameters in order to avoid losing battlefield morale. When Mr. Mujda contacted Taliban leaders within Mullah Omar’s faction after the news leaked, they told him that the negotiations weren’t peace talks, but rather were about prisoner swaps.
“That means they are afraid of [calling these] peace negotiations,” says Mujda. They worry that their fighters will start thinking that “maybe this Afghanistan problem will be solved in negotiations, so why should we fight these people?”
He says a similar weakening in the willingness to fight occurred among the anti-Soviet fighters when the Soviet Union announced it intended to fully withdraw.
Even if talks are not stuck or if they are revived, such negotiations may take longer than the three-year horizon ahead, argues van Bijlert. But the international community may push for at least a symbolic agreement and hope it holds – which it may or may not, depending on everything from economic factors to regional neighbors.
“There’s a lot of pessimism around that says this will all ultimately end in civil war. It’s possible, but it’s really not inevitable,” she says.