There are limits to what America and the international community can do. Some want to take the high ground: focus on insisting on outcomes like verifiable and transparent vote counts. But these sorts of principles are meaningless if they cannot be attached to practical and detailed measures to implement them. Ultimately, the international community cannot save Afghanistan if Afghan chicanery is too large. But that is not certain to happen. There are powerful forces that want a clean, or at least a cleaner, election. The political opposition has shown an impressive ability to learn how to work together to bring pressure on the Afghan government for election reform. An article written from a distance would err in trying to provide tactics. What can be pointed out is that America and its allies must work closely with the UN, which has the lead for the international community in the elections, on pressing for practical improvements in processes for the presidential elections. Too much is at stake for our own policy and interests to be excessively deferential to Afghan sovereignty if it is used as a cover for fraud.
Intertwining with electoral considerations are discussions of the new, intensified American effort to find a negotiated peace and how that will affect or even replace elections. Rumors of what America wants or is doing flicker constantly across political discussions. One idea that is discussed is whether elections should be suspended in favor of some sort of transitional government that would include the Taliban. The argument is that once elections take place things will be more rigid politically so now is the time to move on peace negotiations.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is in constant motion around the region and in and out of Kabul. One rumor that edged its way into the New York Times contended that Khalilzad was already proposing the suspension of elections in order to form a transitional government. That story is probably false. From what I heard of Khalilzad’s talk with various political figures, his approach is squarely centered on getting a broad based and representative Afghan delegation organized to participate in talks with the Taliban. His message to the Taliban is similar: put forth a representative delegation and engage. Whether or not it succeeds, it is a sensible place to start that recognizes that only Afghans can decide how they will live together. Yet there are many reasons why some on each side, Taliban and Afghan government alike, fear moving quickly and are dragging their feet.
The atmosphere is complicated by the discussion of whether the elections should be suspended in favor of a transitional government and whether such a government should emerge from an agreement or precede it. The theory has a certain elegance. Many fear that the elections will be a disaster leading to political dispute and immobilism. So, goes the argument, let us get around this danger by agreeing to a transitional government that can control things while negotiations take place. In other words, redo the Bonn negotiations which charted the 2001 political roadmap of Afghanistan, but this time include the Taliban.
The problem is that the theory comes apart when one examines its execution. The Bonn agreement was difficult to arrive at. As one senior figure who was at Bonn pointed out to me, at those negotiations there were a small number of parties, no war, a climate of peace and Iran, Russia and Pakistan were generally helpful. There is now a much greater fragmentation of the Afghan political landscape, the Taliban may have fragmentation of their own, the fighting is intense, and Afghanistan's immediate neighbors are partisan and malign. Getting agreement on an interim government that includes the Taliban would be extremely difficult. And while negotiations raged, perhaps for months, over who would have which ministry, the government would be immobilized and the fighting would rage on.
A variant of the plan would have the interim government result from the negotiations. If an agreement on the details of such a government—rather than merely agreement on the principle that it will be set up—was to come out of negotiations, that might be a reason to suspend the elections. Maybe that can happen, but elections are five months away. No conflict of similar complexity has been negotiated with such speed. What is clear is that to suspend the elections only to start negotiations would be a grave mistake. Essentially it would allow the Taliban to make a hostage of the institutional development of Afghanistan and keep it prisoner until they got their way. I doubt that Ambassador Khalilzad would fall into such a trap.
Underneath the clamor about how negotiations are to advance is a ripening Afghan desire for peace and some new consideration of some of the compromises it may require. I found that the popular call for peace seen in the long peace march of Afghans from Helmand to Kabul and the smaller demonstrations in the capital echoed in the discussions of major political leaders. No one has a precise plan, but there are lines of thought developing that I had not heard before. One opposition leader commented that the rights of women must be protected, but that this may require compromise rather than a victory of western concepts. Separate education of boys and girls might have to be accepted to preserve education for women. More use of the veil might be necessary to preserve women’s right to work. These are not points broadly accepted or even discussed, but when I noted them to a group of Afghan journalists many thought they might have to be considered.
And then there is the elephant in the room, security. Much as one might like to just give up a project of this difficulty, the threats that brought us to Afghanistan are still present. Al Qaeda is reduced but still present. The Islamic State is now established with sufficient strength that neither the Taliban nor, separately, the combined Afghan and coalition efforts have been able to destroy it. The Islamic State in Khorasan, as the Islamic State calls itself in Afghanistan, is still more Afghan than foreign, but there is a slow trickle of recruits from elsewhere and its potential for expansion would be large if America departed.
No one denies that security is getting worse. There are various figures for how much territory the Taliban control. None are worth much and the variation in numbers represents more what analysts want to count than any differing precision. Nor does it matter. Perception creates its own facts. Every Afghan I met told me that security is declining. There are ever more areas where no one feels safe traveling, more districts where control is limited to an Afghan flag over a district center out of which local officials dare not drive. The war is not being lost in the sense that the Taliban are anywhere close to being able to take over the country. They took parts of the city of Ghazni, a major defeat for Afghan forces, but the Afghans did finally show improved ability to organize and fight back, retaking the city.
Like everything else in Afghanistan, the picture is mixed and those wanting to prove a point can pick the pieces they want to highlight. The commandos, the best performing part of the Afghan forces, are growing. If the government will stop misusing them on checkpoints and for regular infantry duty they probably can meet their expansion goals. They will not be numerous enough to win the war, but they will be a powerful strike force to keep Kabul from losing it. It is worth remembering that the Afghans are now doing most of the fighting and dying. They have not lost the war despite the withdrawal of over 100,000 foreign troops.
However, reforming the Ministry of the Interior has not worked; the police remain by all accounts a weak and corrupt force. They do not lack for courage, and are dying in far higher number than army soldiers. But there is no evidence that the inefficiency of political maneuvering and corruption is changing.
The regular army is better, but it is not meeting the expectations I had last year. American commanders and President Ghani have and are making a serious effort at reform. Some pieces are working. A large number of overage and often poorly performing generals have been retired. There are younger leaders who fight well. One senior U.S. officer told me that when Afghan brigade commanders pick officers for promotion, they generally pick the most competent. But overall the system of political alliances and corruption continue to impede the full professionalism of the force. They can fight well on planned operations but remain far too much a defensive force reliant on American air power, and they are incapable of taking the initiative from the Taliban. Parts of the enhanced training mission decided on by the Trump administration are working. We do not need a new policy. We do need a serious examination of how the execution of the strategy to achieve our policy goals may require adjustment.