AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani arrived on June 25 in Washington on an official visit, leading a large delegation of officials, including Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation; Amrullah Saleh, the first deputy president; Hamdullah Mohib, the national security adviser; and, a planeful of other officials.
He and Abdullah's meeting with President Joe Biden did not lead to any new decision and the United States president merely covered the familiar ground that America will continue to assist Afghanistan, but that the withdrawal plan announced last April remains on schedule.
The withdrawal is due to complete by Sept 11, 2021, a symbolic date, perhaps to suggest that the US military had accomplished its purpose of avenging the Sept 11, 2001, Twin Tower attacks.
The visit comes in the midst of worsening security situation in Afghanistan and increased Taliban insurgency, when much of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces have already left. The withdrawal led the Taliban to believe that they have won the war and, therefore, in no need of further negotiation.
This was one of the Taliban's two original demands: withdrawal of the foreign forces, and implementation of syariah law. Their triumphant posture may also explain why they halted the Doha peace talks with the Afghan government and the scheduled peace conference in Istanbul as well, which was due to be held last April.
Ghani's leadership also suffers from a credibility deficit as he has not played his role well in the peace process in the past and has missed opportunities for bringing peace. The Afghan people and the Kabul government do not seem to be on the same page.
While the people want the foreign forces out, Ghani's regime sees its continuity in office linked to the foreign military presence. The people are eager for peace to end the four decades of war, but Ghani seems to want that on his own terms. Delays and disruptions in the Doha peace talks also raises questions that there are elements in Kabul that do not want peace.
When the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Kabul last April and presented a negotiated peace plan, Ghani declined to endorse it as it involved the formation of a transitional government to facilitate the peace process. Ghani announced, instead, that he can only be replaced through a general election.
Clearly another missed opportunity for peace on questionable grounds. People jokingly said Ghani is more interested in completing his second term in office than in bringing peace. He was apparently less than happy when the US (under Trump) negotiated with the Taliban first (and signed an agreement with them — in February 2020).
The Kabul government also suffers from internal disunity and weaknesses at a time when about 60 per cent of the country is under Taliban control. Even though this has so far not included provincial capitals nor a whole province and confined to the outlying areas and districts, that scenario is fast approaching. According to US intelligence reports, Ghani's government will most likely fall in less than six months of the foreign troop withdrawal.
Afghan analysts were furthermore critical of Ghani's June 26 speech at the US Congress. Afghanistan under Ghani has been witness to increased poverty and unemployment, widespread drug addiction, raging Taliban violence and worsening security situation. Kabul is no longer safe.
People are killed in broad daylight by gangsters and criminals and there is widespread suspicion that police corruption is a part of it. Ghani makes out that the country is doing well under him thanks to American help. Instead of engaging the Congress on ways to improve matters, he filled his speech with formalities and half-truths.
Ghani's main purpose was seeing if Washington would delay the withdrawal of its remaining forces. Here again, the Afghan people welcome the voluntary end to military occupation. Yet, since there is no political formula for peace, the troop withdrawal may leave a vacuum and increase the risk of a Taliban takeover.
The Afghan people are also apprehensive of Taliban rule, and suspect that they will roll back many gains of the past 20 years on democracy and people's rights. The Taliban renewed assertion that they are supportive of female education and people's rights is also seen less than credible.
Afghan political analysts thought that Ghani's expensive visit (the plane rental alone cost US$1,200,000 of public funds) to Washington was inopportune since the US had already announced their plan on force withdrawal and is not likely to change, and that Washington has probably also lost confidence in Ghani's leadership, indicated perhaps in a somewhat muted welcome ceremony on arrival and a mere half-hour time slot allocated for a meeting with Biden.
This turns out to be the case now that the visit is almost over and has led to no new decisions to what was already known before.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali is founding chief executive officer of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Tuesday 29 June 2021