New date for Presidential Election
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced at the end of December that the Presidential election, scheduled to be held on April 20, 2019, would instead take place on July 20, 2019. A statement issued by the Presidency said that the IEC had decided the new date after consultation with all stakeholders and “in view of technical problems and to avoid past mistakes..” It further stated that the government respected the decision made by the IEC and would extend cooperation to hold the election on the new date. While the IEC stated that they were fully prepared for the election on the new date, concerns continued to be expressed in political circles about their ability to do so.
Differences arose between the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) and the Independent Election Commission(IEC) on counting of votes of the Kabul parliamentary election held in October. The IECC declared the Kabul vote invalid- a decision that was described as political, hasty and illegal by the IEC and rejected. The matter was resolved finally after a joint meeting of the two Commissions chaired by the Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and attended by the head of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General. The IEC announced that it had resumed the recounting process of Kabul votes following an agreement with the IECC on a new method aimed at ensuring transparency and credibility.
New Ministers of Defence and Interior
In a decree issued on December 23, President Ghani nominated Amrullah Saleh as Minister of Interior and Assadullah Khalid as Minister of Defence. Both had served as head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) under President Karzai. Saleh served subsequently as the State Minister for Security Reforms for a short while. Assadullah Khalid was the Minister for Tribal and Border Affairs before he was appointed the head of the NDS. He was wounded in an assassination attempt in Kabul in 2012. Some critics of the President described his above decision as lobbying for the Presidential election.
High Advisory Board for Peace constituted
The government announced constitution of a High Advisory Board for Peace aimed at promoting lasting peace through wide consultations. It was stated that meetings of the Board would be attended by the President, the two Vice Presidents, the Chief Executive, the two Deputy Chief Executives, Speakers of the two houses of Parliament, Chief Justice, National Security Advisor, President’s Chief of Staff, the Attorney General, head of the NDS, State Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, head of the Afghan Ulema Council and head of the Secretariat of the High Peace Council, besides some Jihadi leaders and politicians, including former President Karzai. It was further stated that the Board would provide constructive advice to the government-led peace process, assess recommendations of the working committees of the peace process, suggest, if necessary, an agenda and effective framework for negotiations to the negotiating team and monitor implementation of the peace process. It would meet on a monthly basis and, if necessary, more often. A Peace Negotiating Team headed by the President’s Chief of Staff was also constituted to take forward the peace process under the guidance of High Advisory Board for Peace. It was further decided to set up Committees of representatives of political parties, ulema and clerics, women, tribal elders, civil society and cultural activists, the private sector, refugees and overseas Afghans, youth and war victims to gather public views about the peace process and report to the High Advisory Board for Peace and provide information to the people about progress of the peace process.
The constitution of the High Advisory Board for Peace met with mixed reactions with the political committee of the political parties describing it as unacceptable. Some officials of the High Peace Council criticized the structure of the Board and some observers pointed out that the mandate of the Board overlaps with that of the High Peace Council. According to media reports, Jamiat-e-Islami, National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan and Hizb-e-Islami created their own teams to negotiate with the Taliban. The exercise was indicative of the difficulty in reconciling the need for wide consultations with that of keeping the process wieldy.
Peace and Reconciliation
Hectic peace and reconciliation efforts continued. The US State Department stated at the beginning of the month that Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad would travel to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the UAE and Qatar with an interagency delegation from December 2 to 20. It further stated that he would be in touch with President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah and other Afghan stakeholders to coordinate closely “on efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government and other Afghans.” During his visit to Islamabad, Khalilzad was assured of Pakistan’s support for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict. According to media reports, a four member delegation from the Qatar office of the Taliban was also present in the Pakistani capital, having arrived there a few days earlier, though the purpose of their visit was not clear. Even as Khalilzad held consultations in Moscow, Russia voted against the UNGA resolution titled “The Situation in Afghanistan” on the ground that it ignored the Moscow format of consultations that was an important platform for launching focussed negotiations to advance the national reconciliation process. The Afghan Permanent Representative pointed out that the manner of conducting the Moscow meeting contradicted the principle of transparency as four out of the five Taliban who travelled to Moscow did so without a travel ban exemption from the UNSC Taliban Sanctions Committee.
Khalilzad held talks with Taliban representatives in Abu Dhabi, which Pakistan claimed to have facilitated. VOA quoted the Taliban representative Zabihullah Mujahid as saying that their representatives did not meet the representatives of the National Unity Government of Afghanistan, who were also present in Abu Dhabi. According to a statement issued by the Taliban, their representatives met high ranking officials of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan on December 17 and talks revolved around withdrawal of “occupation forces from Afghanistan”. Later in the day, preliminary talks were held with Khalilzad along with the representatives of the above countries. The representatives of the Afghan government were reported to have met Khalilzad and the representatives of Saudi Arabia and UAE separately. A Reuters report quoted Taliban sources as saying that the US delegation pressed for a six-month ceasefire and an agreement to name Taliban representatives to a future caretaker government, but they resisted these demands. According to the same report, a senior Taliban official maintained that if Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan became guarantors and the US agreed to the appointment of their nominee as the head of a caretaker government, they could consider a ceasefire. According to a Tolo news report, the Taliban representatives at Abu Dhabi included not only representatives from their Qatar office, but also some members of their leadership. It quoted Omid Maisam, Deputy Spokesman of the Chief Executive as saying that “a comprehensive delegation from Taliban went to Abu Dhabi.”
Following the Abu Dhabi talks, Khalilzad visited Pakistan, where he met the Chief of Army Staff, General Bajwa, and Afghanistan to brief the leadership there. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also visited Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia and Qatar to discuss the ongoing efforts for Afghan peace. There were reports at the end of December that the next round of talks between the US representative and the Taliban would be held at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in January.
In a statement issued on January 31, the Taliban said that their representatives had visited Tehran to discuss the issues concerning peace and security in Afghanistan. The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated, “The delegation visited Tehran to share Taliban’s views on ‘post occupation’ scenario and establishment of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region with Iranian officials”. The Iranian Foreign Office also confirmed the meeting. Earlier the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council had stated during a visit to Kabul that Iranian representatives had met with the Taliban and the Afghan government had been briefed about the meeting.
Responding to a point of order in the Pakistan National Assembly on December 10, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stated that Pakistan alone could not bring peace in Afghanistan as it was the “shared responsibility” of the regional countries, including India. “Since India is present in Afghanistan, its cooperation in this regard will also be required,” he said.
Withdrawal of US forces
According to AFP, a US official told them on December 20 that President Trump had decided to pull a significant number of troops from Afghanistan, with some reports suggesting that as many as 50% could leave. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 7000 troops would be returning from Afghanistan. Only days earlier, Lt. General Kenneth McKenzie, commander designate of US CENTCOM had told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the US left precipitously, he did not believe that the Afghans would be able to defend their country successfully. A spokesman of President Ghani said that reduction in the number of US troops would not affect the security of the country. He added that most of the troops that would possibly be withdrawn were engaged in training and advice mission for Afghan forces. The US and NATO forces commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller stated that he had seen some rumours in the media, but had no orders on withdrawal of troops. He added that even if his force got a little smaller, it would be alright. Foreign Minister Qureshi welcomed the reported decision of President Trump and said that it would help move forward the ongoing efforts for peace in Afghanistan. Nearly a week after the above reports emerged, Bloomberg News quoted Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the US National Security Council as saying in an emailed statement that the President had “not made a determination to drawdown US military presence in Afghanistan and he has not directed the Department of Defence to begin the process of withdrawing US personnel from Afghanistan.” There was no clarity on the issue at the end of December. The reports were possibly a trial balloon in the context of the ongoing contacts of Zalmay Khalilzad with the Taliban and their demand for withdrawal of foreign forces, to be taken forward depending upon the Taliban response to the US proposals. In an exclusive interview with Fox News in early January, Vice President Mike Pence said that Trump was “in the process of evaluating” whether to remove troops from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, China trilateral meeting
The second trilateral meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China took place in Kabul on December 15, the first having taken place in Beijing in December 2017. A joint statement issued after the Kabul meeting reaffirmed the commitment of the three to further strengthen their relations, deepen cooperation and advance connectivity under the Belt and Road Initiative, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and other regional economic initiatives. They also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Counter-Terrorism cooperation and reiterated their strong resolve to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and without any distinction. The participants expressed their support to an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led as well as inclusive peace process. In a press conference, the Afghan Foreign Minister, Salahuddin Rabbani expressed the hope that Pakistan and China would cooperate with Afghanistan’s peace process and that the time had come to show practical support. He added that the meeting had also focussed on implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan action plan. The Chinese Foreign Minister said that Afghanistan and Pakistan had agreed to solve their problems through peaceful ways. He supported the “Afghanistan and Pakistan efforts for peace” and called upon the Taliban to join the peace process. He expressed the Chinese desire to make Afghanistan a part of CPEC. Foreign Minister Qureshi called for ending the “blame game” between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said that mega projects such as the construction of a motorway connecting Peshawar and Kabul and a railway network between Quetta and Kandahar could strengthen trade relations among the three countries.
The first meeting of the follow up committee for implementation of the trilateral agreement on the Chabahar Port among India, Afghanistan and Iran was held on December 23. On this occasion, the Indian Ports Global Limited Company opened its office and took over operations at the Shaheed Beheshti port at Chabahar. Important outcomes of the meeting were:-
i)There was consensus on the routes for trade and transit corridors among the three countries.
ii)It was agreed to finalise the protocol to harmonise transit, roads, customs and consular matters at the earliest.
iii)It was also agreed to allow cargo movement at Chabahar using Transports Internationaux Routiers Convention provisions.
iv) Holding of an event to promote and popularise the potential of Chabahar on February 26, 2019.
v) Initiation of a study to determine the measures to make the route attractive, decrease logistics costs and pave the way for smooth operationalisation of the Chabahar agreement.
January 17, 2019