By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Afghan Taliban reportedly have belatedly agreed to see Kabul officials in their next round of UN-sponsored talks with the US in Doha, Qatar although the agreement has come after negotiators for the two sides have already substantially agreed on a draft plan of NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The development has also come after many officials in Kabul have repeatedly criticized the “minus-Kabul” scenario as a capitulation at the expense of what they say are Afghan’s democratic gains over the past decade or so.

But even though Kabul officials are to be present in Qatar, the Taliban have made it clear that the officials will attend only in their personal and unofficial capacity, meaning that the Afghan government backed by the west remains substantially excluded from the decision-making process.  They will be able to attend talks and observe negotiations, but they won’t be able to either steer the course of talks or exert influence in any meaningful way. Substantially Kabul is still not a part of the actual process.

But while the Taliban have in the past repeatedly rejected the government’s legitimacy, calling it a puppet of Washington, the rebels’ opposition is not the only thing that has kept Kabul out of the process. Within Afghanistan, Kabul has largely lost its authority even in the eyes of the public, although a substantial segment of the population continues to hope for a democratic government even if this has been “imposed” and “imported.” as the Taliban say, by and from Washington.

This legitimacy crisis has festered because Kabul has been a mess ever since the incumbent government was established in 2014, led by Ashraf Ghani. Its institutions are broken and unstable, corruption is rampant and political divisions within the ruling elite are far and wide.

Recently-held parliamentary elections tell the whole story. Although elections were held in November 2018, final results weren’t announced until March 2019. Political controversy had gripped the entire country, leading Kabul to twice postpone its presidential elections. As such, by the time they are eventually held – if indeed they are held at all – the incumbent government would already be about six months overdue—just another reason for the Taliban to argue against Kabul’s “official presence” in the talks.

However, even if the fact of an overdue and therefore illegitimate regime might be regarded as unimportant, a very strong reason for Kabul’s exclusion from the pace negotiation process and continues to insist that elections must precede negotiations, is that no regional or international powers apart from India have supported the idea. The reasons include not just Kabul’s own questionable political position but also practical aspects of feasibility and do-ability.

For instance, what purpose would a newly elected government serve if the delayed elections are actually held and a subsequent deal with the Taliban requires a new set-up under a new or amended constitution?

The US does see merit in this question, which is why President Donald Trump reportedly told Kabul in November 2018 to postpone elections. According to these reports, Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s chief negotiator, gave this as the reason for this postponement during what was then Washington’s early-stage attempts at initiating a dialogue with the Taliban.

The idea of postponement was also meant to convey a message to the Taliban about the US’s seriousness in the dialogue and in reaching a political deal that would ensure the Taliban’s inclusion in the political set up.

On the contrary, if elections had been held on time, the dialogue might have started to look like a half-hearted attempt by the US, potentially devoid of honest intention by Washington to agree on a setup that includes the Taliban.

For Ashraf Ghani, the election was to be taken as the people’s decision about their national leadership. Conversely, Ghani meant that since the Taliban refused to contest the elections, they would automatically be excluded from government. Hence his idea of elections before the deal to remain a ‘national leader’ for another five years, an idea that would certainly not carry any weight in Washington or Islamabad or Moscow for that matter.

It carried weight only New Delhi, which does see in the Ghani-regime a friend against a government dominated by the Pakistan-friendly Taliban.

In February 2019, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement saying while they supported an “inclusive political settlement,” even more important was “that the presidential elections in Afghanistan take place as per schedule.”

Much to Ghani’s and India’s disappointment, there is little political support within Afghanistan itself for the idea of holding elections before a deal. For instance, the joint declaration issued after the latest summit held in Moscow, which included the Taliban and people from the Afghan opposition including the former president Hamid Karzai, didn’t refer to the imperative of holding elections prior to settlement.

On the contrary, the communique largely focused on important political and social aspects that were substantial for peace to return to Afghanistan without encroaching upon some important gains Afghanistan has made such as gains towards women rights and forbidding the use of the country’s territory by terror groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Afghan political opposition has instead been calling, for reasons that include Kabul’s corruption and completely malfunctioning regime, for Ghani to step down and let a new system prevail, thus adding to the president’s problems with regards to his plans to sit for yet another term.

Therefore, the fact that Kabul has continued to be denied access to peace talks has a lot to do with reasons that go far beyond the Taliban’s opposition. Even if Kabul is going to find a seat or two in the next rounds of talks, it’s because Pakistan, on behalf of the U.S., convinced the Taliban of the utility of doing so. But Kabul’s presence is certain to do little or nothing to change the deal that has long been in the making. Kabul, for that matter, is expected to be presented a with fait accompli rather than the chance to consider whether to accept or reject.

Salman Rafi Sheikh (kingsalmanrafi@gmail.com) is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.