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Afghanistan May Soon Have Peace. And the Cost Is Democracy.

A fledgling armistice endangers the country’s 20-year experiment in democratic state-building.

On a sunny day last July, thick fumes poured into the sky over Shahid Square in central Kabul. Half a dozen gunmen stormed up a building into the office of Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh. No stranger to attempts on his life, Saleh managed to escape through the roof, but the ensuing firefight between insurgents and security forces raged through the compound for several more hours, ending past midnight with 30 people dead and at least 50 wounded—most of whom were civilians.

Ash still choked the air when I arrived the following morning. Survivors mourned inside gutted buildings, picking through what remained of their homes. Wading through the rubble, I stepped over the matted shape of a puppy, its head no bigger than a child’s fist, body broken beneath concrete. A strip of human flesh, charred to black crisp, hung from a twisted car frame. A young guard on patrol kneeled to inspect it. He jabbed at it with the end of his rifle. He looked up at me, mouth agape, astonished.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attempt to take out Saleh, who at the time was Ghani’s running mate in an election scheduled for September. “My brother, true son of the Afghan soil and first VP candidate of my electoral team, @AmrullahSaleh2 has survived a complex attack by enemies of the state,” Ghani tweeted.

The enemies of the state were just getting started. During morning rush hour a week later, a Taliban car bomb ripped through western Kabul. Windows shattered a mile away; a police station and an army recruitment center were reduced to smashed bricks. Fourteen Afghans were killed, 145 injured.

The following week, another one. On August 17, a well-dressed man arrived by bicycle at a wedding hall filled with 1,200 people. The perpetrator slipped toward the stage. A band was playing the drums. His vest exploded. The bombing, later claimed by the Islamic State, killed 91 people and wounded as many as 200 more. It would be the deadliest attack of the Afghan war in 2019.

In the midst of this season of violence, Afghanistan’s embattled elections staggered on.

At a busy market in Kabul’s Pul-e-Sokhta district, bright yellow curtains hung from stalls, and sacks of potatoes, mushrooms, spices were stacked next to skinny tins of cooking oil. A boy with wavy bangs scooped salt into a bucket, while a man stretched out his legs on a frayed rug, shaving carrots. Many grew wary, even hostile, when I brought up the polls. “When you just say the word ‘election,’ they get angry,” my guide, Fatima, told me.

We came upon one vendor dressed in a pale shalwar kameez, shearing open a bag of beans. Tarkhil was 60 years old, with a stocky build and short grey hair. “Everything starts with security,” he said. “As you see now, we don’t have a secure country. That is why people are jobless and depressed.” With security, Afghans could hold down their jobs, earn money, and lead better lives, he told me. “I don’t care who the winner will be. They should just work toward one goal, and that goal is security.”

Across the street, Ahmad, a middle-aged man in a black and white turban, sat cross-legged in a wheelbarrow, eyes scanning the crowd for customers who needed a hand. He had voted in Afghanistan’s previous presidential election in 2014, believing that it would lead to change. Instead, it had led to an untenable power-sharing agreement between the U.S.-educated Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who have continually blamed one another for the government’s failings.

“I wanted a better security situation,” Ahmad said. “I voted for security.” None of the candidates this time had his support. “What’s happened since the past election that we’ll vote again?” he said. He picked himself up. “They haven’t done anything for us to vote again.” He lifted his wheelbarrow and walked away.

“Peace is the desire of all Afghans,” Lotfullah Najafizada, the head of TOLOnews, one of Afghanistan’s largest broadcasters, told me. Yet he was cautious about the negotiations that had been taking place between U.S. representatives and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, over the course of the preceding year. Speaking over tea a few weeks before the polls opened, he said the country should focus instead on what was already in place. “Elections are a direction we’ve been taking for two decades,” he said. “We have an election date. We do not have a peace date.”

Afghan security forces in Kabul in August 2019

The fate of nations can change with a tweet. On the evening of September 7, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday.” Citing a recent Taliban attack in Kabul, which killed 12 people, including an American soldier, Trump declared, “I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations.”

The insurgents seized on the thwarted deal as another reason to strike. Ten days after Trump’s surprise announcement, a suicide bomber killed 30 people at a campaign rally for Ghani in Parwan province. The same day, another attack in Kabul killed more than 20 people. The Taliban, which quickly claimed responsibility for both strikes, pledged further disruptions to election-related events. Teachers and students, in particular, were advised to stay away.

On September 27, the day before the election, I spoke with Ziafatullah Saeedi, a student at Kabul University. He was relieved that the U.S. deal had fallen apart. “It was clear to everybody that it was not a peace deal,” he told me. “It was an exit deal”—a reference to the Taliban’s dictate that any reconciliation must be preceded by a drawdown of the American troops buttressing Afghanistan’s security, shaky as it is. No one I met in Kabul believed that the Taliban’s extremism had softened, or that Taliban leaders could be trusted to compromise. Many feared that Sharia law would return as soon as the Americans were gone.

Despite the specter of danger, Saeedi cast his ballot the next day. Months later, amid a fierce fight over the election’s results, the White House announced that a deal with the Taliban had been salvaged. The deal could bring peace to Afghanistan, as well as an end to one of America’s forever wars. It could also mark the final act in the country’s two-decade experiment with democracy.

Saeedi was three years old when the American-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan’s new democracy was intended to serve as a bulwark against the return of the Taliban, as well as terrorist groups like Al Qaeda that might use the country as a base for operations. Though the newborn state was plagued by many imperfections, it proclaimed freedom and change and power to the people—a “euphoric” atmosphere, recalled former President Hamid Karzai—and for an entire generation of young Afghans, this song of Western values is all they have ever known.

The first time I met Saeedi was in October 2018, on the eve of the Afghan parliamentary election. For months he had been telling older relatives about his favorite candidates, and he was restless to show his support. Saeedi, now 22 years old, said that apathy was not a problem for Kabul’s younger generation. The son of a tailor and the oldest of seven children, he was the first member of his family to attend university, where he studied law and political science. Most of his classmates were planning to vote, he said. The main reason people might stay at home was security.

Election attacks were both imminent and unpredictable. The question on everyone’s mind was not whether violence would ensue but how many victims it would claim. Saeedi’s father had prompted him to register at a distant polling site, as far away as possible from the crowded city center. In other households, I heard of parents who split up and registered at different stations; if one was attacked, at least the other was likely to be spared.

University student Ziafatullah Saeedi at a cafe in Kabul

Saeedi said he intended to cast his ballot around noon. Most people would be out to lunch, he assumed, so the waiting lines might be shorter. Less time in line meant fewer minutes exposed. Shorter lines also drew smaller crowds, and smaller crowds presented a less desirable target. “A big issue for the attackers is how many people are going to get slaughtered,” he said.

When Election Day arrived, the country turned into a battlefield. Militants deliberately targeted civilians at polling stations inside schools, clinics, and mosques. They launched rockets, grenades, and mortars; they planted improvised bombs and unleashed shooting sprees. By the time polls closed, violence had erupted at 108 sites across the country, resulting in 435 civilian casualties. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, it was the deadliest Election Day for civilians, in the country’s deadliest year, since they began tracking casualties in 2009.

The violence was only the beginning of the problems. More than 13,000 complaints were lodged by election monitors on the first day of voting. Marred by mismanagement and large-scale allegations of ballot-stuffing, preliminary results were delayed, then delayed again. In December 2018, an election complaints agency invalidated all votes cast from the capital province due to fraud—and then revoked its decision shortly after the government intervened. Final results, originally scheduled for December, weren’t announced until May 2019. When I spoke to Saeedi shortly after the new assembly members were sworn in, he channeled a jaded public. “It’s a total mess,” he said. “After the election, many people thought it was not worth going.”

By the time I returned to Kabul last summer, attention had shifted to the presidential race. Within the international community, many had viewed the parliamentary polls as a test to gauge the strength of the country’s electoral institutions. Instead, the process exposed the true extent of their weakness. Despite hasty efforts at repair, almost no one I spoke with believed the country was ready for another test. “The way the 2018 elections were managed, they got away with murder,” Abdullah Ahmadzai, the Asia Foundation’s country director in Kabul, told me. “It was like burying democracy as deep as you can.”

Election fraud has always blackened Afghanistan’s democracy, but it pushed tensions to the brink in the 2014 presidential runoff between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. Across the country, almost a third of ballots cast were recorded at polling sites where virtually all the votes went to the same candidate. “You never see that,” said the European Union’s chief election observer at the time, Thijs Berman. “That is a North Korea situation.” As the political dispute fanned into a crisis, then–Secretary of State John Kerry swooped in to broker a last-minute deal. The two sides came together to establish a National Unity Government, granting the presidency to Ghani while creating a new title of chief executive officer for Abdullah. The compact was feted as a victory for diplomacy, but many Afghans drew a different lesson. “There was no winning or losing,” said Kabul resident Ghulan Doosti, who had supported Abdullah. “There was only mediation from America.”

Following the bungled 2018 elections, all 12 commissioners in charge were dismissed. In March 2019, the presidential candidates came together to vote on a new election commission. Though the process appeared broadly inclusive, doubts over electoral independence lingered. “You’re expecting political parties and political candidates to nominate independent people who are not affiliated with any politics—are you kidding me?” Ahmadzai said. “That’s like expecting a wolf to protect your sheep.”

Incumbents everywhere are conferred certain advantages. Yet in Afghanistan, where weak electoral institutions have never managed to assert their independence, many observers believed the presidential race was already in Ghani’s pocket. A local journalist pointed me to various methods the government had to misallocate the $150 million election budget—roughly a third of which came from international donors and the rest of which was supplied by Ghani’s government. Among them were schemes to divert public funds into private campaign coffers, as well as bids to suppress turnout and manipulate ballot outcomes. Similar tricks had all been played before.

Hawa Alam Nuristani, chairwoman of the new Afghan Independent Election Commission, inherited the task of finalizing results for the botched parliamentary race and then led a national effort to register more people ahead of the presidential vote. A stately woman in her forties, Nuristani started her career in journalism, working for years as a news presenter in state-run television. In 2005, while running for the Afghan parliament, she was traveling to a campaign event when gunmen attacked her car. She was shot in the leg. After she recovered, she won her election. “If you look at our traditional society, these are not easy jobs for a woman,” she told me. “But I stepped forward, and so far, I have been successful.” Still, she recognized the challenges that lay ahead. “Of course the loser will make accusations,” she said. “If you look at elections all over the world, not a single one is 100 percent without problems and challenges.”

Another concern for her, as for the electorate at large, was security. When I saw her at the IEC headquarters last summer, she was still weighing the deaths of eight election officials, recently assassinated by the Taliban while registering voters in Kandahar. Another member of her election staff had been kidnapped in Logar province.

Chairwoman Hawa Alam Nuristani at the Independent Election Commission’s Kabul office

Among a weary public, patience had run thin. Under Ghani, many Afghans felt that the country’s security conditions had deteriorated while ethnic tensions had heightened. Ghulan Doosti cited instances of the Taliban threatening to sever the fingers people had used to cast ballots. Over the years, he had soured on what democracy could deliver. “We voted in the past even when we were not sure if there would be corruption. Now I’m totally disappointed and skeptical.” When I asked if he would participate in the next election, his reply was firm: “No.”

Seated next to him in their living room, his son, Alisina, shifted on his cushion, remaining quiet while his father spoke. The same anxieties weighed on him, too, he later told me, yet he had greater faith in the president. A student at Kabul University, he had read accounts of Ghani’s tireless work ethic, and he admired what the worldly technocrat represented to the international community. Despite his father’s misgivings, Alisina supported the government. But he was bracing for a tumultuous election.

In the fall of 2018, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, met with Taliban leaders in Doha to begin discussing a pullout of the 13,000 U.S. soldiers remaining in Afghanistan. Eight rounds of talks later, as the presidential campaign season sputtered to life in the summer of 2019, a deal was coming into sharper focus: The U.S. would establish a timeline for withdrawal, while the Taliban promised to sever terrorist links and begin reconciliation with the Afghan government.

In the argot of U.S. foreign policy, the Afghan election and the Taliban negotiations were to proceed along “parallel tracks.” But the reality was far more tangled. “The two processes really intersect and are intertwined,” Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. The Taliban has never recognized the legitimacy of the democratic Afghan republic— “puppets” to the American agenda, the group insists—and has roundly rejected every offer of dialogue from Ghani, even as they moved closer toward a framework agreement with Khalilzad. With Ghani effectively sidelined from the process, an alternate arena, carved open by the talks, presented the opportunity for the country’s entrenched power brokers to grab at shares in a future state beyond the reach of the government—and beyond the scope of the elections.

“If you’re trying to run against an incumbent president, it’s an uphill battle to begin with,” Worden said. “President Ghani sees greater advantage in continuing his mandate through the elections. Most of the opposition candidates, if not all of them, see greater opportunity in the negotiations.”

For Afghans, the parallel tracks posed a conundrum. Do they support a distant arrangement, driven by foreign interests, that might conceivably end 18 years of bloodshed? Or do they insist upon a flawed but nominally participatory process—the very democratic model they had been fighting for all these years? Public opinion cleaved into two: peace or elections, the talks or the polls. Ahmadzai, the Asia Foundation director in Kabul, said it was like having to choose between “oxygen and water.”

U.S. efforts at balancing the two satisfied no one. Speaking to Afghan media, John Bass, the American ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, pledged that both peace and elections were key objectives, then said in the next breath, “Peace is our highest priority.” The contradictions fueled speculation. “No one is clear about what is happening,” Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed, the executive director of Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, an election watchdog group, told me. “The U.S. is emphasizing both—elections and negotiations. It creates confusion. We don’t know their priority.”

Rumors that the Doha talks were building toward an interim government—with provisions to include the Taliban—came to dominate the presidential race. Many called for canceling the election entirely. “I’m confident the elections won’t happen,” one presidential candidate assured his supporters. Another told reporters, “An election will only divide us. If we have a bad election after a bad peace deal, the Taliban will win twice.” On the campaigns’ opening day in July, only two candidates bothered to hang election flyers on Darulaman Road, one of Kabul’s most congested thoroughfares. Only three had scheduled election rallies. By far the most enthusiastic campaign launch belonged to the incumbent. “Millions have said this election will not happen,” Ghani crowed to his supporters inside a lavish convention hall. “I ask you—is it happening or not? It is happening!”

Seated nearby on the stage was his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, projecting a cool smile as the incumbent shook his fists and pounded the podium. “We have struggled for the election,” Ghani went on. “We have sacrificed too much for this.” In fact, most of his opponents were struggling against it. The same day, 13 candidates signed a statement denouncing the upcoming poll as “fraudulent, pre-engineered, and crisis-generating,” and threatened a boycott of the election.

Ghani’s campaign rally pushed on. By late afternoon, Saleh and his team had returned to their party’s headquarters near Shahid Square, soon settling into his fourth-floor office. Shortly before 5 p.m., a Mazda rolled onto the street outside. It was a residential neighborhood. A group of young boys kicked around a soccer ball. The car detonated.

Kabul’s “Orange Army,” the nickname for the public sanitation workers who clean Kabul’s streets, clear the rubble from the aftermath of an attack.

In the last week of August, the IEC announced that more than 2,000 polling stations, from a total of more than 7,000 across the country, would not open due to security concerns. The closures—predominantly in Taliban-controlled or contested rural areas—further called into question the credibility of a national vote. At one point, even Ghani stopped attending campaign events outside of the capital. In the “virtual rallies” held in their place, he addressed his provincial supporters through video conference. The Taliban ridiculed the government’s “sham of a process.”

On September 28, roughly two million voters, out of less than 10 million registered, cast ballots to elect Afghanistan’s next president—less than a third of the participation in 2014. The depressed turnout, a historic low, will pose a significant challenge to the mandate accorded the election’s winner. The real problem, though, is whether the winner will be accepted at all.

In December, the IEC released preliminary vote counts showing Ghani in the lead with 50.6 percent of the vote, and his main challenger, Abdullah, with 39.5 percent. But the election was closer than it seemed: Ghani had cleared the 50 percent threshold to bypass a runoff by a razor-thin 11,000 ballots, while the opposition camp had for weeks disputed the validity of some 300,000 votes. When the IEC formally declared Ghani the winner in February, Abdullah rejected the results and swore he would form his own government.

Then, less than two weeks later, the U.S. and the Taliban announced that they had reached an agreement. As part of the deal, the U.S. would withdraw roughly 4,000 soldiers in 135 days and complete the remaining drawdown within 14 months. The Taliban pledged to prevent terrorist networks from operating within Afghanistan and agreed to initiate peace negotiations with Afghan leaders, including representatives from the government.

Yet nothing in the concessions indicated any change in the group’s extremism. The Taliban remains at its core an anti-democratic insurgency, committed to administering society after an extremist interpretation of Islam. Critics found little in the deal to guarantee hard-earned freedoms—such as women’s rights, besieged even under the best of conditions—from being swiftly suppressed. “In the international community there is an illusion that the Taliban has changed,” Ahmadzai told me. “But from the Taliban I have heard from, they still want to come to power, and they are still talking about Sharia.”

Eight weeks after the U.S. signed its exit terms, direct peace talks have yet to begin. Just as uncertain is who will lead the government tasked with negotiating with the Taliban. After failing to mediate a new power-sharing arrangement between Ghani and Abdullah last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo punished both sides by cutting $1 billion in American aid. Afghanistan relies on donor nations to cover as much as 75 percent of its expenditures, and Pompeo’s reduction took effect amid a sharp escalation in the global coronavirus pandemic, with the Afghan health minister recently estimating that four in every five Afghans will be at risk for infection.

New crises amplify the old. Violence has resumed—a perverse return to normalcy for a country that has been at war, on and off, for four decades. At the presidential inauguration in early March, rockets rained down on the capital as Ghani took the presidential oath. When blasts erupted nearby, members of the crowd scattered but Ghani held his ground. He lifted his jacket to show he did not have protective gear underneath. “We have seen big attacks,” he said. “A couple explosions should not scare us.” His defiant gestures were televised on a split screen; on the other side was his opponent, Abdullah, taking the oath simultaneously in a separate part of the presidential palace. Abdullah later told supporters that kowtowing to a fraudulent vote would mean “the funeral of democracy in this country.”

As the two rivals dig in their heels, dormant threats are poised to rise anew. Agitators on either side of the rift “were talking to each other not long ago with guns,” Fazel Fazly, President Ghani’s chief adviser, told me. During the Afghan civil war from 1992 to 1996, mujahedin armies waged such fierce and destructive assaults on one another that the rise of the Taliban was initially welcomed as a relief from the carnage. During that time, the offending warlords convened “five major peace talks, and after each negotiation, they came back to Kabul and initiated a bloodshed,” Fazly said. The animosity ran too deep; alliances were built and broken within days. Yet in the wake of 9/11, many of these same rivals came together to establish the post-Taliban state, which has tentatively survived to the present day. A key to its cohesion has been the abiding presence of a strong guarantor—the coalition of U.S. and international troops—able to compel adherence to shared terms. The one big change, Fazly said, was that the country’s strongmen, power brokers, and warlords now had to “obey the rules of the game.”

What happens, then, when you remove the guarantor? The question has dogged Afghanistan’s democratic endeavor since the beginning. In a recent statement, the Taliban scorned the “arrogant Americans” and recalled a proverb: “You may have the watches, but we have the time.”

Every democracy has growing pains, but not all get the chance to outlive them. Shaharzad Akbar helped found Afghanistan 1400, a youth-led movement devoted to liberal principles, nearly a decade ago. She recently told me, “Afghanistan is still a battleground between democratic values and radicalization.” After coming of age in Kabul, Akbar was accepted at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she graduated in 2009 and delivered the commencement address for her class. Living and studying in the U.S. had taught her “that it was OK to be a woman,” she said at the ceremony, “and that to feel and act like a woman in public was a strength, not a weakness.” In 2017, Akbar began to work for the Afghan government. Last July, she was appointed to the historic delegation that traveled to Doha to initiate talks with the Taliban. A new mother at the time, she prepared her briefings while her two-month-old sat on the conference hall sidelines, tended to by her husband.

At one point during the first day’s session, the baby boy stirred, as if wishing to add his voice to the discussions over his country’s future. In some of the lists circulating online, the newborn’s name was even published as a participant. Observers delighted in the symbolism, but the inclusion was an error.