Longtime Afghan rivals face an extraordinary challenge: Making peace with the Taliban

The Afghan president and his former opponent have been tasked with making peace with the Taliban. But can they put aside their differences to unite in the face of a common enemy?

10/18/2020 9:34:00 PM

On Sept. 12, the Taliban and an Afghan delegation embarked on complex peace talks. More than a month later, the talks are slow moving and violence at home has not abated, but both sides remain at the table.

The Afghan president and his former opponent have been tasked with making peace with the Taliban. But can they put aside their differences to unite in the face of a common enemy?

01:00The answer to many of these questions rests on the shoulders of the two longtime rivals, Ghani and Abdullah.“The big question now is will their views, given their experience and background, complement or clash over peace and war,” Omar Samad, a former adviser to Abdullah and former Afghan Ambassador to Canada and France, said. “The average Afghan wants peace and preferably a just and inclusive peace. … They don’t think more bloodshed is the answer.”

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A small balding man with a glint in his eye, often pictured in traditional dress, Ghani, 71, has a reputation as an ambitious outsider with a sharp tongue and a vision to modernize Afghanistan, having observed his country for years from abroad.By contrast, Abdullah, who was born to a Tajik mother and a Pashtun father — the two dominant and sometimes warring Afghan ethnic groups — has lived through most of the conflict in Afghanistan. He has dark bushy eyebrows and a penchant for Western suits, as well as a reputation for being conciliatory but having a vision that he struggles to communicate.

The pair have clashed repeatedly.After two contested presidential elections and years of bitter power-sharing, some are concerned that infighting between those around Ghani and Abdullah could scupper the talks.“That’s the real danger of their disunity — that it sabotages any chance for ending the war,” Ashely Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, said.

Spokesmen for Ghani and Abdullah did not respond to questions from NBC News.An existential threatThe Taliban, which is overwhelmingly Pashtun, is estimated to have around 60,000 full-time fighters and to control or contest more than half the country.It has created vast shadow authorities, taking over state hospitals and schools and running a shadow justice system while disputing the legitimacy of the government in Kabul and presenting itself as a government-in-waiting.

These men pose a threat to those in power — particularly Ghani. And their rhetoric will no doubt alarm the president and his supporters.Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, right, speaks during the opening session of the peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation in the Qatari capital Doha on Sept. 12.

Karim Jafaar / AFP - Getty Images fileA senior Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said that, while the Taliban had agreed to a general amnesty, it would exclude the president, who is “liable to death.” It remains unclear whether his views reflected those of other Taliban leaders.

Nevertheless, transitions of power in Afghanistan over the past 40 years have often been violent.“In the past it was exile, or coup, or assassination and it goes back to that sense … in Afghan politics, if you’re out of power, you’re out of luck,” said Scott Smith, who served as the political director for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan from 2017 to 2019.

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“If you’re an Afghan politician playing with these high stakes, you have a legitimate reason to not count on the Afghan political DNA having changed so significantly,” he said. “Especially when you’re dealing with guys like the Taliban who have shown they’re not afraid to be ruthless.”

What is clear is that the Taliban direct their ire most fervently at the president, painting him as anAmerican puppet.“He is even worse than the Americans and there is no way we can settle our issues with him peacefully,” a senior Taliban leader in Afghanistan’s Helmand province said on condition of anonymity.

Cut from a different clothBorn to an influential family from Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun ethnicity in 1949, Ghani excelled from the first.He attended the prestigious Habibia High School in Kabul before spending most of his higher education years and early career abroad. He first went to Lebanon, where he met his future wife, Rula, and later the United States, where he taught anthropology before joining the World Bank in 1991.

“He was usually the best read and most articulate student in the seminar,” said Richard Bulliet, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, who was on Ghani’s doctoral dissertation committee.Bulliet said Ghani’s dissertation, which examined the ungovernability of Afghanistan largely from the point of view of its political economy, was “remarkable.” His work researching every district meant he had an understanding of the country’s overall structure, putting him in an usual situation among Afghan political and military figures, who tend to be regionalists, Bulliet said.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, center, walking on the tarmac at the airport upon his arrival in Doha on Oct. 5.HO / AFP - Getty ImagesIn 2001, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, Ghani returned to Afghanistan after 24 years. He later entered politics and earned a reputation for surrounding himself with Afghans who had studied and worked abroad, often in the West.

“He was abroad for years and many Afghans don’t know him very well,” said Khalil Roman, who once served as an adviser to deposed Communist President Najibullah and was deputy chief of staff for former President Hamid Karzai.Roman said he later advised Ghani when he chaired the Transition Coordination Commission that helped transfer authority from international troops to Afghan security forces.

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“He also did not know the situation in Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” Roman said — repeating a routine charge against politicians who have spent years of the crisis abroad. Roman was a running mate to a minor candidate in the 2019 presidential elections.

The foreign roots of Ghani’s wife, who was born in Lebanon to a Christian family, have also been used against him. Read more: MSNBC »

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