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

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It has become almost a cliché among Afghan watchers to say the two men tasked with making peace with the Taliban would make a near-perfect team — if only they could work with each other.

Between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s reputed eye for detail and the purported people skills of Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, it’s possible they could form a strong front against the Taliban.

In practice, theirs is an uncomfortable marriage between two former rivals scarred by years of power sharing — men who differ in background, temperament, experience and vision, people who know them say.

Yet, the fate of this battle-scarred country hangs in part on their relationship.

Abdullah Abdullah, center, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, attends the opening session of the peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 12. Hussein Sayed / AP

On Sept. 12, the Taliban and an Afghan delegation embarked on complex peace talks. A clash between the president and the man in charge of peace efforts could jeopardize Kabul’s ability to force the Taliban to lay down its arms and persuade the militants to engage with the country’s fragile democracy. More than a month after the opening ceremony, the talks are slow moving and violence at home has not abated but both sides remain at the table.

At stake is a chance at peace. Day by day, more Afghan men, women and children get caught in the crossfire of a conflict that started some four decades ago with the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 — before the Taliban was even formed.

Between 2009, when the United Nations began documenting the impact of the war on civilians, and last year, about 28 civilians have been killed or injured every day — more than 100,000 casualties.

Decades of war made the country a haven for Al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States from Afghanistan. The conflict has created desperation, poverty and dependence, with donors paying for 75 percent of Afghanistan’s total public expenditure.

Meanwhile, corruption in Afghanistan continues to undermine U.S. reconstruction efforts, according to John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, whose office was created by Congress to provide oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects. Sopko has warned that unless corruption is addressed, any peace will not be sustainable.

The 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.”

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 threat

The 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 file

A 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.

“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 an American 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 cloth

Born 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 Images

In 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.

“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.

As first lady, Rula Ghani has taken on a more public profile, marking a sharp break with her predecessor, the wife of President Hamid Karzai, who rarely appeared in public. The decision has left her with both admirers and critics.

The couple have two children — a daughter, Mariam, a New York-based artist, and a son, Tarek, an economist for the International Crisis Group, which works to prevent wars, in Washington D.C.

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Those who have worked with Ghani in Afghanistan say he has an academic and technocratic approach to governance and has a vision to overhaul and modernize the country. But he also reputedly has a fierce temper.

Abdullah, 60, is cut from different cloth.

Born in 1960, Abdullah stayed in Afghanistan for most of the 40-year conflict that ravaged the country.

In the 1980s, he became an adviser to the northern resistance hero and ethnic Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose fighters battled the Soviets, and later the Taliban, after it swept to power in 1996.

Massoud, who remains widely admired in Afghanistan, was assassinated Sept. 9, 2001, by Al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. Abdullah displays a photo of himself with Massoud at the top of his Facebook page.

Ahmad Shah Massoud and adviser Abdullah Abdullah at their military headquarters in Charikar, north of Kabul.Patrick Robert – Corbis / Sygma via Getty Images file

Abdullah retains a strong following among ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan’s north and is a member of the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami party. He is known as personable, and for building alliances, but also for lacking a clear vision for the country.

He is married and has three daughters and one son. Abdullah’s family also reportedly live abroad in New Delhi but NBC News could not independently confirm this.

Afghan watchers and former colleagues spoke more easily about his appreciation for sharply-cut suits than they did about his policies.

“It’s not clear what he stands for, other than that he isn’t Ghani and represents some of the political elites excluded by Ghani,” Jackson said. And, unlike with Ghani, she added, there were no “horror stories” of him screaming at people.

A wedge

The rivals’ seeming potential for complementing each other must frustrate those longing for peace.

However, contested presidential elections in 2014 and 2019 — and a term together in a national unity government beset by infighting — have made reconciliation a bitter pill to swallow.

In the national unity government, their discord stemmed from the vagueness of the U.S.-devised power-sharing agreement, with Abdullah believing the agreement gave him an equal share in government, and Ghani and his advisers insisting that ultimate power resided in the presidency, according to the International Crisis Group.

Both sides stacked the government and security agencies with allies, mainly on ethnic grounds, with Ghani favoring fellow Pashtuns and Abdullah preferring Tajiks, according to the group.

Trust broke down to such an extent that in 2017, when a series of blasts tore through a funeral attended by Abdullah and members of his Jamiat-e-Islami party, some speculated that the government had allowed the attack to happen, Smith, now a senior expert for Afghanistan peace processes at the United States Institute of Peace, said.

Since then, Abdullah has contested the results of a second presidential election held last September in which Ghani was declared the winner. In March, the depth of the crisis was on show for all to see when the rivals held parallel presidential swearing-in-ceremonies.

Two months later, forced to admit defeat, both men signed their second power-sharing deal agreeing that Ghani should stay on as president while Abdullah assumed responsibility for the peace process with the Taliban and was also given the power to appoint half of Ghani’s cabinet.

The adversary

There are areas of agreement, however.

When it comes to peace with the Taliban, Abdullah and Ghani both believe the country should remain a republic and that the rights of women should be upheld, according to Anwar-ul-haq Ahady, a political ally of Abdullah and a former minister of commerce and industries under Karzai.

On the future governance of Afghanistan, however, they will likely differ sharply with their Taliban adversaries.

Formed in the early 1990s by Afghan Islamic fighters who had fought the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989, the Taliban went on to seize power in 1996, ruling the country as an emirate, led by an emir rather than a president.

Under their rule, Afghanistan had no parliament, no elections and jurisprudence was based on Sharia law. Most women were barred from attending school, holding jobs or leaving their homes without male escorts.

Later in 2001, they were ousted in the American-led invasion after they refused to give up bin Laden. Since being toppled, the Taliban have said they will not compromise on Sharia law, and have rejected taking part in elections. They have indicated they will adopt a less draconian stance toward women and girls than before but have offered scant detail.

It is dangerous to be a Taliban adversary. Since their formation some 30 years ago, no Afghan leadership team has been able to defeat or negotiate peace with the group.

Deposed Communist President Najibullah was killed and then hanged near the presidential palace in Kabul when the Taliban militants swept into the capital in 1996. And former President Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated in 2011 when a man pretending to be a Taliban emissary exploded a bomb reportedly hidden in his turban. Several Taliban commanders have acknowledged to NBC News that the group was behind both attacks.

Taliban fighters greet each other at Aryana square in Kabul where the bodies of former Afghanistan President Najibullah, left, and his brother Shahpur Ahmedzai, right, hang from a traffic post on Sept. 27, 1996. B. K. Bangash / Ap file

And in August, Fawzia Koofi, one of four women on the team negotiating with the Taliban, was shot while traveling through Taliban-controlled territory. While the militants publicly denied they were behind the attack, two Taliban commanders acknowledged to NBC News that they had been.

This is the force Ghani and Abdullah are up against. It has been buoyed recently by the signing of a deal with the United States that could see all U.S.-led foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan by May in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 19 years and withdrawal would hand Trump a foreign policy coup. However, the Taliban will also claim foreign troops leaving Afghanistan as a victory.

Excluded from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, the Afghan government has much to lose. While the deal called for the peace talks between the militants and an Afghan delegation, the withdrawal of U.S. troops is not tied to the success of these talks.

A coalition withdrawal could leave the Afghan government more vulnerable to the Taliban insurgency. Following the February deal, Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces have surged, according to Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

On June 22, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Security Council said that the past week had been the deadliest of the past 19 years, with Taliban attacks killing 291 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces members and wounding some 550 others.

A wall mural showing images of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Kabul.Wakli Kohsar / AFP – Getty Images file

In other words, Ghani and Abdullah are embarking on an extraordinary challenge even for a united Afghan leadership team. And perhaps the greatest challenge will be if they are asked to cede power.

Last year, Abdullah said he would step aside from his then-role as CEO of Afghanistan if it would secure peace. By contrast, Ghani has been careful not to make promises, telling a virtual event in June that Najibullah made the “mistake of his life” by announcing he would resign.

“Abdullah has on a few occasions said he is willing to step aside for peace, Ghani has not said that yet,” Samad said.

“If their perspectives continue to differ or contrast, then yes, it could create a situation where you would end up with a peace vs a war lobby,” he said, but added that the hope was that a broad and inclusive peace agenda would be reached.

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