KABUL — President Trump’s sudden halt to US-Taliban talks looks like a gift to the beleaguered Afghan president, who has insisted on holding a key election in less than three weeks’ time despite widespread expectations that a peace deal would push it aside. Now, with an agreement to end America’s longest war on hold, Afghanistan suddenly faces a presidential vote amid warnings that it’s not ready — and the threat of even more violence.
The Taliban, who control or hold sway over roughly half the country, have told Afghans to boycott the vote and warned that rallies and polling stations would be targets. Spurned by Trump on the brink of a deal they said had been ‘‘finalized’’ to end nearly 18 years of conflict, the insurgent group is more distrustful than ever and has vowed to keep fighting. The talks are ‘‘dead,’’ Trump now says.
The Afghan people, essentially shut out of the talks, want a say in their fate. But if this election is as chaotic as last year’s parliamentary vote and the 2014 presidential one, some observers fear the Afghan government could be badly weakened at a pivotal time.
Trump’s surprise weekend announcement benefits Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was sidelined in the negotiations as the Taliban dismiss his government as a US puppet. Ghani insists the Sept. 28 election go ahead, even as the United States seemed to be more interested in signing a deal with the Taliban and committing to immediate intra-Afghan talks on the country’s political future.
So certain were many candidates that the election would be delayed — and that an interim government might be formed instead — that they hadn’t bothered to campaign. The uncertainty also restricted Ghani; with US-Taliban talks seemingly hurtling toward a deal he had been holding ‘‘virtual’’ campaign rallies via video conference instead of traveling out of the capital, Kabul. He seeks a second five-year term and what he calls a strong mandate to deal with the Taliban.
Now as many scramble to comprehend the breakdown in the peace process, some are pleading for stability in a country with little of it.
‘‘Today more than ever Afghanistan needs a political leadership who will receive from citizens a renewed democratic mandate to set the country on a course to peace,’’ the European Union’s mission to Afghanistan said. ‘‘Now is time for a reduction in violence,’’ the British high commission said. Both are major election funders in a country where the international community pays for much of the process.
The US-Taliban talks could still resume and the Taliban have signaled they are open to that. But time is quickly running out for a deal before the election. The Taliban have said that under the ‘‘finalized’’ deal the intra-Afghan talks were set to begin on Sept. 23, five days before the vote.
Ghani, who Trump said had been invited to the now-canceled Camp David talks, could still visit Washington if he attends the annual United Nations General Assembly of world leaders that starts on Sept. 24.
But confidence in the Afghan electoral process is low. The 2014 presidential vote led to months of turmoil ending in a shaky national unity government between Ghani and his rival, now-Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who alleged fraud.
Taliban attacks are also a danger. At least 56 people were killed and 379 wounded in election-related violence during last year’s polling, the UN has said.