Afghan Election Dispute Threatens Taliban Violence Reduction Agreement

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. speaks on the second day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

A dispute over who won the presidential election in Afghanistan is posing a threat to the just-concluded U.S. deal with the Taliban for a seven-day "reduction in violence," a top U.S. negotiator with the insurgent group said Tuesday.

"This could add to the many challenges Afghanistan faces" in implementing the deal, Molly Phee, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, said of the claims of victory issued by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Phee, who worked with special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in lengthy and difficult talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, said the seven-day reduction in violence that could start as early as this weekend requires the cooperation of a unified Kabul government.

It's time for all Afghan partners "to seize this moment" and come together behind the seven-day deal, Phee said. Officials hope the partial cease-fire could lead to a comprehensive truce, direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government, and a major drawdown of U.S. forces.

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Phee spoke at a U.S. Institute of Peace forum on Afghanistan. At the event, Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense for policy, said the seven-day period is a "significant and important development" that would offer an opportunity to see whether the Taliban can be trusted.

"We will see if there are spoilers, and there certainly will be," Flournoy said, but the fact that Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, backed the deal "goes a long way with me."

Miller has said that he would support a U.S. reduction of forces in Afghanistan from the current level of about 13,000 to 8,600, if the Taliban live up to their commitments.

On Tuesday, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission finally declared incumbent President Ghani the winner of the presidential election, five months after actual voting took place.

Ghani had 50.6% of the vote, just above the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. Abdullah was declared to have 39.5%, but immediately declared himself the winner after alleging fraud in the counting. Abdullah said he would form a government, and there were no immediate indications of how the impasse might be resolved.

"It's a very polarized environment in Afghanistan," Stephen Hadley, the former national security adviser in the administration of former President George W. Bush, said at the USIP forum. "It's going to be very difficult" to find a way out of the election dispute, he said.

"It's tough, it's a tricky issue," Hadley said. "What do the Abdullah people decide to do?"

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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