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United Afghan front seen elusive so far in peace bid

by SUSANNAH GEORGE THE WASHINGTON POST | April 11, 2021 at 4:24 a.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The scramble for peace in Afghanistan is fracturing Kabul's political leadership and undermining the U.S.-backed government there ahead of critical negotiations with the Taliban over how much control it will have in the country's future.

More than half a dozen peace plans are circulating in the Afghan capital, including one from the United States and rival proposals from such warlords as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdurrashid Dostum. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has his own multiphase plan.

The visions are wildly different in substance and depth. But they all show support is building for some form of transitional government in Kabul, with many of Ghani's political foes eyeing how to secure more power for themselves amid such a move.

Leaders in Kabul remain optimistic they can present a united front despite widening divisions. But the lack of consensus just weeks away from the May 1 deadline set by the United States could place the Taliban at a further advantage in negotiations over who controls post-settlement Afghanistan.

"It's had a bipolar impact," Abdullah Abdullah said of the new U.S. approach to the Afghan peace process in an interview. Abdullah is chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation and leading negotiations with the Taliban. "It has created hopes, it has created anxiety, it has led to depression, it has led to mania."

Official and unofficial power brokers in Kabul have been deeply divided for years -- with Ghani and Abdullah maintaining one of the fiercest rivalries. The two were the front-runners in the country's most recent election that was decided by a slim margin for Ghani amid allegations of fraud.

The election before that -- also between Abdullah and Ghani -- saw a similar outcome that was resolved with a vague power-sharing agreement that in many ways cemented the leaders' differences.

"At this stage what we need is a very unified position," Abdullah said. Without that, it "will be a gift to the Taliban."

Dostum's plan stresses the rights of ethnic minorities and the decentralization of political and military control. Hekmatyar's calls for a "noncoalition" government composed of "noncontroversial individuals." And Ghani proposes a cease-fire followed by elections and changes to the constitution.

The Taliban's political office has largely maintained unified public messaging throughout negotiations with the Afghan government and has not commented on any draft proposal beyond that the U.S. plan is "under review."

Key steps in the draft U.S. plan already appear to have stumbled. The document called for a meeting between the two negotiating teams in Turkey to jump-start talks in Doha, Qatar. Initially the conference in Turkey was planned for early April, but the date has repeatedly slid back, and now concerns surrounding the start of Ramadan in mid-April have some worried it won't convene until May.

"There are lots of points," Abdullah said, saying he welcomed the suggestions. "There are points of differences as well points of accord. ... Now we are working on compiling those views."

Ultimately, Abdullah said he is hopeful Afghan leaders will gather behind a single proposal, but he said the peace plans publicly released before holding private discussions have been counterproductive. It could "break down political consensus" rather than bolster unity, he said.


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