Kabul (Afghanistan): Afghanistan’s presidential election, scheduled for April, is likely to be delayed, Afghan officials said on Wednesday, underscoring the country’s fragility as war with the Taliban rages and the United States presses for peace talks.
The officials suggested a lack of technical preparations justified a delay of at least three months, to avoid repeating the furious disputes and accusations of industrial-scale fraud that followed the previous presidential election, in 2014. But the move comes as the Trump administration is losing patience with the long war in Afghanistan, where about 14,000 US troops remain.
Last week, Pentagon officials said President Donald Trump had ordered preparations to withdraw 7,000 soldiers from Afghanistan in coming months — a decision that surprised Afghan officials. It also went against the advice of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and may have contributed to his resignation.
Although US generals have since played down the suggestion of an imminent withdrawal, Trump has made no secret of his exasperation with troops’ protracted entanglement in Afghanistan. His White House also has been pressing for the Taliban to sit down for direct talks with the Afghan government.
If the presidential elections are delayed, that could give Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US envoy who has met with the Taliban several times in recent months, a bigger window to seek a deal.
Khalilzad has pushed strongly for a peace agreement before elections.
Although Afghan election officials, speaking to local media, suggested a delay was likely, they would not confirm it publicly. A senior official said the decision was made to delay the presidential vote by three months, and that it would be announced Thursday.
The coalition government of President Ashraf Gani, brokered by the Obama administration after a stalemate after the 2014 election, has struggled in the face of a resurgent Taliban and vocal political opposition.
More recently, Gani’s government has also expressed frustrations at the marginal role it has played in the Trump administration’s drive toward talks with the Taliban. Rumours have circulated that the United States is in favour of a transitional or caretaker administration that the Taliban could agree to as part of a deal to end the war.
Much of the criticism directed at Gani and his coalition partner and former electoral rival, Abdullah Abdullah, stems from how their government has handled overhauling Afghanistan’s election machinery to avoid a repeat of 2014. The coalition partners fought bitterly over election appointments, delaying a parliamentary vote by three years.
When the parliamentary elections finally happened, in October of this year, they were marred by widespread irregularities and claims of fraud. More than two months later, even the initial results have yet to be completed.
While opposition parties had long demanded that the presidential election go ahead in April, many of them cautiously welcomed news of the delay Wednesday, hoping that authorities could use the extra time to put in place better anti-fraud measures.
“The election postponement has two reasons — one is the ongoing peace negotiation, as we heard the US government wants to reach an agreement with the Taliban,” said Asadullah Sadati, a member of the opposition Wahdat party. “On the other hand, the election commission is not ready to hold the election at its exact time. The parliamentary election was a mess. It was not fair and transparent. We think the postponement brings more time for the election commission to prepare.”
Karim Amin, a member of the Hizb-e-Islami party, said it would welcome a delay that allowed more time for peace talks before they were overtaken by a contest for power.
“Before the elections, the result of the talks should be clear,” Amin said. “Peace is much more important than everything else.”