As winter sets in, Afghans feel chill of endless peace talk, political paralysis

Pamela Constable

KABUL (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Across the Afghan capital, carpentry shops are turning out crude pine tables. Soon, thousands of families will spend icy winter evenings huddled around them, with a few hot coals underneath and blankets spread over the top. In many areas, electricity cuts and high firewood costs have made these traditional sandalis the only source of heat.

“The cold is getting worse, the prices are going up and there is no work,” said Baba Pahlawan, 70, who sells firewood for about eight cents a pound. Most customers, he said, can afford only a few sticks at a time. When they run out, they buy a few pieces of coal. When that runs out, “people stay under their blankets and wait for the morning”.

As another harsh winter approaches, worry is sharpening the seasonal chill in this bustling but bedraggled city of four million surrounded by white-capped mountains. It is being felt not only in communities like Pahlawan’s – and not only because of the worsening daily struggle to survive.

Two larger, intertwined struggles to determine the country’s future have dominated the national conversation for months: on-and-off peace talks with Taleban insurgents and a contentious process to choose a new president. Now, both efforts have slowed to a near-halt, and analysts said it may be spring before either bears fruit.

Negotiations between Taleban and United States (US) officials, which had advanced in fits, were cancelled by US President Donald Trump in September last year. This month the talks were revived, and various truce proposals are under discussion. But the insurgents seem in no hurry to make a deal, while the White House appears likely to withdraw thousands of troops even as Taleban violence continues.

Firewood seller Baba Pahlawan says most customers can afford to buy only a few sticks of firewood at a time the winter cold begins. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Shoppers crowd a market in Kabul, Afghanistan as an icy winter takes hold in the Afghan capital and peace talks with the Taleban drag on

On Monday, Army Sergeant Michael J Goble, 33, of Washington Township, New Jersey, was killed during combat operations in northern Kunduz province, becoming the 20th American service member to die violently in Afghanistan last year. Taleban spokesmen claimed responsibility for his death in a roadside bombing.

Meanwhile, the troubled Afghan governing transition has become bogged down in complaints of fraud, leaving the country rudderless and tense. Last Sunday, election officials released preliminary results showing that President Ashraf Ghani narrowly won reelection in the September 28 poll, with just over 50 per cent of the vote, but his opponents immediately challenged the results.

It will now probably take many weeks for an election panel to review thousands of fraud allegations, including charges that numerous votes were cast before or after election day. If enough votes are invalidated, a runoff will be required in the spring.

“We are at a deadlock of war and peace and politics,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence director who placed third in the race. He predicted that with up to 300,000 ballots being challenged and a 12,000-vote margin announced between Ghani and his top contender, Abdullah Abdullah, a run-off is likely.

But others also warned that further delays could lead to political turmoil. The insurgents have refused to recognise Ghani’s government, and Nabil said a broad array of Afghans need to “sit down and discuss the way forward. Either a fraudulent government or a parallel one would be dangerous for democracy”.

Ghani and his aides have put an aggressive, upbeat face on the situation. The President promised one gathering of supporters this week that he and his “state-building team” will consolidate a “true Islamic republic” – meaning a Muslim democracy. Taleban leaders seek to install a theocratic emirate.

While US and United Nations (UN) officials have cautioned that the election will not be over until all complaints have been investigated, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shares Afghans’ widespread antipathy toward their common neighbour, Pakistan, has already called to congratulate Ghani.

For many Afghans, both the election contretemps and the disappointing trajectory of the US-Taleban talks exemplify the distance between high-level power struggles and everyday concerns.

“Peace and elections are the preoccupations of the elite, while human circumstances are in crisis,” said Executive Director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies Davood Moradian. “Facebook has created a virtual world for Afghan politics, but it is not the world in which most Afghans live.”

In interviews this week, a variety of Kabul residents said they were disillusioned with the national leadership, especially those living in poverty. After years of massive foreign aid, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries. A recent survey by the Asia Foundation said that a quarter of Afghan households earn less than USD64 a month.

“There is no security, and there are no jobs, because all the rich people have fled,” said Mawladaad Wasi, 32, who carts wood and coal all day but does not earn enough to keep his home warm. He denounced politicians as corrupt and said funds spent on the elections “should have been donated to poor people”.

Several others with professional backgrounds seemed equally despairing. Some said they had lost good jobs after the drastic cutback in US troops in 2014; others blamed the conflict for blocking investment or said the Ghani government had failed to create jobs while pursuing grandiose projects.

Abdul Rashid, 53, was once a teacher, but he now sells fruit. He said two of his sons had to leave school to work washing cars, while he returns home exhausted each night after 15-hour days pushing a heavy cart.

“I am very worried about the future,” Rashid said. “If we did not see improvement for a majority of people during the past 18 years, when there was a flood of foreign aid and troops, how can we be hopeful for a future that brings peace and good governance?”