KABUL, Afghanistan — Having negotiated a historic peace deal with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American envoy, arrived in Kabul to prepare for the tightly choreographed rollout of a plan that could end America’s military presence and the long war in Afghanistan.
What he found was another complication for a deal already fragile and often interrupted: The democratic Afghan state — which the initial deal hopes to bring to the table opposite the insurgents to chart the country’s future — was threatening to split over the results of a disputed election.
The first step of the conditional peace plan, a weeklong reduction in violence across Afghanistan that opens the way for the Taliban and the United States to sign their deal, went into effect just after midnight on Saturday amid tense political uncertainty.
The declaration on Tuesday that President Ashraf Ghani had won another five-year term after the results had been delayed for five months, has been challenged by his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, who accuses the election body of favoring the incumbent. Mr. Abdullah has also declared victory, and has called on his supporters to form their own government.
Mr. Khalilzad, who has been on the road for nearly two months putting the final touches on the Taliban deal, has had to extend his stay in Kabul. He now shuttles in a convoy of armored vehicles between the heavily guarded homes of the divided elite in the Afghan capital, trying to keep their peace.
“The United States calls on all Afghans to seize this moment,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, adding that the initial agreement would be signed on Feb. 29 if the reduction in violence held.
All along, progress in the yearlong peace talks was in a race with Afghanistan’s domestic elections cycle. Vote after vote has grown so messy and disputed that U.S. diplomats — who
were unable to force an incumbent Afghan president seeking another term to delay the election — were essentially trying to push through a peace deal with the Taliban before another prolonged political crisis could complicate the equation.
They almost completed a deal with the insurgents last fall that would have pushed back the election, but President Trump called off the talks on the eve of the signing last September. The election went ahead, the results have been disputed as predicted, and now the crisis is threatening to divide the Afghan side just as the Americans need them united across the table from the Taliban.
Three days after Mr. Ghani was declared the winner, the U.S. government still has not issued a statement acknowledging his victory. The only public comments from the Americans hinted at concern of how the election result could affect the peace process.
“It is likely that these developments could add to the challenges Afghanistan faces, including the challenges of the peace process,” Molly Phee, Mr. Khalilzad’s deputy in the negotiations, said at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Our priority, and what we believe to be the priority of most Afghans, remains peace and the peace process.”
The showdown is pitting the technocratic Mr. Ghani and his circle of young advisers against some of the most hardened figures in recent Afghan history, all survivors of years of battles and deal-making. One of Mr. Abdullah’s key supporters is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former strongman who until recently served as Mr. Ghani’s vice president.
General Dostum was the first to call for a parallel government and to urge protests in the northern provinces. He has a unified base in the north, and how far he is willing to push the crisis, and how much flexibility he shows, may help determine the course of the political crisis.
Mr. Khalilzad, who was expected to return to Doha to prepare for the signing ceremony, has extended his stay in Afghanistan to manage the political tensions. He has met repeatedly with Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, as well as all the other key political players.
He told a meeting of General Dostum’s party that the announcement of the election results had caught him by surprise, a party member said. Along with Gen. Austin S. Miller, the top American commander in Afghanistan, he urged the participants to ensure that political rallies don’t become violent.
Analysts said domestic tensions were unlikely to affect the first step of the peace plan, as the United States had made violence reduction a priority. But the high-stakes political showdown is complicating the next steps, when the Taliban are expected to sit across from a unified negotiating team of other Afghans, including the government.
“The U.S. has clearly put its weight on the peace issue, and that message is clear to all sides,” said Omar Sadr, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. “But the election issue has created a huge gap between the political sides, and that needs to be bridged in a very short time for this process to move forward — and I don’t know how that can happen without Khalilzad and the U.S. stepping in.”
Mr. Sadr said the Americans’ silence on the election results gives them room to maneuver in breaking the political crisis.
The violence reduction plan closely resembles a cease-fire, with some exceptions, officials said.
The Taliban have agreed to hold back attacks on cities, highways and major security outposts throughout the country for the next seven days. In return, the Afghan forces and the U.S. military, which has carried out extensive airstrikes in support of the Afghans in recent months, have agreed to hold back their operations.
In preparation for the start of violence reduction, Mr. Ghani has met with provincial security and political leaders. He told one group that the Taliban carry out about 80 attacks a day. A reduction to about 10 attacks would be seen as successful.
“Our brave security and defense forces will only act in defense of themselves and the honorable people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Ghani said in a televised address late Friday, declaring that the agreement would go into effect after midnight.
Taliban leaders seemed to have a more difficult task, scrambling to get their message of violence reduction down to field units in what has become an increasingly decentralized force.
In private WhatsApp messages, their commanders are taking pains to strike a balance: They want their men to hold fire and not attack, but also to stay vigilant because this is not a cease-fire. The group has long feared that a full cease-fire could divide their ranks and make remobilizing difficult if the peace process fell through.
Najim Rahim contributed reporting.
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