Afghan power-sharing deal is step forward, but the road to peace is still long

President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah must now negotiate a political solution with the Taliban and fight the coronavirus

epa08428018 A handout photo made available by the Afghan President's office shows Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (seated, R) and Abdullah Abdullah (seated, L), the second most voted in the September 2019's elections, signing an agreement during a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, 17 May 2020. President Ghazni and Abdullah Abdullah reached an agreement to end months of stalemate over the outcome of the vote. According to the agreemet Dr. Abdullah will lead the National Reconciliation High Council and members of his team will be included in the cabinet.  EPA/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE / HANDOUT HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Since the beginning of the year, Afghanistan has swayed between the promise of peace and horrific spikes in violence, with one seemingly prompting the other. On Sunday, one such positive development – a long-awaited power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his arch-rival Abdullah Abdullah –materialised just days after an unclaimed militant attack at a maternity ward in Kabul killed 24 people, many of them nurses, pregnant women and new-born babies.

These senseless deaths shocked Afghanistan and the world even as violence has become a fact of life for Afghans. It should not require violence to prompt Afghan leaders to solve their differences, and put the interests of Afghans first.

The government deal gave Dr Abdullah the leading role in the peace process with the Taliban and the right to appoint half of the Afghan Cabinet – a solution that had been on the table for weeks.

When the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal in February, conditioning American troop withdrawal with peace talks between the government and the insurgents, Afghans celebrated.

But in the weeks that followed, optimism turned to scepticism  and then desperation. The deal fell through last month, as the Taliban walked out of negotiations they deemed "fruitless". The government, meanwhile, was riven by bitter rivalries.

Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah both claimed victory in a contested presidential election, and Kabul stalled a Taliban prisoner release programme meant to pave the way for negotiations. The dispute weakened the government at a time when it should have projected strength, and slowed efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The Taliban took advantage of the situation to increase violent attacks, pressuring the US to leave before intra-Afghan peace talks are held.

Even as the government stands united, Kabul faces immense challenges to peace – not least because the Taliban is an extremist group that cannot be trusted.

Despite committing to a reduction of violence, it has launched more attacks since signing the deal with the US three months ago. And although it has denied involvement in the maternity ward attack, groups such as itself, Al Qaeda and ISIS are notorious for targeting women and stripping them of their fundamental rights.

Even as the government stands united, Kabul faces great challenges to peace – not least because the Taliban cannot be trusted

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, women were not allowed to go to school or receive proper health care.

If the US departs, there are fears that the Taliban would seize this opportunity to overrun the country, whether a deal is reached with the government or not.

Afghans now have a chance at peace and it must not be squandered. But for any political solution to take hold, the US must keep its promise not to leave the country before the two warring sides engage in peace talks, and the Taliban must commit not only to a reduction in violence but to a complete cessation of hostilities. When such a deal is reached, it would be wise for Nato to maintain boots on the ground, not least for its dissuasive power against a potential Taliban takeover.