Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani close to power-sharing deal in Afghanistan

Both camps say progress on agreement was spurred by need to deal with coronavirus and peace talks with Taliban

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, center, addresses the media following a conference with his party members in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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Afghanistan’s top political rivals signalled a breakthrough in power-sharing talks on Friday, raising hopes for stable leadership amid a coronavirus outbreak and ahead of much-anticipated peace talks with Taliban insurgents.

Abdullah Abdullah, who disputed President Ashraf Ghani’s re-election in a fraud-tainted vote last September, said efforts to “resolve the political crisis have borne fruit”.

“We have made progress in negotiations and reached tentative agreement on a range of principles,” Dr Abdullah said in a statement on Friday.

“We hope to finalise the political agreement at the earliest so that we can pay undivided attention to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring a just, dignified and lasting peace, and confronting the security and economic challenges in a spirit of national unity and solidarity.”

Dr Abdullah had declared himself president and held a parallel inauguration ceremony after the election commission declared Mr Ghani re-elected in February. However, the two leaders have been involved in negotiations since then, with some pressure from the US administration.

A power-sharing framework purportedly proposed by Dr Abdullah, released by the Afghan investigative magazine Hastesubh, lists issues ranging from appointments in ministries and local governments to defining the roles of the leader and his allies.

The document proposes that Dr Abdullah hold the title of Executive Prime Minister for Peace, with the authority to lead meetings of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council meetings and in related matters.

A close aide to Dr Abdullah confirmed the document's veracity to The National, and said that a deal was close to being finalised.

“The draft circulating in the media is not the latest, but one of the earlier drafts that was shared [by Dr Abdullah] with [US peace envoy Zalmay] Khalilzad before the two inaugurations,” he said.

“However, there has been a grand understanding quite similar to what you see in the document, including the formation of the leadership council under the chairmanship of Dr Abdullah to deal with the issues of peace,” he said.

Basir Mohammad, a close aide to Vice President Amrullah Saleh, also confirmed that President Ghani’s team was keen to end the internal crisis, especially in view of the growing challenges facing Afghanistan.

"Considering the Covid-19 crisis in Afghanistan, work on the details of a deal with Dr Abdullah are under way and the government is trying its best to accommodate his team in the government the soonest possible," Mr Mohammad told The National.

He said the effort aimed to provide “a unified voice at the negotiation table with the Taliban”.

Dr Abdullah’s aide echoed this view. “There is a need for a real consensus [for the peace talks] and hopefully this will include a large camp of those who are defending the values of the republic and institutions that we built in the past 18 years,” he said.

However, both sides admitted that certain issues are holding back a final agreement, including protocol and titles for Dr Abdullah and his team.

“Unfortunately, Dr Abdullah’s proposed framework … requires large budgets, personal interests, protocol and security arrangements,” Mr Mohammad said, adding that one of the proposals is that Dr Abdullah be positioned “as the second person in the country”.

“This makes it hard for the government to accept, especially when the country is in need of all those resources to fight the coronavirus pandemic and its socio-economic effects. The government is willing to honour Dr Abdullah’s dignity and provide him the protocol of a vice president. But it is sad to see that during these hard times they are only focused on whether to be before First Vice President Amrullah Saleh or after,” Mr Mohammad said.

Despite the progress towards a deal, analysts are not very optimistic that the intra-Afghan talks will start soon.

“It is hard to say if Abdullah and Ghani’s compromise will resolve some of the issues delaying the talks on the government side. The past performances don’t give a lot of hope for optimism that things will move quickly or smoothly, or if this compromise means an end to disputes in Kabul,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan Crisis Group.

“Whether the peace negotiations with the Taliban are able to move forward depends on the fundamental stance of the government, and their consensus to move in that direction,” he said.

The tentative deal comes after increased pressure from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Kabul in March to try to resolve the dispute. Mr Pompeo even threatened to review US funding to Afghanistan and cut $1 billion in aid after his visit failed to achieve progress.

However, Mr Watkins believes the tentative deal between Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah is not as directly mediated by the US as the previous agreement to resolve a dispute between them over the 2014 presidential election.

At that time, then US secretary of state John Kerry brokered the formation of a national unity government in which Mr Ghani held the presidency and Dr Abdullah was given the newly created post of chief executive.

“There definitely seems to be a strong correlation between Pompeo’s visit, the threat to cut a significant amount of aid, and the fact that we are getting much closer to a deal today,” Mr Watkins said. “But it isn’t a US-mediated deal … it seems to be something that the two sides have met frequently on and decided amongst themselves.”

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