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“It’s a Real Mess”: Afghan Rivals Both Claim Presidency as Ongoing Attacks Could Derail Peace Deal

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Since last month’s U.S.-Taliban peace plan, there have been nearly 80 attacks in Afghanistan. The violence could derail the deal that calls for U.S. troops to withdraw over the next 14 months. This comes as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and top political leader Abdullah Abdullah both claimed that they won the presidential election at dual inauguration ceremonies today in Kabul, and members of the Taliban and the Afghan government were set to start direct negotiations on Tuesday. We speak with Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, who recently won the George Polk Award for Military Reporting for his in-depth investigation called “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with Afghanistan. Both President Ashraf Ghani and top Afghan political leader Abdullah Abdullah are claiming they won the presidential election, and are holding dueling inauguration ceremonies today in the capital Kabul. Ghani has been president since 2014, but Abdullah claims the most recent election was spoiled by fraud. This is playing out in the middle of a U.S.-negotiated peace plan with the Taliban, which calls for the U.S. and its NATO allies to withdraw their troops over the next 14 months and for the start of direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgency. Members of the Taliban and the Afghan government were set to start direct negotiations on Tuesday, tomorrow.

Al Jazeera reports there have been nearly 80 attacks in Afghanistan since the U.S. and the Taliban signed the peace accord. Just 11 days after the deal, U.S. forces carried out an air raid on Taliban fighters in Helmand province. On Friday, Abdullah escaped unharmed from an Islamic State attack on a ceremony in Kabul that killed at least 32 people. The Taliban issued a statement saying they were not involved in that attack. This is Mukhtar Jan, one of the wounded, speaking to reporters.

MUKHTAR JAN: [translated] I was at the ceremony when the gunshots started. I rushed toward the door to get out of the area, but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Washington Post award-winning reporter Craig Whitlock. He was just recognized with a George Polk Award for Military Reporting for his in-depth investigation called “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.” After getting a tip, Whitlock fought for three years to win the release of a trove of confidential interviews with government officials conducted with people directly involved in the nearly two-decade-long war. He ultimately obtained more than 2,000 documents that revealed how presidents, generals and diplomats intentionally misled the American public about the longest war in U.S. history. Some people call the Afghanistan Papers the “modern-day Pentagon Papers.”

Craig Whitlock, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Before we get into the documents, this trove of documents and interviews that you have unveiled, can we start by you explaining the latest news, since the U.S. and Taliban have reached this so-called peace plan, which did not include the Afghan government, and the bombings that have taken place over the last few days and the dueling administrations that have just held their inaugurations, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Sure. Well, to be blunt, it’s a real mess politically in Afghanistan these days. You have a number of players, different rivalries that are playing out on the political stage, but also in the war zone. You have the United States, which has been there for almost two decades, and its NATO allies. You have the Taliban, who all of a sudden are much more friendly and at least forthcoming in these peace talks with the United States. But then you have the Afghan government, which for years has been propped up by the United States but now is feeling a real split between the president, Ashraf Ghani, and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. I mean, think about the scene today in Kabul. You had rival inaugurations with both Abdullah and Ghani claiming that they are the rightful president. In the midst of all this, the United States is trying to get the Afghan government, whoever it’s led by, to sit down and negotiate with the Taliban. And the Taliban doesn’t even recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government. So, trying to sort all this out and bring peace to Afghanistan is going to be a real challenge indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: And those negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government were supposed to start — were supposed to begin tomorrow. Is that right?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, if we don’t even know who the rightful president of Afghanistan is. There was another precursor before peace talks could start tomorrow, and that was the United States had assured the Taliban that the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners being held by the Afghan government. President Ghani has said no way to that, that he wasn’t involved in that agreement, and he isn’t going to release all these prisoners by tomorrow. Now, that may be the subject of side negotiations, but again, you have all these demands and contingencies and players and people saying they won’t talk to each other. Over the last few days, you had Donald Trump’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who’s an Afghan American — he was doing shuttle diplomacy between the two rival Afghan would-be presidents, trying to get them to call off their inaugurations or at least work out some kind of deal. But obviously he failed, because both men went ahead with their respective inauguration ceremonies.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. strikes in Helmand province, among the 80 attacks that have taken place since the U.S. announced this brokered deal with the Taliban?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right, and there has been violence ongoing. Now, part of it is trying to figure out who’s behind it, because another actor in this very complicated play, as it were, is the Islamic State, which the United States of course considers a terrorist group. And one of the ironies here is the Islamic State and the Taliban don’t get along at all. So, as the Islamic State is trying to — they’re trying to fight, and they’re not party to any negotiations. The United States is trying to get the Taliban to turn against the Islamic State. So, really, what you have here is a very complicated civil war, in a word, that has been going on for many years, and the United States is in the middle of it. And I think one thing people forget is the whole reason we went to war in Afghanistan was to fight al-Qaeda. We don’t really – al-Qaeda doesn’t really have much of a presence in Afghanistan. You have all these other factions, and that’s what United States is in the middle of and trying to sort out and get all sides to calm down a bit and try and talk. But again, that’s going to be a monumental challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig, if you could stay with us, we’re going to break, and then we want to go deeply into what you found, this remarkable release of documents, of the quotes of generals and presidents, behind the scenes, talking about the failure of the War in Afghanistan, as the public was being told something very different. Craig Whitlock is the award-winning staff writer for The Washington Post who uncovered the Afghanistan Papers. We’ll be back with him in a minute.

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“Afghanistan Papers” Reveal How Presidents & Generals Misled the American Public on War’s Progress

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