KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan faces a presidential election next month but few believe the vote will take place as the United States and the Taliban inch closer to a deal that could end the nearly 18-year war but bring uncertainty about almost everything else.
Few candidates — 18 are running for the country's top job — have openly campaigned after the Taliban last week attacked the office of President Ashraf Ghani's running mate on opening day of the campaign, killing at least 20 people. Amrullah Saleh, known for his fierce anti-Taliban stance, was unharmed.
This week, the Taliban declared the election a "sham" and warned fellow Afghans to stay away from campaign rallies and from the polls, saying such gatherings could be targeted. A day later, a Taliban car bomb aimed at Afghan security forces ripped through a Kabul neighborhood, killing 14 people and wounding 145 — most of them women, children and other civilians.
The developments came even as the Taliban and a U.S. envoy tasked with finding a peaceful resolution to the war in Afghanistan — America's longest conflict — reported progress on negotiations in Qatar on an agreement for the withdrawal of some 20,000 U.S. and NATO troops, along with Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be a base for other extremist groups.
The Taliban spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, told The Associated Press on Friday that he expects an agreement "at the end of this round of talks."
The deal would include a cease-fire and Taliban negotiations with other Afghan representatives, he said. However, it wasn't clear whether that meant the Taliban would agree to talk to Kabul government members in their official capacity or only as ordinary Afghans, as in the past.
President Donald Trump and the Qatari leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, spoke by phone on Thursday about developments in the talks, the Qatar News Agency reported, and the U.S. and Taliban lead negotiators have been traveling in recent days to brief several countries involved in the process on the latest developments.
The U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Friday he had been in Norway, which would facilitate the intra-Afghan discussions that would follow a deal.
But so far, the Taliban has refused to negotiate with the government, dismissing it as a U.S. puppet. And no one knows whether the thousands of Taliban fighters across Afghanistan will respect whatever deal is made.
Scott Worden, director of the Afghanistan program at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote last week that the choice in the peace process is between "pursuing a negotiated solution with the Taliban that would lead to a new system that the Taliban agree to participate in, or seeking to renew the current government's legitimacy through elections and having the new government negotiate from what it hopes will be a position of greater strength."
Neither is easy, he said.
Speculation is high that a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement might delay the Sept. 28 election, especially as Khalilzad has suggested that the vote could hinder peace efforts. Analysts have said his Sept. 1 target date for a peace deal could be linked to Ghani's insistence on holding the vote next month.
In Kabul, where few campaign posters are seen, some residents appear to be fine with a delay. For many, memories of the Taliban chopping off the inked fingers of some voters during the 2014 presidential vote remain fresh.
Jamil, a 26-year-old law student who like many Afghans has only one name, predicted that the election would be postponed. Once there is a deal with the Taliban, a transitional government would take over. Then the Taliban would enter a presidential candidate of their own, he speculated.
One presidential candidate, Mohammad Shahab Hakimi, on Friday told reporters that an "interim government" likely would be established, asserting that the current one has no ability to hold a transparent vote or ensure enduring peace.
"Everyone is waiting for a peace deal," said a 68-year-old shopkeeper, Dawood. Like many others, he wishes for an end to years of both bloodshed and government corruption.
The uncertainty has dampened any election enthusiasm that remained after both the 2014 presidential vote and last year's parliamentary polls were tainted by allegations of mismanagement and corruption.
Already, this presidential election has been delayed for several months over security and organizational concerns. Ghani in February fired the entire Independent Electoral Commission over the chaotic 2018 parliamentary vote, which was held after a three-year delay.
While the new election commission announced this week it is ready next month's election, both candidates and voters are skeptical.
One top presidential challenger, Hanif Atmar, a former national security adviser, on Thursday suspended his campaign, citing the uncertainty around the peace talks and alleging a lack of transparency in election preparations.
Also Thursday, a leading observer, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said 57% of the 5,000 people it surveyed in the country's 34 provinces said they were not willing to take part in the election, a rate the group called "shocking" and a threat to the legitimacy of the vote. Respondents cited the peace talks, concerns about transparency and insecurity amid the Taliban threats.
Yusouf Rashid of another observer group, the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, remained optimistic, saying that holding the election is the only way to resolve those issues.
Ghani, stung by the Taliban's refusal to negotiate with his government, is a rare candidate campaigning openly despite the Taliban threats. He sounded defiant at a rally in Paktia province on Thursday.
"This huge crowd that has gathered is testament to the willingness, aspiration and commitment of millions of Afghans who want a strong democratic republic," the president said on Twitter.
"We want Afghanistan, not Talibistan," Ghani told the crowd.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in New York contributed to this report.