In US pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader

From President Ghani’s perspective, the negotiations themselves, led by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, feel like a personal betrayal and a capitulation by the US that could return the Taliban to power. (File photo: AFP)

Washington’s relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears increasingly at risk of permanent damage, the consequence of a US policy shift that has so far excluded his government from talks with the Taliban and of his own determination to retain power and manage peace efforts himself.

The feud threatens to undermine the already narrow chances for a peace accord that President Donald Trump hopes would end America’s longest war.

Current and former US officials tell Reuters they believe Ghani is positioning himself to perhaps be a spoiler in still-fragile negotiations, angry that the Afghan government has been kept out of talks and worried about the implications for his presidency.

But from Ghani’s perspective, the negotiations themselves, led by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, feel like a personal betrayal and a capitulation by the United States that could return the Taliban to power, Afghan officials say.

The growing rift between Kabul and Washington over the peace negotiations erupted in public view on March 14 when Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, slammed Khalilzad and accused the Afghan-born veteran US diplomat of perhaps trying to steal the Afghan presidency for himself.

“(Ghani’s worried) there could be some agreement for an interim government and he’ll be on the outside looking in,” said one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The blow-up over Mohib’s attack has had serious repercussions. The following day, the State Department decreed that US officials should have no further contact with Mohib and his presence at a meeting on Monday between Ghani and NATO diplomats prompted the US delegation to walk out of the presidential palace, Afghan sources said on condition of anonymity. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The discord carries echoes of tensions under Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who became an intense critic of the United States during his 13 years in power.

But the acrimony is still largely behind closed doors. Ghani is dependent on US support, as Afghanistan’s main economic, diplomatic and security backer, and there are signs that he will move to limit the fallout on ties.

In a nod to Washington’s outrage over Mohib’s remarks, Ghani is considering replacing Mohib with the Afghan envoy to London, a second Afghan official said.

Latest round disappoints Ghani

Since his 2016 election campaign, Trump has made the case to end the Afghan conflict that began in 2001 and has tied the prospect of troop drawdowns in Afghanistan to success in peace talks. But it is unclear if Trump will accept a deal at any cost - something that Ghani and other Afghans increasingly fear.

“The president has indicated that he hopes for the best in these peace talks but he also will not accept a bad deal,” a senior Trump administration official said.

The Taliban has refused to meet with him.

Although the US had historically balked at the prospect of unilateral talks with the Taliban, the Trump administration made a decision to move ahead with them, something that veteran US officials sharply criticized.

“By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimized the government we claim to support,” Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a Washington Post column, adding that the US move signaled “we were surrendering.”

The second round of US-Taliban talks lasting 16 days ended this month in Doha, Qatar, with discussions including potential US troop withdrawals and Taliban assurances on counter-terrorism.

But those talks disappointed Ghani, who had hoped Khalilzad would make some progress on negotiating a ceasefire for Afghanistan and convincing the Taliban to negotiate with Ghani’s government, several Afghan officials said.

Instead, Khalilzad flew to Washington without such progress and without discussing the details of the talks with Ghani, which made the Afghan president paranoid, they said.

“The two sides discussed and agreed on issues concerning them but it did not change anything for the (Afghan) people or the government,” the first Afghan official said.

Acknowledging Kabul’s frustration, the senior Trump administration official said: “It’s urgent that we convince the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government and other Afghans and engage in a political process.”

Afghan election complication

The Afghan election is shaping up as a major challenge for Ghani’s government, with speculation that the poll may not be held at all if a peace deal is first reached with the Taliban. Delayed twice already, it is now slated for Sept. 28.

Ghani “thinks that if the peace process goes through and the election doesn’t take place, he loses everything,” said a former senior Afghan official.

With so much in play politically, Ghani is seen as trying to tightly control the process - something experts fear could exclude opposition elements that would be crucial for any lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan society.

A former US official said Ghani’s controlling personality was one reason Washington long worried he could prove to be “more an obstacle than a help on the peace process.”

“It’s not because his heart isn’t in the right place in wanting peace in Afghanistan. It’s because of his disposition and his controlling nature and his desire to hold on to more control in a closed circle than is realistic,” the former official said.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:54 - GMT 06:54