Afghan government short on options after being shut out of US-Taliban peace talks
By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: March 18, 2019
KABUL, Afghanistan — Excluded from peace talks with the Taliban, estranged from Washington after sharply attacking its peace envoy and under growing pressure to postpone July elections, the Afghan government is running short on time, friends and options.
President Ashraf Ghani, who once hoped to win re-election as a champion and orchestrator of peace after 17 years of grueling conflict, has been denied that role at Taliban insistence. Some of his rivals, meanwhile, have held high-profile meetings with the insurgents, and U.S. officials have held weeks of closed-door sessions with them abroad.
Frustrated at being outmaneuvered on all sides, Ghani has lashed out at U.S. officials through his national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib. Mohib stunned Washington last week by saying a U.S.-Taliban deal would "dishonor" fallen U.S. troops and by denouncing Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's peace envoy, as an American "viceroy" with ambitions to head an interim Afghan government.
In response, the State Department said Mohib was summoned by a senior U.S. official and told that his attacks on Khalilzad could hurt bilateral relations and the peace process. According to reports in the Afghan and U.S. media, Mohib, who previously served as Ghani's ambassador to Washington, was also barred from future dealings with U.S. officials. The State Department declined to comment on those reports Monday.
"Mohib's angry words underscore Kabul's frustrations at having been shut out of its own peace process," said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Wilson Center think tank. "They should serve as a loud wake-up call to Washington."
Excluding Kabul from the talks "may be the right thing for U.S. policy," Kugelman said, "but the further these U.S.-Taliban talks go, the greater the risk for a major crisis in U.S.-Afghan relations."
Others said that the Trump administration has become impatient with Ghani's ambitions and no longer sees his government as crucial to the peace process. But, they add, Ghani hasn't come to terms with this new reality and is blaming the messenger — Khalilzad.
An aide to Mohib said his comments reflected a widespread "public anxiety" that the U.S.-Taliban talks were being held "behind closed doors," and that U.S. officials had not responded to those concerns when Afghan officials raised them in private.
The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said a variety of Afghan groups have expressed agreement with Mohib, insisting that "without the Afghan government, lasting and durable peace is not possible."
The latest round of U.S.-Taliban talks, held in a luxury hotel in Qatar for 16 days, ended inconclusively last week. Khalilzad said "real strides" were made on U.S. troop withdrawals and Taliban promises to stop terrorist groups from operating on Afghan soil, but there were no apparent breakthroughs on a cease-fire or plans for including Afghan officials and society in the talks. No date has been set for further negotiations.
The Trump administration's stated priority is to settle the conflict and withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban's goal is to obtain a major share of political power and bring a "true Islamic system" of laws and values to the Muslim country. The Taliban does not recognize the Ghani government as legitimate and insists it will not interact with any Afghans until an agreement on U.S. military withdrawal is reached.
After the most recent talks, Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar said that the group "expects the establishment of an Islamic system" but would treat all Afghans as "brothers" and that the leadership of the group's Islamic emirate will have patience and mercy toward all.
Many Afghans, though, fear that the United States would abandon the country after making a deal and that the Taliban would reverse the political and social gains of the past 17 years. The insurgents reject the Afghanistan Constitution and are said to want an interim government to oversee discussions among all Afghan groups to develop a new governing system.
"The Taliban morale is very high now. They feel like conquerors," said Wahid Mojdah, an analyst who is in frequent contact with some Taliban officials. In contrast, he said, Ghani has lost several aides and allies, who now openly challenge and criticize him, and is feudingwith Washington, which long defended and propped up his government.
A growing number of Afghans have expressed support for an interim government. They include rivals of Ghani and analysts who worry that plans for elections in July would undercut efforts to settle the conflict, a goal that a majority of Afghans say is more important than holding national polls.
Ghani and his supporters continue to insist that elections be held as planned, arguing that any alternative would be a dangerous first step toward abandoning the constitution. The president has called for a national gathering in April to discuss the issue. But election experts warn that the political and technical conditions for holding polls four months from now are tenuous and that the results would likely not be trusted.
"There is no way a credible election can be held in July," said Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan.
Rasheed said recent changes in the election laws and oversight commissions will require more time. But the bigger problem, he said, is "what the impact of these elections would be on the peace process.
"I don't care if Mr. Ghani or Mr. X becomes the next president," Rasheed said. "What Afghanistan needs most is the guarantee of a sustainable peace."