A senior Afghan official has accused the US of “delegitimising” the Kabul government by excluding it from peace talks with the Taliban.
Hamdullah Mohib, a national security adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, levelled a fierce attack on US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad on Thursday, suggesting the veteran US diplomat held ambitions to run for political office in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad was born in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, but has worked in the US government since 1984, first in the Reagan administration, then under Bill Clinton, George Bush and briefly under Barack Obama.
In recent months, Khalilzad has held a series of talks with the Taliban, in an attempt to end the more than 17-year conflict in the country.
“Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad’s history, his own personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan. He was wanting to run for president twice,” Mohib told the Reuters news agency.
“We think either Zal, Ambassador Khalilzad, doesn’t know how to negotiate (or) there may be other reasons behind what he’s doing.
“The reason he is delegitimising the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban can only have one approach. It’s definitely not for peace.”
Mohib’s comments were the most strident public complaints to date by an Afghan official over the Kabul’s government’s exclusion from negotiations with the Taliban.
The talks have gained momentum in recent months as the United States has decided to engage with the armed group, which has been waging a deadly rebellion since it was removed from power in 2001.
The latest round of US-Taliban talks, which lasted for 16 days, ended on Monday in Doha, Qatar. The sides reported progress, but no final deal on a withdrawal of US-led international forces.
“The perception in Afghanistan and people in government think that perhaps, perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy,” said Mohib.
Viceroy is a politically loaded term in South Asia as it was the title of the colonial administrator of British-ruled India.
After previous rounds of talks, Khalilzad typically travelled to Kabul to brief Afghan officials – but not this time. On Tuesday, he flew straight back to Washington.
The Taliban rejects direct negotiations with the Kabul government, accusing it of being a US puppet.
Mohib’s remarks drew a strong admonition from David Hale, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs.
In a meeting with Mohib, Hale rejected his attack on “the US approach to reconciliation”, Robert Palladino, the department’s deputy spokesman, said in a statement.
The department’s number three diplomat reminded Mohib that Khalilzad represents Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “and that attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the department and only serve to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process,” Palladino said.
Hale “expressed our commitment to the Afghan government’s stability and full participation in the peace process,” Palladino said.
US negotiators have been pressing the Taliban to accept a ceasefire and talks on Afghanistan’s political future with representatives of Afghan society, including Ghani’s government.
But the talks have primarily focused on the Taliban’s counterterrorism assurances and a US troop withdrawal.
The lead Taliban negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, on Thursday, assured Afghans that they had no reason to fear a settlement.
Afghan officials worry that Khalilzad’s priority is securing an end to the US’s longest war at Kabul’s expense.