By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior Afghan official on Thursday accused the U.S. peace negotiator of “delegitimizing” the Afghan government in an unusually public attack reflecting Kabul’s mounting alarm over its exclusion from U.S. talks with Taliban insurgents.
National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib’s comments to reporters in Washington were the most strident public complaints to date by an Afghan official over the Kabul’s government’s absence and the role of U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born veteran diplomat.
“Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad’s history, his own personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan. He was wanting to run for president twice,” Mohib said hours before scheduled talks at the U.S. State Department. “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.”
Viceroy is a politically loaded term in South Asia as it was the title of the colonial administrator of British-ruled India.
A second round of U.S.-Taliban talks lasting 16 days ended on Monday in Doha, Qatar. The sides reported progress, but no final deal on a withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces and arrangements that the Taliban ensures militants would not use Afghanistan to stage attacks as al Qaeda did for Sept. 11, 2001.
“We think either Zal, Ambassador Khalilzad, doesn’t know how to negotiate (or) there may be other reasons behind what he’s doing,” Mohib said.
“The reason he is delegitimizing 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,” he said.
Khalilzad was not immediately available for comment. A State Department official who requested anonymity said Mohib’s remarks “do not in any way reflect the high level of U.S.-Afghan coordination on all matters involving peace in Afghanistan.”
The official described Mohib’s comments as “inaccurate and unhelpful, and we will be responding to them privately today.”
U.S. negotiators also are pressing the Taliban to accept a ceasefire and talks on Afghanistan’s political future with representatives of Afghan society, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
The Taliban rejects direct negotiations with the Kabul government, accusing it of being a U.S. puppet.
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 at Kabul’s expense an end to the nearly 18-year U.S. military involvement to fulfil a pledge President Donald Trump made to end America’s longest war.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)