Senior Afghan official accuses US envoy of 'delegitimizing' Afghan government
A senior Afghan official on Thursday accused the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation of undercutting the Afghan government in ongoing peace talks, suggesting it could be an effort to propel the envoy's own political ambitions.
Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib said that special representative Zalmay Khalilzad had been "stonewalling" the Afghan government on the ongoing bilateral US-Taliban negotiations, the most recent round of which wrapped up this week in Doha.
He accused Khalilzad of legitimizing the Taliban and decreasing the legitimacy of the Afghan government during the discussions. Mohib repeatedly called that the "wrong approach" and said they were not being kept in the loop on the process.
"We get bits and pieces of information," Mohib told journalists in Washington Thursday. "We don't have the kind of transparency that we should have. There isn't proper access to information. The last people to find out are us."
He implied that Khalilzad's moves were motivated not by the goal of peace, but rather personal political gain.
"Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad's own history, personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan," Mohib said, alleging that Khalilzad had presidential aspirations in 2009 and 2014.
"The perception in Afghanistan and the people in the government think, perhaps, perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy," he said. "We're only saying this because that's perception we have ... the reason he's 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."
Mohib said these perceptions come from a lack of information on the ongoing peace discussions. He said he has raised the concerns with US officials but did not know whether they would act on them. When asked whether Khalilzad should be replaced, Mohib said no, noting it was a decision for the US government.
State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said Thursday afternoon that they didn't believe that Mohib's comments "warrant a public response," but said that Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale was meeting with Mohib "to communicate the United States' displeasure."
According to a readout of their meeting, Hale "underscored the longstanding U.S. assistance and support to Afghanistan, and expressed our commitment to the Afghan government's stability and full participation in the peace process."
"He also reminded National Security Advisor Mohib that Special Representative Khalilzad represents the Secretary, and that attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the Department and only serve to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process," the readout from Palladino said.
Palladino said at Thursday's press briefing that the US remains "in close consultation with President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah, and other senior members of the Afghan government on all matters involving piece in Afghanistan. In every available opportunity, often multiple times during a single trip abroad, special representative Khalilzad has traveled to Kabul for updates and consultations," Palladino said.
"Khalilzad and President Ghani also speak regularly by telephone. In addition, Ambassador Bass, our ambassador in Kabul, and his team, they're in touch with President Ghani on a near daily basis. So there's no lack of coordination," he continued.
Asked whether the US still has confidence in the Ghani government, Palladino said yes.
"I don't think the President has instructed not to keep the Afghan government in the loop"
Mohib suggested that Khalilzad is circumventing President Donald Trump's directive on the issue, which he said that Vice President Mike Pence described to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as "looking for a way to end the conflict."
"I think that is the limits of the President's instructions. What happens after is something that I think is at the discretion of the individual is leading," Mohib said.
"I don't think the President has instructed not to keep the Afghan government in the loop. I don't think the President has instructed to delegitimize the Afghan government. I don't think the President has instructed to disrespect the Afghan people. I don't think the President had instructed that you cut a deal with the terrorists," Mohib added.
"He is ostracizing and alienating a very trusted ally and partner," Mohib said.
His blistering comments come days after Khalilzad announced on Twitter that progress had been made in the latest "marathon round of talks." The envoy said the said the two sides had "agreed in draft" on counter-terrorism assurances and troop withdrawal. However, he cautioned that "there is no final agreement until everything is agreed."
"When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other #Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire," Khalilzad said. He has said in the past that Afghanistan's participation in the deal was essential and has included it as one of four core points necessary to any deal.
Palladino on Thursday also reiterated the stance that "an intra-Afghan dialogue must be a part of any final package."
"Such a dialogue must include the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghan stakeholders, including women and youth," Palladino said.
He would not say whether there was an agreement or acknowledgement from the Taliban on Afghanistan's participation.
A National Security Council official reiterated that Mohib's comments were "inaccurate."
"The U.S. deeply values its long-standing relationship with Afghanistan. We are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan security forces to stabilize the country and defeat terrorist threats, and at the same time we are working together toward bringing an end to the war," the official said.
They said Khalilzad and his team "are working to bring together various stakeholders, including the Afghan government, a broad range of Afghan political and civil society leaders, and the Taliban, so they can reach a political settlement that will bring an end to the conflict."
Mohib repeatedly rejected the prospect of such a draft agreement given the Afghan government's lack of participation in the process.
"Our understanding is even if there is a deal, it's a bad deal," he said Thursday.
"You cannot get a cat to guard your milk. The Taliban and terrorism -- it's one DNA," he said Wednesday in remarks at the Hudson Institute. "We're protecting our values, our freedoms and we will not allow someone -- an individual's rushed agreement -- to put that in jeopardy."
Mohib asked on Thursday why the government only gets "information by tweets," and said that being kept "in the dark" could have serious security implications.
"Right now we have nothing to tell our security forces. What am I supposed to tell my security forces? What are they fighting for? How am I supposed to convince them that they are not being sold out?" Mohib said. "What Zal (Khalilzad) is doing is threatening US security officials in Afghanistan because he is — he is displaying to them that there is disrespect for the Afghan government, that the enemy that they are fighting with is one that they are colluding and conspiring."
Mohib's predecessor Haneef Atmar, who is running in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections, criticized the remarks as "misguided & against our national interests."
"The efforts by (Khalilzad) & the progress achieved in the #DohaTalks have opened a historic window for peace," he wrote on Twitter Thursday. Achieving lasting peace won't be easy. It will require us all to set petty political interests aside, unite behind a truly inclusive intra-Afghan agenda & strive for best negotiated settlement for Afghanistan. The Govt should lead and assist this effort instead of undermining it."
"We will protect those values whether we have our allies standing with us or not"
Mohib repeatedly said Wednesday and Thursday that the Afghan government would accept US troop withdrawal and would not seek a replacement. Mohib said that Ghani had told Pence this at the Munich Security Conference, but asked that there be discussions on how it could be done responsibly so as not to create a "security vacuum in the region." Mohib said that Pence told Ghani that the US is not looking to withdraw.
Khalilzad, who returned to Washington Wednesday, is expected at a Pentagon tank session with Trump on Friday. A major topic of conversation is expected to be US military options for beginning a drawdown of US troops in advance of a full peace agreement. The US military is suggesting a continued focus mainly on counter-terrorism operations, according to several defense officials.
Last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the top US general in the Middle East, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon has not been directed to withdraw troops. Moreover, he said that the conditions of the current political reconciliation process "don't merit" a withdrawal.
"My advice is that any decision to reduce forces in Afghanistan should be done in full consultation with our coalition partners, and of course the government of Afghanistan, and should pivot off political progress and the reconciliation process," Votel said.
The Afghan government's relations with the Trump administration have been on the rocks for quite some time. Afghan officials are frustrated that Ghani has still not been invited to the White House, two years into the Trump presidency. That visit was supposed to happen last fall, around the time of the UN General Assembly, but it did not take place -- partially due to the upcoming US midterms.
Yet even after the midterms nothing was planned. Ghani wrote a letter to Trump earlier this year inviting him to visit Kabul to discuss, among other things, how to cut the cost of the US presence in Afghanistan. Since receiving that letter Trump has not made the visit, nor has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo did make a refueling stop in Kabul on his was to Hanoi, but didn't make time to visit with any Afghan government officials.
Mohib said Thursday that now that Khalilzad is on the job, relations are even worse. He said that even his US counterpart, National Security Adviser John Bolton, would not guarantee him a meeting during his visit to Washington.
The Afghan government is also keeping a close eye on Pakistan, who they believe to have a more full understanding of the US-Taliban talks, which puts them in a position of power. They see the Pakistanis as harboring and supporting terrorism in Afghanistan — and that includes the Taliban themselves. Mohib was clear in stating that the Taliban are terrorists and suggested they would not be pressured into an agreement for the sake of expediency or for keeping US troops in the country.
"We will do with what we can. We have a reason for where we are and what we're fighting for. We're not fighting because someone else is telling us to. We're protecting our values, our freedoms and we will not allow someone -- an individual's rushed agreement -- to put that in jeopardy," he said Wednesday. "We will protect those values whether we have our allies standing with us or not."