US, Afghan government tensions burst into public over Taliban talks

U.S., Taliban teams have been meeting for months without the Afghan government.

Tensions have been brewing for months as the Afghan government has been excluded from U.S. talks with the militant group and they burst open with Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib's comments -- a searing indictment of the American peace effort.

Mohib condemned the U.S. talks as the "wrong approach" and for "delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it and at the same time elevating the Taliban."

He accused U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, in particular, of weakening the government of President Ashraf Ghani so that Khalilzad himself could take over the country as viceroy.

"He is ostracizing and alienating a very trusted ally and partner," Mohib said of Khalilzad while speaking to reporters in Washington.

Khalilzad is a well-known figure in Washington and Kabul, even helping draft Afghanistan's constitution in the early 2000's after the U.S. invasion toppled Taliban rule. He was born and raised in Afghanistan, but studied in the U.S. and has worked in the U.S. government in various positions, including as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought him back on board in the fall 2018 to take the lead on talks with the Taliban that began that summer.

The U.S. and Taliban reached an agreement "in draft" Tuesday on an American troop withdrawal and Taliban commitment to deny safe haven to terror groups, but talks have been criticized because they don't include Ghani's government -- something the U.S. says will come once a deal between it and the Taliban is finalized.

After news of Mohib's comments spread, he was summoned to the State Department to meet with Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale, according to the department's deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino, adding that Hale communicated the "United States government's displeasure" and rejected Mohib's categorization.

"Attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the department and only serve to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process," he added.

But Palladino also said Hale "expressed our commitment to the Afghan government's stability and full participation in the peace process," a process that they have so far been excluded from.

Critics, now including this senior member of the Afghan government, have said leaving Ghani and his government out of the room has weakened them and shown the Taliban that they don't have to deal with them. The U.S. has long demanded that any talks be "an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned" process, even spending months declining to confirm that Khalilzad or another senior U.S. diplomat Alice Wells was directly meeting with Taliban representatives without the Afghan government.

Still, Palladino defended the U.S. approach, saying Khalilzad has briefed Ghani and others in visits to Kabul "at every available opportunity, often multiples times on a single trip abroad," although Khahilzad did not fly to Kabul after this most recent round ended this week. Khalilzad and Ghani have also spoken by phone multiple times, Palladino added, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass has had additional in-person meetings.

But it's clear in Mohib's comments that this is not enough for at least some members of the Afghan government. Palladino declined to say whether the U.S. believed Mohib was speaking on behalf of the Afghan government, saying only, "We're confident in our Afghan government partner."

The Afghan embassy and Mohib did not respond to requests for comment.

Once the "agreement in draft" on a U.S. withdrawal and terror safe havens is finalized, the U.S. has said, an "intra-Afghan" peace process will begin -- but pressed this week whether the Taliban agreed to that, Palladino said only, "There's no agreement until we have a full agreement."

He wouldn't say whether the U.S. would condition its withdrawal on those talks happening, but several outside experts have warned any Taliban promises cannot be trusted. The Taliban has said that they believe the U.S. and President Donald Trump, in particular, want out of Afghanistan and analysts have said they will sign anything to get the Americans to leave.