Afghan leader’s grand council risks exposing internal rifts

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s president opened a grand council on Monday of more than 3,200 prominent figures seeking to agree on a common approach to peace talks with the Taliban, but the gathering instead looks to further aggravate divisions within the U.S.-backed government.

President Ashraf Ghani hopes to showcase unity at the four-day meeting — known as Loya Jirga — that brings together politicians, tribal elders and other prominent figures.

But Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, his partner in a unity government brokered by the United States after a bitterly disputed election in 2014, heads a list of no-shows.

Ghani’s peace envoy Omar Daudzai said they had expected about 2,500 attendees but 3,200 gathered for the first day of the Loya Jirga, which ends on Thursday. They delegates will be divided into groups and committees and discuss negotiating points for future talks with the Taliban.

In several rounds of talks with the Taliban, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has narrowed the gaps on a deal in which U.S. forces would withdraw in return for guarantees that Afghanistan not revert to a haven for international terrorists. But Khalilzad has struggled to get Afghans to agree on a roadmap for the country’s future.

The Taliban have refused to directly talk to Kabul representatives, viewing the government as a U.S. puppet, even as Khalilzad appears unable to pull the strings necessary to bring a unified government delegation to the table.

“If Abdullah and his supporters don’t attend, there’s going to be a glaring absence of key stakeholders that will diminish the event’s credibility in a big way,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

“Given all the divides in Afghanistan, there is as much of a need for reconciliation within Afghanistan as there is for reconciliation with the Taliban.”

The latest attempt at Afghan-to-Afghan talks — scheduled in Qatar earlier this month and intended to include the Taliban, government representatives, opposition and other prominent figures — collapsed as the two sides were unable to agree on the participants.

The Loya Jirga, a deeply-rooted tradition aimed at building consensus among Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups, tribes and factions, was intended to strengthen Ghani’s hand. Instead, it risks being seen as a meaningless gathering of his loyalists.

“The problem is that the whole enterprise appears to have become completely politicized, which means that the Loya Jirga could well drive the country further apart rather than bring it together,” Kugelman said.

The Americans appear increasingly impatient with Ghani, with Khalilzad tweeting his frustration after the talks fell apart. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Ghani to urge him to join the talks in Doha, where the Taliban maintain an office.

Even Pakistan, which the U.S. and Afghanistan regularly accuse of aiding insurgents, issued a statement saying talks were the only path to peace in Afghanistan. It promised not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and even condemned the Taliban’s recent announcement of the start of their annual spring offensive.

“The so called offensives are condemnable and will undermine the peace process. It is not right to seek an edge in dialogue through coercion.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said. “Pakistan will not be party to any internal conflict in Afghanistan anymore.”

Over the weekend, Khalilzad tweeted his approval of Khan’s statement. The U.S. envoy recently met with representatives of China and Russia, saying there is an “emerging international consensus on the U.S. approach to end the war and assurances terrorism never again emanates from Afghanistan.”

The State Department said the three countries called for intra-Afghan talks, urged a cease-fire and supported “an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process.”

The statement also said the Taliban have agreed to fight Islamic State militants in Afghanistan and sever ties with al-Qaida, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement and other militant groups. It said the Taliban have promised to “ensure the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country.” The statement called on the Taliban “to prevent terrorist recruiting, training, and fundraising, and expel any known terrorists.”

The Taliban effectively control nearly half of Afghanistan and have continued to carry out daily attacks on Afghan security forces throughout the negotiations. They have refused to agree to any cease-fire before international troops withdraw.

A Taliban official familiar with the talks said the two sides are still haggling over a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, with the Taliban demanding six months and the U.S. seeking 18 months. The Taliban official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

But even as Khalilzad closes in on an agreement with the Taliban, he appears increasingly at odds with the Kabul government.

During a visit to Washington last month, Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, accused Khalilzad of personal ambitions and sidelining the government. Ghani did not respond to those comments, and Mohib remains in his post.

Ordinary Afghans, who have endured decades of war, express frustration with both sides.

Hajji Sher Aga, who owns a gas station northeast of Kabul, complained about the lack of security and lawlessness. He blamed widespread government corruption and said peace with the Taliban was the only answer.

“The Taliban are also Afghan,” said Hajji Noor Aga, one of his workers.


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