New Delhi: US negotiations with the Taliban without official Afghan participation have led to the worst diplomatic spat in years between Kabul and Washington, and the rift has Indian analysts worried about its possible implications for South Asia.
Speaking to a gaggle of reporters in Washington last week, Afghan National Security Adviser (NSA) Hamdullah Mohib lashed out at US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, describing him as a “viceroy”.
Kabul, Mohib said, believed the US’ talks with the Taliban were aimed at installing another interim government in Afghanistan, as happened after the terror group’s ouster in 2001, and accused Afghan-native Khalilzad of angling for the post of president in the administration that takes shape.
Khalilzad, he said, was cutting the Afghans out of the so-called peace talks between the US and the Taliban in Qatar because the Americans wanted to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
“We think either the ambassador doesn’t know what he is doing, or he has something else in mind,” Mohib said, according to American website Daily Beast.
“People in government think perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government, of which he will then become the viceroy,” Mohib added.
‘Left high & dry’
India’s top Afghan watchers have expressed concern at the fast-deteriorating relations between the US and Afghanistan, pointing out that Mohib’s national security budget was fully funded by the Americans.
“The faster this rupture is repaired, the better it is for the outcome of the war. Who do you think will be having the last laugh?” asked Amar Sinha, member of the National Security Advisory Board and former ambassador to Afghanistan, pointing to the benefits Pakistan could potentially rake in if the diplomatic spat continued.
An Indian ambassador to Afghanistan who knows Mohib well and spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity pointed out that the Afghan leader was not given to speaking loosely.
“He has served a full term as Afghan’s ambassador to the US without any problem,” he said. “This kind of strong language would have to be sanctioned by the man on the top, none other than President Ashraf Ghani.”
Rakesh Sood, who served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to early 2008, echoed the view.
“Mohib is reflecting the unhappiness of Afghanistan’s national unity government (NUG, an administration run by a coalition of all the power blocs in a country) as it feels it has been left high and dry in the (peace talks) process, which is supposed to be an intra-Afghan dialogue,” Sood added.
“To that extent, the fact that the Afghans are not involved only diminishes the legitimacy of the NUG.”
Mohib’s use of the word ‘viceroy’, a pejorative that connotes the arrogance of the British Raj and which South Asians understand all too well, as well as his other criticism had a swift impact.
“Mr Mohib’s comments are inaccurate and unhelpful, and we will be responding to them privately,” a US State Department spokesperson said.
Mohib was summoned and given a dressing-down at the US State Department by US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, who also called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and told him that the US administration would no longer deal with the NSA.
‘Spring in winter’
With Mohib essentially becoming a lame duck, it is unclear how the peace process will unfold from here.
Certainly, the Americans will hardly feel obliged to discuss the matter any further with the Afghans.
In a series of tweets on 12 March, after he concluded 16 days of talks with the Taliban in Qatar, Khalilzad said both sides had made progress on a “withdrawal timeline and effective counter-terrorism measures”.
On 16 March, he met Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and other dignitaries in Washington DC, noting that despite “a chill in the air, it feels like spring”.
Back in DC. Depite a slight chill in the air yesterday, it feels like spring today. We are moving in the right direction. Briefed USG leaders and many others about the #AfghanPeaceProcess including meetings with UNAMA SRSG Yamamato, Indian FS Gokhale & Norwegian Dep FM Halvorsen. pic.twitter.com/kueonVZUr9
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) March 15, 2019