- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Current and former high-level Afghan officials on Wednesday slammed the Trump administration’s push to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, saying the escalating talks were tantamount to a “back-door deal” between Washington and the terror group at the expense of an elected government in Kabul.

The harsh rhetoric from Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib and Amrullah Saleh, the country’s former interior minister, came as U.S. diplomats and senior Taliban leaders have just concluded the longest face-to-face talks on a peace deal in Doha, Qatar, talks from which the Afghan government has been excluded.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said the two sides have agreed to a draft timeline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country. In response, the Taliban have agreed to cut all ties with groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Mr. Khalilzad announced on social media Tuesday.

But Mr. Mohib told a U.N. Security Council meeting Monday that the peace process could not work if were just a “deal made between elites.”

“If peace is going to belong to and be maintained by Afghans, it must ultimately be owned by Afghans themselves,” he said, repeating his concerns at a Hudson Institute briefing in Washington on Wednesday.

The White House has reportedly proposed a total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2022 or 2024, in line with demands by Mr. Trump to begin cycling out half of all troops — 7,000 in all — within the next year. Taliban negotiators rejected that timetable last week, demanding Washington withdraw its 17,000 troops by next year.

But the Taliban’s refusal to talk directly with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani undermines any progress made in the negotiations, Mr. Mohib said Wednesday.

“Any backdoor deal with the Taliban and any foreign government” cannot end in a lasting peace, Mr. Mohib told the Hudson Institute briefing.

Mr. Saleh, a former interior minister running for president in Afghanistan’s July 20 presidential election, said the Doha talks were less about a peace deal and more a “mechanism to mitigate [war] fatigue” by the U.S. and its allies in a conflict now entering its 18th year.

Kabul’s lack of participation in the peace talks will only lead to “misconceptions, misperceptions and unnecessary [legitimization] of the Taliban,” Mr. Saleh said. “In our view, there is no substitute and alternative to the direct talks” between the Taliban and Kabul, he said in a written statement.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services panel said the Ghani government deserved to have a seat in the peace talks.

“We have a stake in this, but … it is not just for us and the Taliban to sort this out, the Afghan people have to be a part of it,” Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry told reporters.

“There will be no agreement unless and until you’ve got the Afghans together to reach that agreement,” he added. “…A final agreement is not going to be between us and the Taliban.”

Mr. Mohib did credit the Trump White House’s military strategy for bringing Afghanistan closer than ever to a political settlement.

“Peace has become more real now that ever before,” he said.

But Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute, said the U.S. diplomacy comes with major risks, even if it gives cover for a U.S. troop withdrawal sought by Mr. Trump.

“The problem is that we’re empowering the Taliban on the way out,” Mr. Rubin said Wednesday, without guaranteeing that Afghanistan will not again be a haven for terrorists in the future.

“Unless we pin [the Taliban] down on what the meaning of terrorism is, … they’re going to stab us in the back,” he said. “The question isn’t whether. The question is when.”

The violence in Afghanistan has gone on even as the U.S.-Taliban talks has intensified. At least five Afghan troops were killed by friendly fire in a mistaken airstrike by U.S. forces in the country’s south, the Afghan Defense Ministry said Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.

The incident, which occurred during a Tuesday night operation in Uruzgan province, resulted from miscommunication between the Afghan troops on the ground and forces in the air, Afghan officials said without providing additional

• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

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