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In U.S. pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader



WASHINGTON / KABUL (Reuters) – Washington's relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears increasingly at risk of permanent damage, the consequence of a U.S. policy shift that has so far excluded his government from talks with the Taliban and of his own determination to retain power and manage peace efforts himself.

FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS / Mohammad Ismail / File Photo

The feud threatens to undermine the already narrow chances for a peace accord that President Donald Trump hopes would end up being America's longest war. Current and forms U.S. Pat. Reuters, they believe Ghani is positioning himself to perhaps be a spoiler in still-fragile negotiations, angry that the Afghan government has been kept out of talks and worried about the implications for his presidency.

But from Ghani's perspective, the negotiations themselves, led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, feel like a personal betrayal and a capitulation by the United States that could return the Taliban to power, Afghan officials say.

"Khalilzad wants to show that he is the champion of peace and President Ghani doesn't want to be the villain. The president believes he is being betrayed, "said Afghan government official.

The growing rift between Kabul and Washington over the peace negotiations erupted in public view on March 14 when Ghani's national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, slammed Khalilzad and accused the Afghan-born veteran U.S. diplomat or perhaps trying to steal the Afghan presidency for himself.

"(Ghani's said) there could be some agreement for an interim government and he was on the outside looking in," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Washington should expect Ghani will be a politician in an election year, saying: "We shouldn't expect that Ghani is going to be Ghani the statesman, where he says: 'The best thing would be for me to step aside '. ”

The blow-up about Mohib's attack has had serious repercussions. The following day, the State Department decreed that U.S. officials should have no further contact with Mohib and his presence at a meeting on Monday between Ghani and NATO diplomats prompted the U.S. delegation to walk out of the presidential palace, Afghan sources on condition of anonymity. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The discord carries echoes of tensions under Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who became an intense critic of the United States during his 13 years in power.

But the acrimony is still largely behind closed doors. Ghani is dependent on U.S. support, as Afghanistan's main economic, diplomatic and security backer, and there are signs that will move to limit the falloutments.

In a node to Washington's outrage about Mohib's remarks, Ghani is considering replacing Mohib with the Afghan envoy to London, a second Afghan official said.

Ghani's office did not immediately comment.

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Since his 2016 election campaign, Trump has made the case to the Afghan conflict that began in 2001 and has tied the prospect or troop drawdowns in Afghanistan to success in peace talks. But it is unclear if Trump will accept a deal at any cost – something that Ghani and other Afghans are increasingly fearing.

"The president has indicated that he is hoping for the best in these peace talks but he also will not accept a bad deal," a senior Trump administration official said.

The Taliban, which sees Ghani as an Afghan puppet of the United States, has refused to meet with him.

Although the United States had historically been the prospect of unilateral talks with the Taliban, the Trump administration made a decision to move ahead with them, something that veteran U.S. officials sharply criticized.

"By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegated the government we claim to support," Ryan Crocker, formerly U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a Washington Post column, move signaled "we were surrendering."

The second round of U.S.-Taliban talks loading 16 days ended this month in Doha, Qatar, with discussions including potential U.S. troop withdrawals and Taliban assurances on counter-terrorism.

But those talks that disappointed Ghani, who had hoped Khalilzad would make some progress on negotiating with Afghanistan and convincing the Taliban to negotiate with Ghani's government, several Afghan officials said.

Instead, Khalilzad flew to Washington without such progress and without discussing the details of the talks with Ghani, which made the Afghan president paranoid, they said.

"The two sides discussed and agreed on issues concerning them but it did not change anything for the (Afghan) people or the government," the first Afghan official said. Some current and forms U.S. Pat. Officials are sympathetic to Ghani and believe the United States must find a way to reassure him – and fast.

Acknowledging Kabul's frustration, the senior Trump administration official said: "It's urgent that we can count on the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government and other Afghans and engage in a political process." Afghan election is shaping up as a major challenge for Ghani's government, with speculation that the poll may not think that all if a peace deal is first reached with the Taliban. Delayed twice already, it's now slated for Sept. 28.

One forms U.S. Pat. official said Ghani hoped that the United States would fail to reach an agreement before the vote so the ballot can move forward.

Ghani "thinks that the peace process goes through and the election does not take place, he loses everything," said a senior Afghan official.

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With so much in play politically, Ghani is seen as trying to tightly control the process – something experts fear could exclude opposition elements that would be crucial for any lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan society. A former U.S. Pat. official said Ghani's controlling personality was one reason Washington long he could prove to be "more an obstacle than a help on the peace process." "It's not because his heart isn't in the right place in wanting peace in Afghanistan . It is because of its disposition and its controlling nature and its desire to hold on to more control in a closed circle than is realistic, ”the former official said.

Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, Rupam Jain in KABUL and James MacKenzie in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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