A meeting of nearly 300 Afghan leaders was canceled on Thursday just before it was set to convene this weekend in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban insurgent group is blaming Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani for the cancellation.
In an official statement released on Friday, the Taliban described the behavior of the Afghan president’s office as “bizarre,” claiming that it sought to take command over the event in “a clear attempt at sabotaging this conference and peace efforts.”
Earlier this week, the Taliban expressed consternation over how preparations for the event—a conference of a broad segment of Afghan leaders, organized by a Qatari government-linked organization—were playing out, comparing the process and its ballooning list of potential attendees to “an invitation to a wedding.”
For its part, the Afghan government appeared to blame Qatar for the cancellation of the talks, alleging that Doha sought to change the roster of attendees to a list that Kabul found unacceptable.
This was to have been the second round of intra-Afghan talks held this year. In February, Afghan power brokers, including former President Hamid Karzai, met with the Taliban in Moscow. The Afghan government did not participate in those talks and it is unclear how it assumed a role determining the participants of the Doha round that had been scheduled for this weekend.
Now here’s why the cancellation of the intra-Afghan talks in Doha is so important: it potentially jeopardizes U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated settlement to its war in Afghanistan.
The United States and the Afghan Taliban have held multiple rounds of talks since President Donald Trump ordered direct dialogue with the insurgent group in early 2018. The most recent round of U.S.-Taliban talks concluded in March and lasted two weeks.
Those talks reportedly achieved progress in discussions over a U.S. withdrawal plan and Taliban accommodations of U.S. counterterrorism objectives, but their outcome has been masked by secrecy. Senior Afghan officials have expressed anger over being shut out of the process. Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib even accused U.S. special envoy for Afghan reconciliation Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad of conspiring to become the “viceroy” of Afghanistan. Washington subsequently rebuked Kabul. Mohib was actually “summoned” by the State Department after his comments. But Khalilzad has since tried to emphasize some degree of inclusion of the Kabul government in the talks. He has said that “there is no final agreement until everything is agreed.”
Not only has Khalilzad linked a final U.S.-Taliban agreement to an intra-Afghan accord, but he’s also indicated that he expected the Taliban to announce a ceasefire. This month, he took to Twitter to publicly condemn the Taliban for its announcement of a spring offensive, calling it “reckless.”
This is the bottom line: in trying to package all aspects of a comprehensive political settlement together, Khalilzad may have made peace in Afghanistan an all-or-nothing proposition. Though the Taliban have reiterated their commitment to talk with the United States and fellow Afghans several times this month, there is no ceasefire, the intra-Afghan talks in Doha have been canceled, and a “peace jirga” or grand consultative council organized by the Afghan government in Kabul also may be canceled.
Further complicating matters is Afghanistan’s impending political transition. This is the last month of Ghani’s tenure as president. He could continue past the formal expiration of his tenure, but he is also running for reelection. And many of his opponents accuse him of trying to prolong his rule by tinkering with both the peace talks and the electoral process. Whether those polls, scheduled for September, will take place is uncertain. They’ve already been postponed twice.
Finally, while Khalilzad appears to have more time to negotiate a deal with the Taliban than was previously understood by Beltway observers, Trump is unpredictable. And with the Taliban continuing to advance, and Ghani playing politics with peace, a fed-up Trump may just announce a unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan and wipe his hands clean of America’s longest war. Sadly, Afghanistan’s war with itself would continue.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.