DOHA, Qatar – The first talks between Afghan leaders and Taliban insurgents, scheduled to begin here Friday, were abruptly postponed Thursday amid an eruption of internal disputes and Taliban complaints over the size and composition of the Afghan government delegation.
It was not clear how soon the talks would be rescheduled, but some Afghan officials said a small group might travel Friday to the Qatari capital from Kabul, while efforts continued to pare down and reconfigure the full list of 250 delegates from across Afghan society that was announced Tuesday by the government.
The planned meeting in Doha had been widely hailed as a potential breakthrough after months of Taliban refusal to recognize the Kabul government while holding a series of peace discussions with U.S. officials in this Persian Gulf sheikhdom. Now, the eagerly awaited talks have fallen into question amid acrimony and disarray.
One aide to President Ashraf Ghani, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive topic, said the trip was delayed because the Taliban representatives and their host, the government of Qatar, wanted some individuals removed from the delegation “to make it weak.”
Meanwhile, some delegates voluntarily withdrew Thursday from the planned talks, including one senior Afghan official who expressed anger at Taliban statements ridiculing the Afghan delegation and accused the insurgents of trying to sabotage the talks.
“Taliban are the only & the biggest obstacle to peace as they continue the campaign of massacre & destruction,” tweeted Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief who is now Ghani’s running mate in a presidential election scheduled for September. Saleh said the Taliban “should agree to direct & focused negotiations with the Afghan government.”
Several other delegates, reached by phone in Kabul, said they still planned to attend any talks but complained both of poor management by Ghani’s peace team and of excessive demands by the Taliban. The Taliban insisted that any Afghan officials participate only as private individuals so as not to confer legitimacy on a government the insurgents call an American puppet regime.
On Wednesday, after the delegation was announced, the Taliban immediately ridiculed it as far too large and poorly organized. In a statement, a Taliban spokesman said the group’s meetings with U.S. officials had been “orderly” and well-planned, while the sprawling Afghan delegation seemed more like an “Afghan wedding or other party in Kabul.”
One delegate, a political activist from the ethnic Hazara group named Mohammad Idrees Stanikzai, said the Taliban is trying to weed out delegates who were “vocal critics of their wrongdoings” during the five years of repressive Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
There were conflicting reports Thursday that officials in Kabul were working to cut down the list, which grew from about 50 to 250 as more and more political and civic leaders demanded to be included. Several sources said the list has now been cut in half, but a senior government aide said that only a few people have dropped out on their own.
“We wanted a small team, but it kept growing because so many people wanted to go,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal matters. “It may not be a perfect team, but it represents a broad consensus across the Afghan state. Now the ball is in the Taliban’s court.”