Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had no more than 20 minutes to study a draft accord between the United States and the Taliban on pulling thousands of U.S. troops out of his country, but upcoming elections could put him back at the heart of talks to end decades of war.
What he read in the draft outlining the now collapsed deal left Ghani and his officials - who were shut out of the talks by the Taliban refusal to negotiate with what they considered an illegitimate “puppet” regime - badly shaken and resentful, said a senior Kabul official close to the Afghan leader.
“Doesn’t this look like surrender to the Taliban?” Ghani asked Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran Afghan-born diplomat who led negotiations for Washington, at a meeting the two held immediately afterwards, according to the source who was present.
The militant group that ruled Afghanistan for five years has killed thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians since it was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001, and the attacks have continued throughout its negotiations with Washington.
In response to Ghani’s doubts, the Afghan official said Khalilzad replied: “This is the best deal we will ever have”.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the meeting. Khalilzad was unavailable for comment.
It was not the Afghan government’s misgivings that sank the deal - U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly canceled secret talks with the Taliban at his Camp David retreat that were planned for Sept. 8 and has since said the talks are “dead”.
But for the Afghan government, that may be an opportunity get back in the game and shape the future direction of the peace process.
A presidential election, which the Taliban and even many Western officials had wanted to cancel to focus on sealing the peace accord, is now expected to go ahead on Sept. 28. Ghani is favorite to win, leaving him well-placed to claim a popular mandate to set the terms of any new agreement with the Taliban.
“Now, the management of the peace process, its planning and implementation is the sole duty of the government of Afghanistan,” Ghani told an election rally last week. “I will implement that.”
The Taliban has vowed to violently disrupt the election and on Tuesday killed nearly 50 people in twin suicide bombings, one targeting a Ghani election rally.