ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has established a new leadership council comprising government officials, opposition politicians and civil society representatives that will manage national peace efforts and put together an "effective" team of negotiators for possible talks with the Taliban insurgency.
Addressing the inaugural meeting of what is named the "Leadership Council for Reconciliation" on Sunday, Ghani said he hopes the effort under the government "umbrella" would lead to ending the bloodshed in Afghanistan.
The United States has engaged the Islamist insurgent group in direct negotiations since late last fall to bring an end to the 18-year-old Afghan war, the longest-ever U.S. overseas military intervention. It is widely expected the peace process would ultimately lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Taliban and a cessation of years of hostilities.
But Washington's current discussions with insurgent officials have focused on withdrawal of American and NATO forces in return for Taliban guarantees to prevent Afghan soil from again becoming a haven for international terrorists.
Afghan-born American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad has been leading U.S. negotiators in talks with the Taliban. After their latest meeting in early March, Khalilzad announced the two sides had drafted a preliminary agreement on foreign troop withdrawal and the Taliban's counterterrorism guarantees.
But Khalilzad, who is the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, emphasized a final agreement would be linked to the Taliban's participation in intra-Afghan talks and a comprehensive cease-fire.
The newly formed council's spokesman, Umer Daudzai, told reporters after the meeting the panel has also been tasked to finalize within a week an "inclusive delegation" that will travel to Qatar later this month "on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and exchange views with the Taliban."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid explained late Sunday the Qatar gathering is not a "negotiations summit or meeting," and participants at the event will only offer their views.
"No one will partake in the conference as a representative of the Kabul administration ... any individual who is part of the Kabul administration and is listed as a participant will only participate in a personal capacity and share personal views," Mujahid said.
The Taliban refuses to engage in any peace dialogues involving the Afghan government, dismissing it as an illegal entity and a product of U.S. "occupation" of the country.
A senior insurgent official, who is privy to his group's meetings with the United States, told VOA the Taliban is seeking to conclude a deal with Washington on the troop withdrawal plan before entering into negotiations about issues related to future political Afghan governance.
"In our view, first, an agreement should be reached and announced about foreign troops timeline. Then we focus on formation of the next government," the official said, requesting anonymity. Any attempts to "push aside" the issue of foreign "occupation" would undermine the ongoing peace efforts, he cautioned.
Khalilzad spent nearly a week in Kabul during his ongoing regional trip and said in his departure statement Sunday that he held productive discussions with Ghani and other officials as well as Afghan politicians outside the government.
"He discussed with President Ghani and other leaders how to ensure the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha next week, in which representatives of the Afghan government and wider society will participate, can best advance our shared goal of accelerating a settlement process," said a U.S. embassy statement.
President Ghani's National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, during a visit to Washington last month harshly criticized Khalilzad for sidelining the Afghan government and accused the U.S. envoy of trying to negotiate with the Taliban a leading role for himself in a future transitional government in Kabul. Mohib also alleged the peace dialogue had delegitimized the Afghan constitution and political system.
U.S. officials strongly rejected the allegations as unfounded and an attack on the State Department leadership. Washington has since stopped any dealings with Mohib and U.S. officials have walked out of recent meetings with government officials in Kabul after noticing the Afghan adviser's presence.
Khalilzad, while speaking to Afghan media last week, said he launched his Afghan peace mission six months ago by calling on both the Taliban and the Ghani government to come up with their authoritative teams of negotiators for an eventual intra-Afghan dialogue.
The U.S. envoy criticized Kabul for not coming up with its negotiations team for months and praised the Taliban for swiftly bringing together their high-powered team of top insurgent leaders. Khalilzad lamented there could have been less Afghan fatalities in the war had the government been able to timely form its team.
The conflict has in recent months intensified and Taliban attacks have killed or injured hundreds of Afghan security forces since the start of the year.
Critics note President Ghani's concerns that he has been excluded from the U.S.-led peace initiative are not misplaced.
Moeed Yousaf of the United States Institute of Peace said the constitutional mandate of Ghani expires next month, but he is a legitimate leader who is still in control of resources. Yousaf said the delay on the part of Ghani to form a team of negotiators is understandable because he would want to know what his government is to get out of a possible deal with the Taliban.
"If the answer is, well, the Afghan government is done, Ashraf Ghani, his political carrier is over. Then what is in it for him. That's really the problem, which I think needs to be resolved," Yousaf noted. "No amount of cajoling and no amount of requesting is going to change that. It is an incentive structure problemand they have to figure out that incentives for him (Ghani) and the others around him to allow this process to go forward smoothly."