Several U.S. officials have touted U.S.-Taliban talks as the best chance in decades to bring peace to Afghanistan, but key Afghan officials' comments suggest the talks are instead widening a rift between Washington and Kabul.
The most pointed criticism has come from Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who while in Washington for meetings Wednesday and Thursday slammed the U.S. strategy as a glorified surrender.
"If this is a recipe for peace, we don't know what is a recipe for war," Mohib, the former Afghan ambassador to Washington, told reporters Thursday, adding that the process was "ostracizing and alienating" the Afghan people.
"We don't have the kind of transparency that we should have," he said. "The last people to find out are us."
Mohib saved his most pointed criticism for the chief U.S. negotiator, special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, accusing him of putting his personal ambitions ahead of the need for peace.
"The reason he is delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban, can only have one approach," he said. "Perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will become the viceroy. We are only saying this because that is the perception."
Khalilzad wrapped up 16 days of talks with the Taliban in Qatar on Tuesday.
"Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides," he said at the time.
At first, reaction from Kabul seemed to be positive.
"We hope to witness a long-term comprehensive cease-fire with the Taliban, and hope that direct negotiations of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban begin soon," tweeted Haroon Chakhansuri, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Some analysts believe the change in tone may have more to do with Ghani's political frustrations at home. With his term ending in May, they say he may be worried he and his allies could soon become irrelevant.
Others believe Ghani and Mohib have a legitimate gripe as they watch Washington pursue what they see as a face-saving agreement.
"The State Department moved ahead with the talks out of desperation, even though its own ally wasn't a party to them," Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA.
Excluding government in Kabul "is what the Taliban wanted all along," he added. "The rift between the U.S. and the Afghan government caused by these talks was entirely predictable."
The State Department on Thursday reacted strongly to the accusations against Khalilzad and said Mohib had been brought in for a meeting "to communicate the United States government's displeasure."
"Mr. Mohib's comments are inaccurate and unhelpful," a State Department official said on the condition of anonymity.
'No lack of coordination'
Later, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters Khalilzad has been in regular contact with Ghani and has traveled to Kabul for in-person consultations.
"We don't believe that the comments that were made warrant a public response," he said, adding, "There is no lack of coordination" between Washington and Kabul.
There have been persistent rumors that Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan but earned his doctorate in the U.S. and rose to the rank of ambassador at the State Department, was interested in seeking the Afghan presidency. He has been widely praised by the White House and Pentagon officials.
"We support the ongoing negotiations — the best window for peace there in 40 years," acting U.S. Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told lawmakers Thursday.
Khalilzad's efforts have also earned the praise of Afghan opposition officials.
Former Afghan National Security Adviser Haneef Atmar used Twitter to call his successor's criticisms "misguided & against our national interests."
The controversial remakes made today in Washington by a senior representative of Pres. Ghani concerning the peace process are misguided & against our national interests. The Afghan people desire peace above all priorities and the Afg Govt must stop creating hurdles on this path— Haneef Atmar (@MHaneefAtmar) March 14, 2019
Mohib, however, expressed concern that the U.S.'s willingness to exclude the current government while engaging directly with the Taliban would risk hard-earned gains.
"You cannot get a cat to guard your milk," Mohib told an audience in Washington. "The Taliban and terrorism is one DNA."
"There are millions of people that the U.S. has invested in, in Afghanistan, that would be completely sidelined and thrown under the bus if this current approach is pursued," he said.
VOA's Nike Ching and Ayaz Gul contributed to this report.