President Ashraf Ghani is being pushed to the sidelines as the Taliban ignores his overtures for peace and negotiates instead with his friends, and enemies, over the future of Afghanistan. From Doha to Moscow, the insurgents are meeting an array of envoys with competing interests in Afghanistan, from the United States eager to withdraw their troops to political leaders in Kabul jostling for power.
Experts say regional powers -- including US foes Iran and Russia -- are angling for an audience with the Taliban, who are already outlining their vision for Islamic rule once foreign troops leave. The elephant in the room is Ghani, whose US-backed administration has not been invited to the table, despite a failed year-long effort to spark a dialogue with the Taliban.
"The sad irony is that Afghanistan's government is in danger of getting written out of the script of its own peace process," analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told AFP. Ghani's allies in Washington insist Afghans should lead the peace process, and ostensibly the months-long push by the US to engage the Taliban has been aimed at convincing them to negotiate with the government in Kabul.
Those efforts culminated in an unprecedented six days of talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha in January. The marathon negotiations ended with both sides touting "progress" -- spurring Afghan fears the US could cut a deal with the militants to withdraw its forces before a lasting peace with Kabul is reached. "It's a major snub because without the Americans, the government in Kabul cannot survive," said Gilles Dorronsoro, a French researcher specialising in Afghanistan. A week later, the Taliban agreed to a rare sit-down in Russia with some of Ghani's biggest political rivals.
The talks in Moscow hosted by an Afghan diaspora group in Russia -- which are separate from the US negotiations -- start Tuesday and would canvass the "end of occupation, enduring peace in homeland and establishment of an intra-Afghan Islamic system of governance", the Taliban said. Frozen out for a second time, a furious Ghani vowed he would not be an idle spectator as his country's future was debated abroad.
"Even if I have one drop of blood in my body, I am not going to surrender to a temporary peace deal," he railed in a speech Sunday, as details of the Moscow conference broke. The frustration and sense of betrayal in Kabul is palpable. Amrullah Saleh, a Ghani ally, accused those Afghan leaders travelling to Moscow for the Taliban talks -- including former president Hamid Karzai -- of "begging to terrorists". "A smile to the enemy is a blow to the national spirit," Saleh said.
"We appreciate the efforts, but any peace talks about Afghanistan should be under the umbrella of the Afghan government," Afghanistan's de facto prime minister Abdullah Abdullah said after the Doha talks. The Taliban, who brutally ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, has always refused to break bread with Ghani and Kabul, who they view as US stooges.
Instead, the insurgents are marching ahead with their diplomatic agenda. The talks in Moscow would see an "opening of channels to reaching an understanding" with Afghan leaders outside government, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. Such a meeting between the Taliban and Afghan politicians -- including Karzai, who was appointed by the US -- is almost unheard of. Ghani's rivals could see an opportunity in these various Taliban talks to undermine his leadership, analysts say, ahead of presidential elections slated for July.
The Taliban outreach is also drawing a host of rival powers into its orbit, all keen that any finale to the war suits their strategic ambitions. Many of these present "a fundamental clash of vision and interests" for Afghanistan, said Davood Moradian, director of the Kabul-based Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. The US, Afghanistan and India seek a stable democracy and a bulwark against terrorism, he said. The Taliban and Pakistan, conversely, seek an Islamic authority in Kabul. A broader second group of "legitimate stakeholders and opportunistic spoilers" -- including regional powers like Russia, China and Iran -- have their eyes keenly on waning US influence in the region, Moradian added.
Dorronsoro said the US-Taliban talks, which continue later this month, were an "acknowledgement of defeat" by Washington of its military campaign in the country that would not be missed by rivals Russia and Iran, who have also engaged with the insurgents. The departure of US forces -- if achieved under a deal with the Taliban -- could draw the region into a "new war" for dominance in Afghanistan. "India, Pakistan, Iran... everyone will choose sides. Today, nothing is clear. Everyone is in the process of positioning themselves," Dorronsoro said.
(With inputs from agencies.)