KABUL: A crucial meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban on how to end the war could be dead in the water before it begins, as disputes and disarray broke out over the guest list.
The landmark meeting, due to be held in Doha at the weekend, will bring together senior government officials from Kabul and the insurgents for the first time in the peace process.
But the Taliban has already said it will be meeting these delegates in the Qatari capital as private individuals, not as representatives of the administration.
The Taliban dismisses the government in Kabul as a puppet of the West, refusing to meet its representatives and isolating President Ashraf Ghani from peace talks that have previously been held with the US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and other parties.
And, days before the Doha ice-breaker is due to start, the government’s guest list of 250 has angered some and drawn ridicule from others, including the Taliban. Some on the list have said they will not go.
Kabul’s list comprises political elites, family members of war victims, tribal chiefs, former government officials, members of civil society as well as state officials. There are also 52 women on the list.
The Taliban is sending a delegation of 25.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said Qatar had “no plans for accepting so many people from Kabul and neither is such participation normal in such conferences.”
The event was “an orderly and prearranged conference ... not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” he said in a statement.
The Taliban furthermore said it would be talking to delegates as “private individuals” and not as government representatives, and that only a limited number of individuals would be selected as final participants in the talks.
Some of those on Kabul’s list said they would not go.
Atta Mohammed Noor, a northern regional strongman whose ties with President Ashraf Ghani have hit an all-time low, said the government had drawn a “narrowly mined” list that included Ghani’s favorites.
He is boycotting the talks.
Amrullah Saleh, who has served in top security positions and is Ghani’s first deputy for the presidential elections, is also staying away despite being on the list.
“I remain grateful to President Ashraf Ghani for adding me on the list of speakers to represent … Afghanistan in the Doha conference,” Saleh said in a statement.
“However, I won’t attend. The Taliban is the only and the biggest obstacle to peace as it continues a campaign of massacre and destruction.”
The UN Security Council earlier this week condemned the Taliban’s spring offensive, which would only result in “more unnecessary suffering and destruction” for the Afghan people.
The Security Council urged “all parties to the conflict to seize the opportunity to begin an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue” and negotiations that resulted in a political settlement.
But an intra-Afghan dialogue will be difficult to achieve even without the Taliban’s resistance to the government, and senior journalist Tahir Qairy pointed to the differences in Ghani’s circle.
“There is not even a shared and mutual understanding between the president and his future hopeful VP” on the meeting, he told Arab News.
Another journalist, Mujib Mashal, tweeted: “Afghan delegation’s departure ... has been delayed as the list issue has become a big mess - 1st among each other & now with Taliban. But event at this point is still on for Saturday morning start (though list issue will be hard to resolve between now and then).”
He later tweeted that the line-up had been a divisive issue for the political elite in Kabul. “Peace talks overlapping with national elections means every little move is caught up in domestic political jostling, every player wanting a piece.”
If the Doha meeting goes ahead it will be the first major interaction between the Taliban and members of Ghani’s government, although the group met Afghan politicians in Moscow earlier this year.
The Doha meeting following several rounds of closed-door talks between the Taliban and US diplomats in recent months, where the two sides made progress over the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban agreeing to not allowing Afghan soil to be used against any country.
On Wednesday, Ghani addressed many of the participants heading to Doha.
“You are undertaking a mission for which our nation has waited almost for 40 years, and that (mission) is a dignified peace,” he told them.
“For the first time, we have the opportunity to hold comprehensive debates with the opposite side,” he said, flanked by former President Hamid Karzai and other prominent members of Afghanistan’s political elite.
Lawmaker Hafeez Mansoor, one of those going to Doha, told Arab News the meeting was aimed at “building trust between the sides and an opportunity to have them express their feelings on how the war can come to an end.”