Afghan National Security Chief Is Sidelined in His Own War

Afghan National Security Chief Is Sidelined in His Own War

By Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal

March 31, 2019

The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The longtime motto of the American-led mission in Afghanistan that it stands “shona ba shona,” or shoulder to shoulder, with its Afghan ally no longer applies to that ally’s national security adviser.

American officials in Afghanistan have repeatedly walked out of or refused to attend meetings with the Afghan president’s most senior war adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, over controversial remarks he made on a visit to the United States this month, senior officials and diplomats in Kabul confirmed.

The public airing of the Afghan frustration with the United States has created an impasse that threatens to further isolate President Ashraf Ghani at a delicate stage in negotiations with the Taliban, which his government has yet to participate in. At the same time, the Taliban insurgency has continued unabated, with Afghan forces that are still largely reliant on the United States bracing for what could be the most consequential fighting season in years.

It has also resulted in a bizarre reality in which Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran American diplomat leading the talks, praises the Taliban’s deputy leader as a “patriot” for participating in peace talks but struggles to find common ground with Afghanistan’s elected government, which is propped up by 18 years of American money and led by a president who spent half his life in the United States as a citizen.

In political and diplomatic circles in Kabul, it is clear that the American anger directed at Mr. Mohib is more about his boss, Mr. Ghani, whose views Mr. Mohib was most likely representing. By focusing on Mr. Mohib, the Americans can avoid confronting the president directly.

But the anger at Mr. Mohib is intense — and personal — with some officials saying that he could be denied a visa to visit the United States even though his wife is American. When he walked into a regularly scheduled meeting of NATO ambassadors in the Afghan capital last Monday, the deputy head of the American diplomatic mission in Kabul picked up her papers and walked out.

At meetings with United States military officials since then, Mr. Mohib has sent his deputy instead. Diplomats and officials said that Mr. Ghani has found himself under intense pressure, with little choice but to remove Mr. Mohib, who for years has been one of the most central members of his team

Time is running short: Mr. Khalilzad is due to return to Afghanistan on Sunday to meet with Mr. Ghani on the next steps of the peace process. That meeting may not happen if Mr. Mohib is in the room.

Western diplomats in Afghanistan say the situation with Mr. Mohib is unprecedented, and according to one European diplomat, the United States is pressuring NATO allies in the 40-country coalition to shun him, as well.

Mr. Mohib, 36, was named national security adviser last August, after serving three years as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States. The relationship between the two countries was already showing signs of increasing strain.

President Trump, his weariness with the war long public, had never seemed committed to the new strategy he had announced a year earlier, which promised the Afghan government greater military assistance. In December, he unexpectedly asked the military to prepare for the withdrawal of about half of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials, who had banked on the new commitment, saw the sudden reversal as a betrayal, and Mr. Mohib mirrored Mr. Ghani’s short temper in venting the government’s frustrations to Western diplomats. Those frustrations were compounded when, after years of refusing to hold reconciliation talks with the Taliban without the Afghan government present, the United States relented.

On March 12, as the latest round of talks ended in Doha, Qatar, Mr. Mohib was in the United States arguing against them. In an interview on Fox News from New York, Mr. Mohib said the Taliban could not be trusted and that any peace deal made with the insurgents without the Afghan government would dishonor the victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as “the one million Americans who have served in Afghanistan.”

Speaking to reporters in Washington later that week, Mr. Mohib said American officials had not been transparent about their talks with the Taliban and that the Afghan government was being pushed aside in the rush to reach a peace deal.

“We have sacrificed a hell of a lot,” he said. “What we’re getting is a deal that doesn’t end in peace.”

He also accused Mr. Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, of wanting to lead any interim government himself.

“The perception in Afghanistan and people in government think that perhaps, perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy,” Mr. Mohib said.

Pressure on President Ghani to fire Hamdullah Mohib, right, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, has been intense. Mr. Mohib was with acting the Pentagon chief, Patrick Shanahan, center, in Kabul last month.CreditPool photo by Missy Ryan

Mr. Mohib’s comments infuriated American officials, and since returning to Afghanistan he has been excluded from planning meetings with the American-led military coalition.

The impact of the diplomatic tensions on Afghan forces is mitigated by the appointment in recent months of several high-level officials — including the interior minister, defense minister and army chief of staff — who are seen as having close working relations with the United States military.

The next round of talks is set to take place in mid-April in Doha, between prominent Afghans and Taliban insurgents. The Taliban have so far refused to negotiate with Mr. Ghani’s government, calling it a “puppet regime.” But they did hold informal talks in Moscow in February with Afghan politicians who are outside the government. The coming Doha negotiations would take that a step further by including Afghan government officials who attend as private individuals rather than as a formal state delegation.

The idea is that after the Afghans make some initial progress with the Taliban on the outlines of a future government, Mr. Khalilzad would hold another round of direct talks with the Taliban in the hope of finalizing the tentative deal he recently reached with the insurgents. Under that framework, the American military would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a promise by the Taliban not to allow terrorists to operate from Afghan territory.

Mr. Khalilzad has insisted that his goal is to get the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. But Mr. Ghani’s aides are skeptical, especially after Mr. Khalilzad held a meeting with the Taliban in October that the Afghan government learned about only through news reports.

A more recent point of contention has been just how much Mr. Khalilzad had informed the Afghan president about his talks with the Taliban this month. Afghan officials have said he made two calls to Mr. Ghani, each lasting no more than a few minutes. American officials say Mr. Khalilzad’s calls to the president were more substantive.

When the talks ended, those officials said, Mr. Khalilzad called Mr. Ghani to say he had to fly to Washington immediately to meet his own leadership, but two American officials — John Bass, the American ambassador to Kabul, and the top American commander, Gen. Austin S. Miller, who had been a participant in the talks, arrived within 45 minutes to brief the Afghan president themselves.

Afghan National Security Chief Is Sidelined in His Own War