An upcoming conference between Afghan representatives and the Afghan Taliban appeared to be in trouble on Wednesday even before it begins, with the militants deriding Kabul's plan to send 250 delegates — several of whom have already dropped out.
President Ashraf Ghani's administration had announced Tuesday a list of people from all walks of Afghan life, including some from the government, that it wants to send to the so-called intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha this weekend.
But the Taliban poured scorn on the lengthy list, saying it was not “normal” and that they had “no plans” to meet with so many people.
“The creators of (the) Kabul list must realise that this is an orderly and prearranged conference in a far-away Khaleeji (Gulf) country and not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
The Taliban — who see Ghani as a US stooge and his government as a puppet regime — also continue to insist they will not be negotiating with Kabul at the conference, and any administration officials are involved merely in a “personal capacity”.
Further doubts were cast when some of those Ghani said would attend the conference announced they would not go.
Ghani's own running mate Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence and a longtime Taliban critic, was among them.
The Taliban “should agree to direct and focused negotiations with the Afghan government”, he tweeted.
Atta Mohammad Noor, a key opposition figure and former governor of Balkh province, had also been included on the list, which was meant as an inclusive representation of Afghan society.
But Noor slammed the delegation as politically biased toward Ghani.
“We won't be attending the talks with this running order,” Noor tweeted on Wednesday, adding he viewed the list as Ghani's “intentional act to sabotage the peace efforts”.
'Pick and choose'
A senior Taliban commander based in Pakistan told AFP that the mammoth delegation showed the “Americans and their puppet Afghan government are not serious about the peaceful settlement of the issue”.
Ghani met with the delegates on Wednesday, giving no indication of any trouble, saying: “We and the Afghan nation expect you to return home successfully and proudly from meeting with the Taliban in Qatar.”
The US has been holding separate bilateral peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha as part of a months-long peace push led by Washington.
The intra-Afghan dialogue comes as part of the effort, but the US is not believed to be attending.
Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai told AFP that while the Afghan government needs to be inclusive in who it sends to Doha, “this is not realistic”.
“I have seen in the list people who have no influence. You have to pick and choose, 250 is not manageable,” Yusufzai said.
“The Afghan government is under pressure. With the elections coming, they don't want to make anyone angry. There are alliances to keep in mind,” he added, referring to presidential elections set for September.
Yusufzai predicted the conference would be postponed, and that finding a new date might be tough before Ramadan begins next month.
The developments come as fresh violence rips across Afghanistan with the Taliban launching their so-called spring offensive.
The militants now control or influence about half the country, and last year was the deadliest yet for civilians.