“Then, as now, it was clear that by going to the table we were surrendering; we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender.”…

By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimised the government we claim to support,”.

These comments by Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, exemplify the cynicism with which knowledgeable observers of the Afghan scene are viewing the ongoing US-Taliban talks in Qatar. His first comment was about the Paris talks designed to end the Vietnam war. His second referred to the US agreeing to the Taliban refusal to talk to the Afghan Government.

His comments provide the raison d’etre for the anger being expressed by the Afghan President and officials at a time when Zalmay Khalilzad and many in the US have been talking about an imminent deal while paying lip service to the notion that a final deal would have to be with the Afghan Government. Yet such has been the sidelining of President Ghani that the Americans refuse to deal with his National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib who, in a Washington news conference on March 14 accused the U.S. special envoy to his country, Zalmay Khalilzad, of "delegitimizing" the Kabul government by excluding it from peace negotiations with the Taliban and acting like a "viceroy."

President Ghani himself had made it clear in talks with American lawmakers that he did not respect the validity of the talks because his democratically elected government had been excluded.

While some of Ghani’s opponents, such as former NSA Mohammed Hanif Atmar, a Presidential candidate, accused him of jeopardizing the talks to maintain himself in power, the American approach had also drawn criticism from the allies who had provided funding and troops for the US led operation. Reuters reported that diplomats from countries spanning three continents, who were among the 39 that provided military personnel and development aid, said their governments were rethinking their commitments partly because they felt excluded from the peace talks.

Seeing photographs of the February 25 session a diplomat questioned that if Qatari officials could participate why not America’s key allies who had fought the Afghan war since 2001 and poured millions of dollars as an act of solidarity. Yet on the question of peace talks the US decided to go it alone.

President Ghani had also taken exception to Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s comments that an interim government should be set up in Afghanistan -a suggestion also made by Hanif Atmar who said that Ghani’s term would expire legally in May 2019. Imran Khan had also told a rally in Bijaur at a rally in Bajaur a “mutual peace” would result from the US-Taliban talks and a good government would be formed in Afghanistan.

There was little clarity about what the Americans were planning. While Trump had spoken of a withdrawal, Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel had told the House Armed Services Committee that US forces had not yet been ordered to pull out of Afghanistan. While Zalmay Khalilzad had tweeted after the latest round of talks that, of the four essential elements- counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue- a draft agreement had been arrived at on the first two elements, a Nato spokesperson said that Khalilzad was negotiating a peace agreement, not a leave agreement. A warning had also been sounded by John Spoko the head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. He had reported that in the event of a deal between the Taliban and the government and the possibility of fighting ending, the Afghan Army could pose a new threat if aid flows stopped and the soldiers did not receive their salaries.

Meanwhile other moves suggested an attempt by President Ghani to secure a say in the talks. The government had set up a council comprising senior political leaders, former senior government officials, leaders of political parties and opposition groups that would be headed by President Ghani. The Council would appoint negotiators, create their mandate for talks and oversee their work. President Ghani had also announced a Loya Jirga to be held on April 29. Over 25,000 people from all walks of Afghan society were expected to participate to define the “red lines” in talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban had dismissed the move, with the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid issuing a statement that the Kabul administration was scrambling for its survival, and that was the reason for convening the Loya Jirga. The Taliban called on people to reject it. High Peace Council Secretary Mohammad Omar Daudzai had said that the next round of talks in Qatar might not be fruitful if held ahead of the Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul.

Seven Presidential candidates including Faramarz Tamanna, Noor Rahman Liwal, Ghulam Faroq Nijrabi, Enayatullah Hafiz, Mohammad Ibrahim Alokozay, Mohammad Hakim Torsan and Mohammad Shahab Hakimi had demanded that they be allowed to participate in the peace negotiations on behalf of the Afghan people.

The Taliban were very clearly approaching the whole affair from a position of strength. After the last Qatar meeting which started on February 25 and was attended by recently released Taliban leader Mullah Baradar ,the Taliban issued a statement that the talks focused on "the withdrawal of all occupying forces from Afghanistan and not allowing Afghanistan to harm others". It said "Comprehensive discussions are taking place about these two subjects.

Other issues that have an internal aspect and are not tied to the United States have not been under discussion,". Zabiullah Mujahid the Taliban spokesperson said that no agreement was reached on a ceasefire or talks with the Afghan government. At the Qatar talks the Taliban had made it clear they wanted a withdrawal of all foreign forces by the end of 2019.

While the process of talks was on the Taliban had also announced the beginning of their usual spring offensive named Operation Fatha, across Afghanistan with the aim of "eradicating occupation" and "cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption,".

Their statement said "Our Jihadi obligation has not yet ended," and that they would keep fighting because international forces continued to have military and political influence. They marked the start of the Operation Fatha with attacks all across Afghanistan in the provinces of Helmand, Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan, Faryab, Sar-Pul, Balkh, Kunduz. They had also undertaken attacks on Shirzad district centre in eastern Nangarhar province. Taliban militants had taken control of the Arghanj Khaw district center in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Badakhshan after two days of intense fighting and a major battle was reported from Badghis. A suspected Taliban assassination attempt on Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum had not succeeded. Zalmay Khalilzad who had been hoping for a peace deal by the end of this year, had condemned the announcement of the spring offensive as reckless and called on other countries to do the same. The Taliban responded stating that the movement was committed to the peace process but accused Afghan and international forces of stepping up their own operations.

The next round of talks that should have started on April 11 had been postponed to April 19. The 14 member Taliban team included Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani. Regarding reports that Afghanistan would send a government delegation to Qatar for the next round of talks, the Taliban made it clear that the delegation members could only attend the meeting in a "personal capacity” and interaction with them would not be deemed to be with the Afghan government.

On the electoral front there was another postponement. Instead of July 20, 2019 Independent Election Commission Chairwoman Hawa Alam Nuristani told the media that the presidential election was now planned for September 28, together with the country's district-council elections and parliamentary polls in Ghazni Province. But she also that this would be possible if the necessary funds were made available by the Kabul government and the international community.

President Ghani had reshuffled the Election Commission and two related bodies. He had appointed Hawa Alam Nuristani as the new head of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Sayed Esmatullah Mal as the deputy head and Musafar Quqandi as the Commission’s spokesperson. In addition Zuhra Bayan Shinwari would be the new chief of the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) with Maulvi Din Mohammad Azimi as the deputy and Mohammad Qasim Elyasi as spokesman.

The appointments had attracted criticism. Maulana Mohammad Abdullah, an Independent Election Commission (IEC) member said a number of commissioners had been charged with corruption by the Attorney General’s Office and put on the exit control list but they were still at their jobs.

The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) alleged interference from the government and some political circles in the affairs of the poll panels that had made reforms impossible. TEFA head Mohammad Naeem Ayubzada, addressing a press conference in Kabul, expressed his dissatisfaction with the work of the new members of the electoral commissions.

He claimed no effective work had been done since their induction and that inexperience and the absence of a reform agenda were the main weakness.

Though a date had been announced it was far from certain that the twice postponed elections would actually be held. The same assessment could be made about the Qatar based peace process where results were dependent on the Taliban diluting their position and actually officially talking to the Afghan government—something unlikely with the present dispensation and any future dispensation that would come to power through elections held with foreign forces present in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the cycle of talks and the cycle of violence is likely to continue—until one side blinks. The Taliban does not seem inclined to do so unless their terms are met. That has left the ball in the American court.