Peace Conference in Jeopardy as Taliban Object to Afghan Delegation

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DOHA, Qatar — A conference in Qatar that would bring Taliban negotiators and Afghan government officials together to inch the struggling peace process forward was in jeopardy on Thursday, after the insurgents apparently objected to the large number of officials included in the Afghan delegation.

The two-day conference, scheduled to start on Saturday, was expected to include government officials as part of a delegation of about 200 people representing a cross-section of Afghan society. The Taliban, who have been in peace talks with American officials, have so far refused to meet with the Afghan government, and the weekend meeting was seen as a potential icebreaker that might eventually lead to direct negotiations.

But on Thursday, dozens of Afghan officials who had gone to bed expecting to fly to Qatar the next day instead woke up to “final” lists of the meeting’s participants in local news media that did not include their names. That was followed by phone calls telling them that the delegation’s flight to Qatar was off.

The conference was still scheduled to begin on Saturday, but officials and diplomats said the dispute would most likely be difficult to resolve. Afghan officials have said they would not accept changes to the list of about 200 participants that they sent to the Qatari hosts, which emerged from a protracted internal selection process. But the Taliban are refusing to meet with that group.

“They asked us to prepare our bags and passports for a flight at 12 p.m. on Thursday, which is today,” said Sediqullah Tawhidi, a member of the Afghan delegation. “This morning we received a call from the palace again, and they told us that the flight was canceled and that they will let us know later.”

Messy disagreements over the past couple of weeks have brought to light divisions among Afghanistan’s political elite about who should lead talks with the Taliban, as well as how tricky it has become to maneuver around the Taliban’s insistence on negotiating on their own terms.

After several rounds of talks, the Taliban and American negotiators seem to be near a deal on major issues, including the withdrawal of American troops and a Taliban guarantee that international terrorist groups will not be allowed on Afghan soil. But that progress cannot be finalized until Afghans negotiate a political future for the country after the American withdrawal.

Although the Taliban had quietly agreed to the participation, in a private capacity, of some government officials in the conference this weekend, they regarded the final list of participants as essentially a government delegation, according to Taliban representatives and Western diplomats. It did not help that President Ashraf Ghani’s office, in announcing the list on Tuesday, called it “the delegation of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

Soon after the release of the list, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement, said the Qatari hosts had made it clear “both in written and verbal form” that no one at the conference would be representing the government, and that any official who was there would be participating in a personal capacity.

“The creators of the Kabul list must realize that this is an orderly and prearranged conference in a faraway Gulf country and not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” Mr. Mujahid said, alluding to the large number of participants.

Even before the latest complication, the lineup of the delegation had been a divisive issue for the political elite in Kabul. The peace talks are overlapping with national elections, in which Mr. Ghani is seeking another five-year term, and the question of who would participate in the conference was caught up in domestic political jostling, with every player wanting a piece.

Mr. Ghani’s camp sees the opposition forces, normally divided, as united in one thing: wanting to use the peace process to topple him. For their part, the opposition groups, along with some Western diplomats, regard Mr. Ghani’s team as stubborn and not genuinely committed to any peace efforts not firmly in their control, seeing a better chance at retaining power if the talks are scuttled.

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