Confusion, mistrust ahead of Afghan peace meeting in Doha

KABUL (Reuters) - The latest meetings between the Taliban and Afghan politicians and civil society representatives aimed at ending more than 17 years of war in Afghanistan are set to begin on Friday in an atmosphere clouded by mistrust and uncertainty.

While the Taliban have refused to meet President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which they call a puppet regime, this weekend’s meeting in Doha follows a similar conference in Moscow in February.

“The meeting will help us understand each other and possibly shift obstacles,” said Habiba Surabli, deputy head of the High Peace Council, a body charged with negotiating peace. “We won’t have any conditions as this is not a formal negotiation.”

However the Doha conference arrangements have been hampered by political disagreement in Kabul as well as suspicion between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who launched their now-customary spring offensive last week.

The United States, which has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban, said this week it would wait to see the result of the meeting before agreeing to further talks.

Though the government will be absent, the Afghan delegation, swollen to 250 members after days of wrangling over who would be included, goes with the blessing of Ghani, who said the talks aimed at a sustainable and dignified peace.

Speaking to delegation members in Kabul, he said, “Your task will be representing the wishes of the Afghan nation and government of Afghanistan.”

Some government officials are included in a personal capacity but the group will not include some of the most powerful figures in Afghan politics, who are reluctant to join forces with Ghani ahead of presidential elections due in September.

Former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and Atta Mohammad Noor, a veteran of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen and a governor of the province of Balkh, who retains huge influence in northern Afghanistan, refused to take part.

Atta Noor said the list was formed of Ghani favorites and “ignores social balance and the presence of the jihad and resistance faction”.

A spokesman for former President Hamid Karzai also said he would not attend.

The Taliban’s own response was dismissive, pointing to the unwieldy size of the group and saying that only a limited number of political and national figures would be allowed to participate.

“The creators of the Kabul list must realize that this is an orderly and prearranged conference in a far-away (Gulf) country and not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” the movement’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said.

“Arranging and publishing such lists signifies that the Kabul administration fears these conferences and progress towards peace and is trying to be a spoiler with such actions.”

The United States says any peace deal must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, but the general mistrust underlines the problems that need to be overcome to reach agreement.

Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez