A senior Afghan official has 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."
The comments on March 14 by Hamdullah Mohib, who serves as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's national-security adviser, drew immediate rebuke from Washington, with the State Department saying that his remarks "only serve to hinder" U.S.-Afghan ties and the peace process.
Speaking during a news conference at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, Mohib, a former ambassador to Washington, directed his attacks at Khalilzad's conduct of peace talks with the Taliban.
Kabul has been excluded from the talks, held in Qatar, because the Taliban refuses direct negotiations with the Afghan government, insisting it is a puppet of the West and demanding that foreign troops pull out of the country before bilateral talks can begin.
U.S. officials have insisted they will not accept a peace deal with the Taliban without direct talks between the militant group and the Afghan government.
Kabul in the past has expressed anger over being kept out of the talks, but public comments targeting the top U.S. negotiator are extremely rare. Officials were angered again this week when Khalilzad wrapped up the latest round of Taliban talks in Doha and returned directly to Washington without stopping to brief officials in Kabul.
"Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad’s history, his own personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan. He was wanting to run for president twice," Mohib said.
"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."
"Viceroy" was the title of the colonial administrator of British-ruled India and holds negative connotations in South Asia.
"We think either Zal, Ambassador Khalilzad, doesn't know how to negotiate [or] there may be other reasons behind what he's doing," Mohib added.
"The Taliban are in no mood to negotiate with the Afghan government, and there is no reason for them to do so. They're gaining. Their sole aim and expectation and reasons in wanting to talk directly with the United States is to give themselves legitimacy."
"The reason he is delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban can only have one approach. It's definitely not for peace," he said.
Robert Palladino, the State Department's deputy spokesman, said David Hale, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, "summoned" Mohib and told him he rejected the attack on "the U.S. approach to reconciliation."
Palladino said Hale reminded the Afghan official that Khalilzad represented Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "and that attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the department and only serve to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process."
The spokesman added that Hale "expressed our commitment to the Afghan government’s stability and full participation in the peace process."
The Taliban controlled the Afghan government before being driven from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion after it refused to end support for Al-Qaeda following the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.
Taliban leaders, who took control in 1996, imposed a harsh form of Islamic law that denied education and work to women and girls as they cracked down on other social activities.
They were accused by international groups of human rights violations, causing concerns among more moderate Afghans about their participation in any future government.
The U.S. military has some 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly serving in training and advisory roles.