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Taliban ‘Benefiting’ From Washington-Kabul Rift, Says Diplomat

FILE: Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib (L) with General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in February.

Anthropologist and career U.S. diplomat David Katz has spent decades studying Afghanistan and serving his country there. In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he discusses the fallout of the recent spat between Washington and Kabul over remarks by Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib.

RFE/RL: What actually happens when the U.S. government cuts ties with an official?

David Katz: This serves as a public hand-slap of Mohib. For the U.S. government to cut ties with an official representative of a friendly government, [it] personalizes the tensions in the relationship and likely does nothing to address the source of the tensions. If Mohib acted on his own and not as the representative of his government, then cutting ties may be appropriate, but President [Ashraf] Ghani and Mohib likely knew what they were doing and expected that this would provoke a reaction.

RFE/RL: What are the possible consequences of such actions for the Afghan government?

Katz: This depends on how the U.S. government reacts. If the U.S. government acknowledges that the concerns Mohib raised reflect the Afghan government’s concerns, then the U.S. government should move forward to address them. If the U.S. government demands the ouster of Mohib, then it will serve to further disrupt the efforts by the Afghan government to deal effectively with the peace process. Mohib had his position because of the faith and confidence that Ghani had in him. If the U.S. demands that he be fired, then Ghani will have to scramble to rebuild his team at a time when he has plenty of other matters with which to deal.

RFE/RL: Do you think that will give more power to the Taliban negotiating team over the Afghan government?

Katz: Any action that creates tension between the U.S. and the Afghan government is favorable to the Taliban position. That is why the U.S. handled this matter poorly in disseminating the message about cutting off Mohib.

RFE/RL: When it punishes a partner, what does it cost the U.S. government, which has invested so much money and human power in Afghanistan?

Katz: The U.S. should be mindful of its strategic objectives in Afghanistan and the region and not allow a spat with Afghanistan to weaken its efforts to achieve its goals.

RFE/RL: Did the U.S. government ever do anything like this when you worked with the State Department?

Katz: From December 1979 until the ouster of the Najib regime, the U.S. had no substantive contact with the Afghan government, insisting that the Kabul regime was a mere puppet of the Soviets. We had an embassy there until just before the 1989 Soviet withdrawal but only dealt with the government on administrative issues. So when Najibullah started his national reconciliation process, we had no basis for assessing its legitimacy.

Also, the U.S. may avoid contact with some foreign government official if he or she is seen as unreliable. However, this is usually done informally. If there's a serious issue and the official is accredited as a diplomat in the U.S., then that person is declared persona non grata and must leave the official position and depart the U.S.

RFE/RL: Mohib is married to an American citizen. If the U.S. government cuts ties with him, how does this affect his family’s status in terms of living in and traveling to the United States?

Katz: It should have absolutely no effect. There is one thing to cut ties for official contacts. This should have no effect on his wife and family. Nor should it have any effect on Mohib traveling to the U.S. for personal, non-official reasons.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with some Afghan analysts suggesting that the U.S. government is thus pushing the Afghan government to work with special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad's efforts?

Katz: Clearly, the U.S. government is fully backing Khalilzad's efforts. He is not acting as a free agent. He is acting on behalf of the U.S. government (as Mohib is acting on behalf of his government). We have to assume that Khalilzad's efforts are the U.S. government’s efforts and that all channels of the U.S. government are working to support Khalilzad's efforts.