WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) - Washington's relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears increasingly at risk of permanent damage, the consequence of a U.S. policy shift that has so far excluded his government from talks with the Taliban and of his own determination to retain power and manage peace efforts himself.
The feud threatens to undermine the already narrow chances for a peace accord that President Donald Trump hopes would end America's longest war.
Current and former U.S. officials tell Reuters they believe Ghani is positioning himself to perhaps be a spoiler in still-fragile negotiations, angry that the Afghan government has been kept out of talks and worried about the implications for his presidency.
But from Ghani's perspective, the negotiations themselves, led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, feel like a personal betrayal and a capitulation by the United States that could return the Taliban to power, Afghan officials say.
"Khalilzad wants to show that he is the champion of peace and President Ghani does not want to be the villain. The president believes he is being betrayed," an Afghan government official said.
The growing rift between Kabul and Washington over the peace negotiations erupted in public view on March 14 when Ghani's national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, slammed Khalilzad and accused the Afghan-born veteran U.S. diplomat of perhaps trying to steal the Afghan presidency for himself.
"(Ghani's worried) there could be some agreement for an interim government and he'll be on the outside looking in," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official added that Washington should expect Ghani will act like a politician in an election year, saying: "We shouldn't expect that Ghani is going to be Ghani the statesman, where he says: 'The best thing would be for me to step aside'."
The blow-up over Mohib's attack has had serious repercussions. The following day, the State Department decreed that U.S. officials should have no further contact with Mohib and his presence at a meeting on Monday between Ghani and NATO diplomats prompted the U.S. delegation to walk out of the presidential palace, Afghan sources said on condition of anonymity. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The discord carries echoes of tensions under Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who became an intense critic of the United States during his 13 years in power.
But the acrimony is still largely behind closed doors. Ghani is dependent on U.S. support, as Afghanistan's main economic, diplomatic and security backer, and there are signs that he will move to limit the fallout on ties.
In a nod to Washington's outrage over Mohib's remarks, Ghani is considering replacing Mohib with the Afghan envoy to London, a second Afghan official said.
Ghani's office did not immediately comment.
LATEST ROUND DISAPPOINTS GHANI
Since his 2016 election campaign, Trump has made the case to end the Afghan conflict that began in 2001 and has tied the prospect of troop drawdowns in Afghanistan to success in peace talks. But it is unclear if Trump will accept a deal at any cost - something that Ghani and other Afghans increasingly fear.
"The president has indicated that he hopes for the best in these peace talks but he also will not accept a bad deal," a senior Trump administration official said.
The Taliban, which sees Ghani as an Afghan puppet of the United States, has refused to meet with him.
Although the United States had historically balked at the prospect of unilateral talks with the Taliban, the Trump administration made a decision to move ahead with them, something that veteran U.S. officials sharply criticized.
"By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimised the government we claim to support," Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a Washington Post column, adding that the U.S. move signalled "we were surrendering."
The second round of U.S.-Taliban talks lasting 16 days ended this month in Doha, Qatar, with discussions including potential U.S. troop withdrawals and Taliban assurances on counter-terrorism.
But those talks disappointed Ghani, who had hoped Khalilzad would make some progress on negotiating a ceasefire for Afghanistan and convincing the Taliban to negotiate with Ghani's government, several Afghan officials said.
Instead, Khalilzad flew to Washington without such progress and without discussing the details of the talks with Ghani, which made the Afghan president paranoid, they said.
"The two sides discussed and agreed on issues concerning them but it did not change anything for the (Afghan) people or the government," the first Afghan official said.
Some current and former U.S. officials are sympathetic to Ghani and believe the United States must find a way to reassure him - and fast.
Acknowledging Kabul's frustration, the senior Trump administration official said: "It's urgent that we convince the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government and other Afghans and engage in a political process."
AFGHAN ELECTION COMPLICATION
The Afghan election is shaping up as a major challenge for Ghani's government, with speculation that the poll may not be held at all if a peace deal is first reached with the Taliban. Delayed twice already, it is now slated for Sept. 28.
One former U.S. official said Ghani hoped that the United States would fail to reach an agreement before the vote so the ballot can move forward.
Ghani "thinks that if the peace process goes through and the election doesn't take place, he loses everything," said a former senior Afghan official.
With so much in play politically, Ghani is seen as trying to tightly control the process - something experts fear could exclude opposition elements that would be crucial for any lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan society.
A former U.S. official said Ghani's controlling personality was one reason Washington long worried he could prove to be "more an obstacle than a help on the peace process."
"It's not because his heart isn't in the right place in wanting peace in Afghanistan. It's because of his disposition and his controlling nature and his desire to hold on to more control in a closed circle than is realistic," the former official said.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, Rupam Jain in KABUL and James MacKenzie in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)