KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will propose a new presidential election within six months under a peace plan he will put forward as a counter-offer to a U.S. proposal that he rejects, two senior government officials told Reuters.
Ghani will unveil his proposal at an international gathering in Turkey next month, signalling his refusal to accept Washington’s plan for his elected government to be replaced by an interim administration, the officials said.
But he will participate only if Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada, or Mullah Yaqub, the son of the militants’ late founder, Mullah Omar, attends, one of the officials said.
Washington, which agreed last year to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by May 1 after nearly two decades of war, is pressing for a peace deal to end fighting between the government and the Taliban. Talks between the Afghan sides in Qatar have stalled.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, are seeking to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose their brand of Islamist rule.
U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been circulating a proposal which would replace the Kabul government with an interim administration. But Ghani has voiced vehement opposition to any solution that requires his government to step aside for unelected successors.
“The counterproposal which we are going to present at the Istanbul meeting would be to call for early presidential elections if the Taliban agree on a ceasefire,” one senior government official said on condition of anonymity.
Another Afghan government official said: “The president would never agree to step aside and any future government should be formed through democratic process, not a political deal.”
A third senior official also said Ghani’s proposal would include possible early elections, although he did not specify the time frame. The third official said Ghani had already shared his road map with Khalilzad.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. SEEKING SUPPORT
With just weeks left before the May 1 deadline it agreed with the Taliban last year to end the longest war in U.S. history, Washington is seeking regional backing for its approach to push the Kabul government and insurgents to share power.
But diplomats and foreign officials have said it will be difficult to move forward with the U.S. plans without Ghani’s support.
Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said in an interview released on Tuesday that the major dispute with the insurgents is over Afghanistan’s political system, not power-sharing.
“We must have a rigorous and substantive negotiation with the Taliban first on defining how we are going to view our policies, domestic and foreign, and how our people will see our systems in the future,” Mohib said in the interview with the Hudson Institute think tank recorded on Monday.
Kabul insists that Afghanistan remain a republic, with elections for president and parliament. The Taliban have yet to renounce their aim of re-establishing the Islamist system headed by an un-elected leader that ended with the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
During a visit to the region, which included stops in Doha and Islamabad, Khalilzad pushed for a conference to be hosted by Turkey with involvement from the United Nations next month.
The Afghan officials said that as part of Ghani’s counter-proposal, his government would ask the U.N. to closely observe the new election to ensure it is accepted by all sides.
A presidential palace spokesman declined to comment.
Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha have made little progress, while violence has increased.
The Taliban have so far rejected a ceasefire and said they would not directly join an interim government.
Ghani was sworn in as president for a second five-year term in March last year after a disputed presidential election.
The new U.S. administration led by President Joe Biden is reviewing the May 1 deadline agreed under the Trump administration for the last 2,500 U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. Biden told broadcaster ABC last week that it would be “tough” to meet it.
The Taliban say there will be consequences if the United States does not meet the deadline.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON; Editing by Charlotte Greenfield and Nick Macfie)