As military and political setbacks mount, Afghanistan's embattled president, Ashraf Ghani, has insisted the time is right to seek direct peace talks with resurgent Taliban militants.
Now an influential figure in Ghani's government has blasted the peace strategy as a "waste of time" given the Taliban's successes and the government's weakness, and said the four-nation effort – which includes the United States, China and Pakistan – is doomed to fail.
"What do the Taliban stand to gain at this time from negotiating with the government?" said Ahmad Zia Massoud, who holds the title of Ghani's special representative for reform and good governance.
In an interview at his office in Kabul, Massoud said the confidence expressed by Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in Afghanistan's unity government, does not reflect political and military realities. Citing U.S. military figures, the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a watchdog, reported last month that the Afghan government controls just 72% of the country's 407 districts, believed to be the lowest figure in years.
Taliban insurgents have continued fighting government forces through a bloody winter, defying the usual lull in violence that comes in Afghanistan's colder months and prompting U.S. military officials to reconsider reducing the U.S. troop presence later this year as the White House had planned. The four nations involved in the peace effort have held multiple meetings – the next is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Kabul – but have not yet invited Taliban representatives.
Ghani has failed to win support for talks either from the public or among top officials; the country's spy chief recently resigned over opposition to negotiations. Meanwhile, the Taliban has papered over a leadership crisis following the death of its longtime leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and gained strength in northern and southern areas once regarded as solidly in government hands.
"Right now, they are thinking: 'We have the territory, we have the guns, it's us who have fought for more than 20 years,'" Massoud said of the Taliban.
"The Taliban are already preparing militarily for a new, more dangerous fight in the upcoming year."
Massoud's comments carry weight – he is a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority and brother of a slain anti-communist guerrilla – and echo equally grim assessments in recent weeks from top U.S. officials, who appear increasingly concerned about the stability of Ghani's government.
Last week, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee that Afghanistan would struggle to maintain "political cohesion" in 2016 amid serious internal challenges -- including a tanking economy, parliamentary elections and a loya jirga, or grand assembly, that could create a prime ministerial office that would challenge presidential authority.
"We assess that fighting in 2016 will be more intense than 2015, continuing a decade-long trend of deteriorating security that will compound these challenges," Clapper said.
In the year and a half since it was created under a U.S.-brokered compromise to end a deadlocked election, the unity government has been too mired in political jockeying to deliver basic services, Massoud said.
Ghani has yet to appoint a defense minister. The interior minister, Noor-ul-Haq Olomi, recently offered his resignation over the worsening security outlook but Ghani rejected it, according to a former security official familiar with the matter.
Recent fighting between Taliban and government forces damaged an electrical station in the northern province of Baghlan, plunging Kabul, the capital, into increasingly long power outages.
"Look at the current state of the nation: the economy is weak, people continue to suffer from joblessness, there are still social problems, there is still political infighting even at the highest level," Massoud said. "On top of that, our security forces are still weak."
Massoud and others say the government has not reached out to veterans of the northern-based mujahedin forces that battled the Soviet occupation and later the Taliban in the 1990s. Addressing a group of former mujahedin fighters in the northern province of Takhar last week, Massoud called for the establishment of a "resistance council" to oppose the Taliban.
Many ex-mujahedin leaders have expressed discontent that Ghani's government, unlike that of former President Hamid Karzai, has not consulted them in decision-making or appointed more of them to top positions.
Yet calls to empower the mujahedin have also prompted concerns about militias forming outside government control. Massoud said he does not support such militias.
Last fall, Haji Abdul Zaher Qadir, deputy speaker of the lower house of the parliament, was criticized when he armed thousands of men to fight militants claiming allegiance to Islamic State in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Ghani's first vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leader among the Uzbek ethnic minority, faced opposition to his proposal to send fighters to help government forces battle Taliban insurgents who briefly seized control of the capital of northern Kunduz province in December. A security official speaking on condition of anonymity said Dostum's offer was rejected due to fear it would provoke ethnic strife.
Dostum, who was reportedly angered by the rebuff, was seen as a key factor in Ghani's electoral support, along with Qadir and Massoud.
Massoud also criticized Pakistan, which Afghans have long accused of supporting Taliban insurgents, and said he did not buy Ghani's statements that Islamabad is genuinely committed to the peace process. Citing security officials, Massoud said Pakistani military personnel were seen in recent months in Baghlan, the scene of fierce fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
Pakistan has denied supporting the Taliban.
Massoud said he has no intention of quitting the unity government but hoped to raise awareness of the myriad, and ultimately linked, challenges of security and the economy.
"We currently have computer science graduates joining the Taliban because they can't find employment," he said.
Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia