Friday, 18 Jan 2019

In a first, Moscow prepares to host Afghan talks between Taliban and Kabul sent

Members of the Taliban and Afghans sent back to Kabul plan to hold talks in Moscow on Friday, showcasing Russia's entry into peace efforts after failed bids by the United States and others to help negotiate an end to the 17-year war.

There are few expectations of significant breakthroughs during the Moscow meeting, which will be opened by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

A Taliban statement describes the convention of the United States of America and its demands for a peace process, including its objections to the presence of U.S. and other foreign military forces in the country.

A representative from the US Embassy in Moscow will be waiting, but only to observe, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said this week.

But bringing both sides of the conflict to Moscow is still a major success for Russia as the Kremlin seeks to reclaim its clout and influence on the world stage.

Afghanistan also brings some painful historic memories. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, beginning a disastrous decade-long war that ended with the Soviets' humiliating withdrawal.

The talks come after years of back-channel diplomacy between Moscow and the Taliban.

The Taliban has spoken to a range of countries in recent years, including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but often under the shroud of secrecy.

Friday's meeting in Moscow will be the first of its kind to take place publicly.

A previous attempt to host Afghan talks two months ago was thwarted – and the Kremlin prompted to the Taliban rescinded – when the Afghan government objected, saying it must lead the outreach. Washington also declined to wait, saying the talks were unlikely to yield any progress.

Kabul has chosen to send diplomats to the talks. But members of the High Peace Council, a government-appointed body with overseeing the peace process, have agreed to take part.

Washington is invited, but an embassy representative will be dispatched to the talks, "Palladino told reporters.

"The United States stands ready to work with all parties to support and facilitate a peace process," he said.

Any peace plan would also need close coordination with the U.S. military.

Heavily strained ties between Washington and Moscow are influencing decisions on who should join the Afghan talks, according to a senior senior official U.S. "The U.S., of course, is naturally skeptical, but that's only because the US is convening it," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss views on U.S. diplomacy.

The Taliban, in a statement to media, sent Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai and his deputy, Abdul Salam Hanafi, both from the Taliban's political office in Doha, the Qatari capital.

That Doha office is increasing acting as a mediator.

In recent months, the U.S. special adviser on Afghan peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, puts Taliban representatives in Qatar, where both sides agree to continue dialogue. Khalilzad's reported meeting – only the Taliban vouched it had taken place – just left after State State official Alice Wells went there.

Moscow invited delegates from 11 countries, including China, Iran and Pakistan. Only Pakistan has so far confirmed its attendance.

It is a country that has a great deal of experience in Afghanistan.

Groups affiliated with the Islamic State have gained footholds in northern Afghanistan, near countries with close Moscow, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But, the Taliban warned, "there will be no negotiating of any sort" at the talks. This especially applies to representatives of the Kabul administration, which the Taliban has long accused of being willing to "puppet" from an American-led occupation.

Instead, the Taliban insisted, the meeting "is about finding a peaceful solution" for Afghanistan, the statement said. For years, the Taliban has maintained the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is the greatest obstacle to peace.

Last year, President Trump roughly doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan, to the current deployment of 14,000.

Salahuddin reported from Kabul.