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Afghanistan says Russia must pressure Taliban to seek peace

A soldier with the Afghan army leaves the landing site as an Afghan Mi-17 takes off during training near Camp Shorab, in Helmand Province.

MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By HENRY MEYER | Bloomberg | Published: November 23, 2017

Russia must press the Taliban to enter peace talks in Afghanistan, while an international inquiry should establish whether the Kremlin is arming the insurgent group, according to a senior Afghan official.

Russia has "a significant role" in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Haneef Atmar told reporters in Moscow on Thursday. He said he told Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev that "if you have contacts with the Taliban, please use these contacts for promotion of peace talks. The Taliban should not be able to use such contacts for war."

U.S. accusations that Russia may be sending weapons and other supplies to the Taliban are "the most sensitive issue," though Afghan officials have no evidence it's happening, Atmar said. Unproven claims of U.S. help for the Islamic State should also be checked, he said. The government in Kabul has proposed to "Russia, central Asia and our Western partners that we have a joint fact-finding mission to investigate, to see if there is any truth in such allegations," Atmar said.

The security chief's visit took place as Russia and the U.S. are increasingly sparring over Afghanistan, adding to frictions over Ukraine, Syria and alleged Kremlin meddling in support of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has voiced suspicion of Russia's actions in Afghanistan, where it's fostered ties with the Taliban amid a campaign by the terrorist group against Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. Russia, which fought a losing decade-long war in Afghanistan against U.S.-backed Islamist groups before the Soviet Union's collapse, denies supplying arms to the Taliban.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin "agreed to explore ways to further cooperate in the fight against" the Taliban during phone talks on Tuesday, according to the White House. Russia has criticized the Trump administration's decision to send more troops to the war-torn country 16 years after the 2001 U.S. invasion that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Patrushev hosted the first informal meeting of security council officials from Russia, Afghanistan and the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Moscow on Wednesday. They discussed threats from terrorism and drug trafficking as well as "national reconciliation in Afghanistan," according to the Interfax news service.

The Taliban should be "put under pressure to come to peace talks" and Patrushev "fully supported that position," Atmar said. The insurgent group has been invited to direct talks with the Afghan government and "will be making a big mistake if they fail to take advantage of this," he said.

Taliban demands for the withdrawal of foreign troops "should be the goal of negotiation, not a pre-condition," Atmar said. "There are no pre-conditions. We are saying to the Taliban that the withdrawal of foreign troops should be achieved through peace."

U.S. plans to replace Russian helicopters and other military equipment used by Afghan forces with American models are "absolutely counter-productive" and "detrimental to our common goal of stabilizing the situation" in the country, Putin's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said Thursday, according to the RIA Novosti news service.

Atmar said he hopes "cooperation will be restored" between Russia and the U.S., which previously purchased Russian-made helicopters for Afghan forces to use.

"Afghanistan will retain the Russian helicopters, we will also have American helicopters," he said. "So it's not one against the other."

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