Moscow hosting Afghanistan talks between Taliban and Kabul envoys
By AMIE FERRIS-ROTMAN | The Washington Post | Published: November 9, 2018
MOSCOW — Sitting between Afghan envoys and their fierce rivals from the Taliban movement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday promised to work for a united and peaceful Afghanistan, showcasing his country's return to the diplomatic forefront of the 17-year war.
Russia's unprecedented hosting of the peace conference almost 30 years after it pulled out of Afghanistan in disgrace comes after efforts of the United States and others repeatedly failed to stem the constant fighting.
"Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all of the ethnic groups that inhabit this country would live side by side peacefully and happily," Lavrov said, sitting between a five-man Taliban delegation and four members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the peace process.
"Russia, as the organizer of this session, sees its role in working together with Afghanistan's regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table today to extend all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue
There are few expectations of significant breakthroughs during the Moscow meeting, which was attended by representatives of 11 countries, including regional heavyweights China, Iran and Pakistan.
As the delegates gathered around a large table in a Moscow hotel, the atmosphere was jovial and almost festive. Hugs were exchanged with members of the Taliban. There was waving and winking at familiar faces. Ahead of the talks, the Taliban drank cups of green tea, while their Russian minders downed lattes.
Ahead of the meeting, the Taliban statement described the gathering as a forum to lay out 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 U.S. Embassy in Moscow will attend, but only as an observer, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said this week.
But bringing both sides of the Afghan 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 up 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's invite to the Taliban rescinded — when the Afghan government objected, saying it must lead the outreach. Washington also declined to attend, saying the talks were unlikely to yield any progress.
Kabul has chosen not to send diplomats to the talks. But members from the High Peace Council, a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the peace process, have agreed to take part.
Washington was invited, but an embassy representative will be dispatched "to the working level to observe the discussions," Palladino told reporters.
"The United States stands ready to work with all interested parties to support and facilitate a peace process," he said.
Any peace plan also would 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 former senior U.S. official. "The U.S., of course, is naturally skeptical, but that's only because the Russians are 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, said it was sending top political envoy 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 increasingly acting as a mediator.
In recent months, the U.S. special adviser on Afghan peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Taliban representatives in Qatar, where both sides agreed to continue dialogue. Khalilzad's reported meeting — only the Taliban vouched it had taken place — came just months after senior State Department official Alice Wells went there.
Moscow invited delegates from 11 countries, including China, Iran and Pakistan. Only Pakistan has so far confirmed its attendance.
Besides serving as a potential peace broker, Russia has considerable worries of its own when it comes to an unstable Afghanistan.
Groups affiliated with the Islamic State have gained footholds in northern Afghanistan, near countries with close Moscow ties including 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, whom the Taliban have long accused of being willing "puppets" of 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 that 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.
The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.