The Taliban said Monday they will participate in what they call “intra-Afghan” talks in Moscow designed to bring together prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai, opposition figures and tribal elders – but no Kabul government officials.
The two-day meeting in the Russian capital, which starts Tuesday, is seen as another step in a process aimed at resolving Afghanistan’s 17-year war, a process that has accelerated since the appointment last September of U.S. peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad has been holding separate negotiations with the Taliban even as he presses for a dialogue that would bring together all key Afghan players.
However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office criticized the meeting in Moscow, saying that Afghan politicians attending the gathering were doing so “in order to gain power.” Ghani’s chief adviser, Fazel Fazly, tweeted that it was “regrettable.”
Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, confirmed the insurgents’ participation. A 10-member Taliban delegation would be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.
The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani’s government, which they denounce as a U.S. puppet.
A statement released on Monday by Afghans attending the Moscow meeting described it as “the first step toward intra-Afghan dialogue.” Along with Karzai, the former president, many of the 38 delegates from Kabul have held prominent government positions. Two presidential hopefuls are among those going to Moscow, including Hanif Atmar, who resigned as Ghani’s security adviser last August, apparently over differences with the president.
Also on the list are powerful warlords turned politicians and former Taliban insurgents who reconciled with the Kabul administration.
The only woman on the list, lawmaker and activist Fawzia Koofi, has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and girls’ education, once posting pictures of her daughters on her Twitter feed asking the Taliban: “What about my daughters’ education?” The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 imposing harsh forms of Islamic law limiting women’s education and rights.
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Karzai tweeted he was travelling to Moscow with “a message of peace, unity, sovereignty and progress for all of us; the men, women and children of our beloved country.”
However, Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive, said the Afghan government should be at the centre of any peace talks, adding that Kabul “would prefer the Moscow meeting had a different shape.”
The Taliban are the biggest obstacle to peace, Abdullah said, but if the Moscow meeting creates “an opening for real peace talks, it would still be a step forward.”
The Taliban have been staging near-daily attacks, targeting and inflicting heavy casualties on the embattled Afghan army and security forces.
The Moscow gathering is likely to further isolate Ghani, who has been irked by Khalilzad’s direct talks with the Taliban as well as the U.S. envoy’s successive rounds of talks in regional countries.
The Russian government has denied orchestrating the meeting. Monday’s statement from Kabul said the Moscow-based Council of Afghan Society, an organization of the Afghan diaspora in Russia, was behind it.
It said the participants would discuss a range of issues, from a cease-fire, supporting Khalilzad initiatives to further “intra-Afghan” talks and ways to ensure a “powerful and democratic central government” in Afghanistan.
A statement from the Taliban said the Moscow conference aims to “open channels to reaching an understanding with non-government Afghan political groups” and that the Taliban would use the opportunity to clarify their position, based on Islamic Shariah law, for the future and an intra-Afghan Islamic system of governance.
Washington has made no comments so far about the Russia-hosted talks.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington has spent more than $1 trillion on Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to bring U.S. troops home, adding to the urgency of Khalilzad’s mission.
Reports late last year suggested Trump was considering withdrawing at least half of Washington’s estimated 15,000 troops from Afghanistan by the summer.