Russia urges progress on Afghan peace talks at Moscow conference

Sergey Lavrov criticised a lack of progress in the Doha process

Officials attend an international conference on Afghanistan over the peaceful solution to the conflict in Moscow on March 18, 2021. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry / handout" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency received a boost on Thursday at a Russian-hosted conference in Moscow.

A 16-member Afghan delegation led by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chairperson of High Council for National Reconciliation, met with a 10-member Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar in an attempt to revive the Doha talks delayed after an increase in violence in Afghanistan.

The one-day meeting is the first in the series of complementary talks expected to be held across Russia, Qatar, and Turkey ahead of the planned withdrawal of the US troops on May 1, as agreed in the US deal signed with the Taliban last year.

Thursday’s gathering of the “extended Troika” included representatives of the US, China, and Pakistan. Representatives of Qatar and Turkey were invited as observers.

Addressing the opening ceremony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticised a lack of progress in the Doha process despite months of talks and raised concerns over the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

“We are especially worried by the spring and summer period when traditionally we see more military and hostile activity in the region,” Mr Lavrov said referring to the “Spring Offensive” launched each year by the Taliban in March.

The Afghan delegation was criticised for its composition, particularly its lack of women’s representation. Habiba Sarabi, the sole Afghan woman leader on the team made compelling arguments on the urgent need for inclusion of women and minorities who have suffered during the conflict.

Where the US-Taliban peace deal stands one year on

Where the US-Taliban peace deal stands one year on

“Why should I be the only woman in the room?” she said. “We have not been part of the war, we can certainly contribute to peace—we make up 51 per cent of the population and we cannot be ignored,” she said.

The escalating violence and civilian casualties was a recurring theme in speeches made by all parties, even the Taliban who have increased their targeted attacks in the country.

“We emphasise once again that war is not the solution. Groups must take this into account in their calculations,” Dr Abdullah said.

“Today’s Afghanistan is one where a group or establishment can impose its will on others through war and force,” he said, calling for an immediate reduction in violence.

But Taliban leader Mullah Ghani Baradar insisted a ceasefire would only be possible after the new Islamic system comes to power. “There can be no peace in Afghanistan without Islamic law and Islamic system. If there is any system other than the Islamic system, the Afghan people will wage jihad against it,” he said.

A joint statement issued by the “extended troika” rejected the establishment of the Islamic Emirate.

“As stated in the UNSC resolution 2513 (2020), we do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate and we call on the Government of the Islamic Republic and the High Council for National Reconciliation to engage openly with their Taliban counterparts regarding a negotiated settlement,” it read.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for attending an international peace conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 18, 2021. Russia is hosting a peace conference for Afghanistan, bringing together government representatives and their Taliban adversaries along with regional observers in a bid to help jump-start the country's stalled peace process. The one-day gathering Thursday is the first of three planned international conferences ahead of a May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country, a date fixed under a year-old agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

Security analysts watching the development of Afghan peace efforts say the Moscow meeting could be a catalyst to accelerating the negotiations.

“The US wants to increase engagement with the region vis-à-vis the Afghan peace process. Such engagement helps ensure these countries are involved; they will see themselves in the process and will not act as spoilers,” said Hekmatullah Azamy, deputy director at Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies.

“Secondly, if the process is failing, the US will not be the only actor seen responsible - the regional powers will also have a share in that. So basically, the US is aiming to share its burden and credits with the region in regards to the peace process,” he said.

The meeting comes just days after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sent a letter to the Afghan government pressing for urgent action on settling the intra-Afghan talks. In the missive, leaked to Afghan news agency Tolo News, Mr Blinken emphasised that the US had “not ruled out any options”.

“We are considering a full withdrawal by May 1, as we consider other options… I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make territorial gains,” the letter read.

US President Joe Biden, in an interview with the ABC news on Wednesday said the US withdrawal on May 1 “could happen, but it is tough”.

“I'm in the process of making that decision now as to when they'll leave. The fact is that, that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president — the former president — worked out. And so we're in consultation with our allies as well as the government, and that decision's going to be — it's in process now.” he said adding that if they extended it would not be “a lot longer”.

Mr Azamy said the Moscow meeting will pave the way for the more senior meeting in Turkey.

“I think the Moscow meeting will also allow the Afghan government and the politicians to have preliminary discussions with the Taliban and the group expectations about the Turkey meeting - which will be even more at senior level,” he said.