'Successful' Moscow talks set off alarm bells in Afghanistan

Fears grow that talks strengthened the Taliban’s negotiating position

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, second from right, applauds during the "intra-Afghan" talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. The U.S. has promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, a Taliban official said Wednesday, but the U.S. military said it has received no orders to begin packing up. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Ordinary Afghans and political observers say they fear the talks hosted by Russia last week have harmed the prospect of long-term peace and given the Taliban insurgents the upper hand in negotiations with the United States.

The two-day Moscow ­meeting was the first time senior Afghan politicians held talks with the militants ­directly, and the resulting joint ­declaration issued on Wednesday ­endorsed some of the group's demands, such as the ­complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the release of Taliban ­prisoners and removal of Taliban leaders from a UN blacklist.

In an unlikely photo-op afterwards, Taliban members and mainstream politicians – including former president Hamid Karzai, former ­national security adviser Hanif Atmar, opposition leader Atta ­Mohammad Noor and ­Mohammad Mohaqiq, who was last month sacked as deputy chief executive by President Ashraf Ghani – stood side by side and declared the meeting a success.

"It depends on what you see as success," Hekmatullah Azamy, deputy director at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, told The ­National.

The Taliban had made military progress in the last year, but with this meeting they have also gained certain political status and legitimacy

“If getting the Afghan side to sit with the Taliban, then it was surely a success, but we should measure success with how the US views this meeting.”

Washington has made no official comment, but did not voice its opposition.

Mr Azamy acknowledged that the US stance on the involvement of Russia and even Iran in Afghan affairs had changed since special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad took charge of the peace effort in September, holding several rounds of talks with the Taliban at their political office in Doha, and also in Abu Dhabi.

“The US had no objection with the Afghan elites attending this meeting,” he said, comparing it with Moscow’s failed attempt to hold a similar meeting last year that was abandoned after Afghan politicians chose not to attend, fearing US disapproval.

But the lack of direct talks ­between the Taliban and the government, owing to the group’s refusal to negotiate with what it considers to be a puppet regime, complicates efforts to end the insurgency.

“There appears to be a confrontation of sorts between the various approaches to peace,” Mr Azamy said.

While the US is pressuring the Taliban to talk to the government, Mr Azamy said the Moscow meeting strengthened the insurgents’ negotiating position and influence.

“The Taliban made military progress in the last year, but with this meeting they have also gained certain political status and legitimacy, in terms of local diplomacy,” he said.

“To see them recognised by the Afghan political elite should worry the ­government, because in some ways it brings the Taliban into the mainstream.

“The next time they sit with the US, the Taliban can say confidently that the Afghan people don’t have a problem with them. This will affect the Afghan government.”

Mr Ghani yesterday made ­another attempt to engage with the Taliban, renewing an offer to allow them to open an office in Afghanistan, but this was rejected by the insurgents.

Mr Azamy said the ­president handled the issue of the ­Moscow talks diplomatically.

“Ghani didn’t show strong opposition because it could have affected the declaration of the meeting,” he said.

He suggested the document might have included direct criticism of the government. “But they are between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

Presidential spokesman ­Haroon Chankansuri dismissed the legitimacy of the meeting and the significance of the ensuing declaration.

“The Moscow meeting was a political and academic ­discussion on peace and the declaration was a summary of the two-day summit. It is not an executive outcome on peace,” he said.

Many Afghans also object to the absence of the government at the Moscow talks, including some critics of Mr Ghani.

Many took to social media to register their objections using the hashtag #UDontRepresentMe and called for the Taliban to talk to the government.

“We shouldn’t let the people who ruined our childhood in their war for power ruin our present and future too,” Salma Alkozai, a civil servant from Kabul, said on Twitter.

“They have come together to repeat history. The history that we are still struggling to wash off of our identity.”

Spozmai Stanikzai, an Afghan student of international trade law, echoed that sentiment.

“Taliban are not to be ­trusted,” she told The ­National. “If the Taliban truly want peace, our government has an office they can negotiate with.

“[The] Afghan constitution can also be amended and they can bring all the changes they want, but in a more institution­alised manner.”

She said the government had made a lot of progress in peace efforts with the Taliban, including the historic Eid ceasefire last year.

She said the government had also increased pressure on the Pakistani government to stop ­supporting the insurgents and agreed a peace deal with Gulbuddin ­Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-e-Islami group.

Ms Stanikzai said a similar situation involving the Taliban and president Mohammad Najibullah in the 1990s should serve as a warning.

“Once the Taliban made the same promise with Dr Najibullah – he was willing to negotiate with them but when they entered the capital, they murdered him,” she said.

“They don’t want peace or pardon for the atrocities they committed – they want the fall of the government and chaos so they can once again take control of the country.”

A Kabul academic said he was concerned by how ­politicians had reversed their positions towards the Taliban in Moscow, and the possibility of US forces leaving Afghanistan.

“Those who went to Moscow are the ones who have been fighting the Taliban on the front lines,” he said.

“Former president Hamid Karzai did not provide the Taliban office space during his tenure, but now it’s part of the declaration.

“Hanif Atmar signed the bilateral security agreement with the US on his second day in the last government, which allowed US troops to stay and fight the Taliban, but now he is calling for a withdrawal.”

Mr Khalilzad said after talks with the Taliban last month that they had agreed on a draft deal that included the withdrawal of US forces in ­exchange for a ceasefire, intra-­Afghan talks and a guarantee that Afghanistan would not harbour extremists.

But the academic doubted the Taliban would remain peaceful once US troops left the country.

“If the Americans stay, there is a possibility that they might return peacefully,” he said.