Taliban and Afghan officials issue joint announcement from Moscow

The Kremlin may be testing its abilities as a broker in Afghanistan by hosting peace talks

Deputy Head of Political Office of the Taliban Abdul Salam Hanafi attends a conference arranged by the Afghan diaspora in Moscow, Russia February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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Taliban leaders repeated a historic claim that the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan was a prerequisite for peace during talks in Moscow on Wednesday that were  criticised by US officials and the government in Kabul .

During the meeting with Afghan politicians outside of government, senior Taliban leaders said that the US had agreed to draw down half of its 14,000 force in Afghanistan by April, a claim later denied by officials in Washington. The group’s leaders also told reporters they had no intention of taking the entire country by force.

The conference in the Russian capital, organised by an Afghan diaspora group, came just three months after Taliban leaders were last in Moscow. In November, the foreign ministry brought together Taliban leaders alongside representatives of the Afghan government and 11 countries that were touted as the highest level talks the insurgent group had ever participated in.

A Russian official speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity explained that the Kabul government had not been invited to talks this week due to their “sensitivity.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticised the gathering in Moscow on Tuesday saying they amounted to "nothing more than a fantasy.”

“No one can decide without the consent of the Afghan people," he told Afghan media. "Those who have gathered in Moscow have no executive authority. They can say what they want."

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, among the most high profile attendees in Moscow, said Kabul’s role in negotiations was something for it to resolve with the Taliban. "We understand that the government in Kabul needs to be part of these negotiations, we wish that they would have been here today," he told reporters.

The talks in Moscow come shortly after US officials and the Taliban ended their own round of negotiations in Qatar in January. Both sides said they had made significant headway. US president Donald Trump used his State of the Union address to call for renewed efforts to negotiate with the hardline Sunni Islamist group.

Thirty years after the Taliban ousted Soviet troops from Afghanistan with US backing, Russia is taken an increasingly assertive role in the conflict.

US officials have accused the Kremlin of arming the Taliban and interfering in Washington’s efforts to bring about a resolution to the 17-year conflict. Ahead of the talks, a senior US official told Reuters that "Russia is again trying to muddle the US-backed peace process and the political situation of Afghanistan."

Russia, however, has grown increasingly concerned that the US has failed to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, analysts in Moscow told The National. The Kremlin is particularly concerned about drug trafficking and the rise of ISIS explained Alexey Khlebnikov, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council think-tank, which was set up by the Kremlin.

“Russia treats Afghanistan as its sensitive underbelly,” Mr Khlebnikov said. “This is why Moscow sees stabilising and pacifying Afghanistan as an important precondition to the security of its own borders.”

In the Middle East more broadly, Russia is seen as wieldling increasing clout in conflicts where the US has opted for a lighter touch. Mr Khlebnikov did not rule out that as Mr Trump plans to pull US troops from Afghanistan, Russia may be eyeing filling the vacuum.

“Moscow sees US involvement in Afghanistan as destabilising,” Mr Khlebnikov said. “Now, it seems very possible that Moscow wants to test its own abilities as a broker in Afghanistan.”