Afghan officials snubbed by Russia in ‘sensitive' Taliban talks

The insurgent group is discovering it has an unlikely ally in a former adversary

FILE PHOTO: Members of Taliban delegation take their seats during the multilateral peace talks on Afghanistan in Moscow, Russia November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo
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The Taliban confirmed on Monday that they would take part in “intra-Afghan” talks in Moscow this week that will include senior Afghan opposition figures, including a former president, but leave out any officials from the government in Kabul.

Senior members of the Taliban are to begin two days of talks in the Russian capital on Tuesday as part of negotiations that have drawn criticism of both US officials and the Afghan government in Kabul.

The meeting is being organised by an Afghanistan diaspora group in Moscow, according to Russian state-run media. Notably absent from the invite list, which includes top Taliban officials and Afghan politicians critical of President Ashraf Ghani, are representatives of his government.

A Russian official speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity explained that “at this sensitive stage, it was best not to have Afghan government officials at the table”.

A spokesperson for Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a government organisation tasked with leading reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, confirmed it was not invited to the talks. “We will wait to the outcome of the event and will have our stance afterwards,” Sayed Ihsan Taheri wrote on Twitter.

Among the more high profile attendees in Moscow will be former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who tweeted that he would “carry a message of peace, unity, sovereignty and progress for all of us; the men, women and children of our beloved country”.

Mr Ghani criticised the talks, alleging that those attending were only travelling to Moscow “in order to gain power,” while his chief adviser Fazel Fazly tweeted that the meeting was “regrettable”.

The Taliban have refused to talk with the internationally recognised Afghan government, accusing it of being a puppet government of the West.

This week’s conference comes just three months after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted the Taliban and High Peace Council officials in Moscow in November. The summit, attended by representatives from 11 countries, was touted as the highest-level talks attended by the Taliban.

Moscow’s resurgent role in Afghanistan – 30 years after the Taliban ousted Soviet troops from the country with the help of the US – has been condemned by Western officials. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior US official told Reuters that "Russia is again trying to muddle the US-backed peace process and the political situation of Afghanistan."

Some observers, however, note that the Kremlin may have legitimate security concerns in Afghanistan.

"I don't think this is about muddying the waters," Artemy Kalinovsky, Senior Lecturer in East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam told The National. "If anything, Russian and US efforts at the moment seem complementary. But Russia does not want to be left out of any eventual deal."

The Kremlin is also increasingly concerned by the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, particularly after US President Donald Trump announced a drawdown of American troops in the country. In recent years, ISIS has taken credit for several attacks in Russia, most recently in December when an explosion caused an apartment building in Magnitogorsk to collapse, claiming 39 lives.

“If you go by what Russian officials are saying publicly, what they want from the Taliban is policing of transnational actors like Islamic State,” Mr Kalinovsky said, referring to ISIS. “US and Russian priorities overlap here.”

The talks in Moscow also come as US officials are intensifying their own efforts to bring about a peace deal with the Taliban. The two sides recently met in Qatar for 10 days of talks, as part of efforts to negotiate an end to the 17-year conflict.