MOSKVA – Sitting between Afghan delegates and their hard rivals from the Taliban movement, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised…
MOSKVA – Sitting between Afghan delegates and their hard rivals from the Taliban movement, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised to work for a united and peaceful Afghanistan, showing his country’s return to the diplomatic front of the 17th century.
Russia’s unprecedented host of the peace conference almost 30 years after its withdrawal from Afghanistan comes after US efforts and others have repeatedly failed to stop the ongoing battle.
“Russia is in charge of preserving one and undivided Afghanistan, where all ethnic groups living in the country would live side by side peacefully and happily,” says Lavrov, who is sitting between a fake Taliban delegation and four members of Afghanistan’s right-wing peace council, an authority appointed by the government responsible for the monitoring of the peace process.
“Russia sees its role as organizer of this session in working with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends who have gathered in this table today to expand all possible help to facilitate the start of constructive dialogue between Afghanistan,” added he.
There are few hopes for significant breakthroughs during the Moscow meeting, which was attended by representatives of 1
1 countries, including regional heavyweights China, Iran and Pakistan.
When the delegates gathered around a big table in a hotel in Moscow, the atmosphere was jovial and almost festive. Hugs are exchanged with members of the Taliban. It waved and winked at familiar faces. In front of the conversation, the Talibans drank green tea while their Russian minders denied lattes.
The Taliban Opinion issued earlier described the collection as a forum for determining its demands for a peace process, including its opposition to the presence of the United States and other foreign military forces in the country.
A representative from the US Embassy in Moscow participated, but only as an observer.
But getting both sides of the Afghan conflict to Moscow is still a big success for Russia, as the Kremlin tries to regain its complaints and influence on the world stage.
Afghanistan also gives up some painful historical memories. Almost 40 years have passed since the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, and began a catastrophic decade of war, ending with the humiliating withdrawal of the Soviet Union.
“Russia has experience of war. If it experiences peace, we welcome it,” said Habiba Sarabi, Vice President of the High Council of Peace and the only woman – from any country – to participate in the conversation.
The call comes after years of back-channel diplomacy between Moscow and the Taliban.
The Taliban has spoken to a number of countries in recent years, including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but often under the shelf of secrecy.
Friday’s meeting in Moscow is the first of its kind to take place in public.
A previous attempt to host Afghan negotiations two months ago, the opposite – and Kremlin’s invitation to the Taliban – were canceled – when the Afghan government objected and said it had to lead the way. Washington also refused to attend and said that the conversation would unlikely give any progress.
Kabul has chosen not to send diplomats to the negotiations but instead sent the High Peace Council.
“The United States is ready to cooperate with all stakeholders to support and facilitate a peace process,” said Deputy Speaker Robert Palladino of the State Department this week.
All peace plans would also need close coordination with the US military.
Heavy strained ties between Washington and Moscow affect decisions about who will join Afghan talks, according to a former senior US official. “Of course, the United States is skeptical, but it’s only because the Russians summon it,” said the former official, who spoke on terms of anonymity to discuss opinions about American diplomacy.
Taliban delegation included top political envoy Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai and his deputy Abdul Salam Hanafi, both from Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar capital.
The Doha Office is increasingly acting as a mediator.
In recent months, the United States Special Counselor for Afghan Peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Taliban representatives in Qatar, where both parties agreed to continue the dialogue. Khalilzad’s reported meeting – only the Taliban vouched it had taken place – just came a few months after the high government department official Alice Wells went there.
In addition to serving as a potential peace broker, Russia has major concerns about unstable Afghanistan.
Groups associated with the Islamic state have established a foothold in northern Afghanistan, close to countries close to Moscow bands, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
But the Taliban warned, “there will be no negotiation of any kind” in the conversation. This applies in particular to representatives of the Kabul administration, which the Taliban have long accused of being willing “puppets” of a US-led occupation.
Instead, the Taliban insisted at the meeting “is about finding a peaceful solution” for Afghanistan, said the statement. The Taliban has for years claimed that the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is the biggest obstacle to peace.
Last year, President Trump doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan, to the current deployment of 14,000.
Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.