Members of Afghanistan’s peace council, Taliban representatives, and international officials are convening in the Russian capital, Moscow.
The one-day event, dubbed the Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan, is aimed at kick-starting direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But the November 9 event met with strong skepticism from former officials and politicians in Afghanistan.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped the event would pave the way for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
"Today's event should become an important contribution to the creation of favorable conditions for the launch of direct talks between the government, the Taliban movement," Lavrov told the opening session of the meeting.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said representatives of Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States were invited to the meeting at Moscow’s President Hotel. In September, Moscow suspended a similar event at Kabul’s request.
Lavrov said his country’s role is to facilitate a dialogue between Afghans, “together with Afghanistan's regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table today to extend all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue.”
It is not clear whether the meeting will turn into a sustained process led by Moscow. Kabul and Washington, however, appear keen on making it clear that peace talks should be led and owned by Afghans.
“The United States believes that all countries should support direct dialogue between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to reach an end to the war,” Robert Palladino, a deputy spokesman for the State Department, told journalists on November 7. “We’ve been clear that no government, including Russia, can be a substitute for the Afghan government in direct negotiations with the Taliban.”
Palladino said that in coordination with the Afghan government, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow will send a representative to observe the event. “The United States stands ready to work with all interested parties to support and facilitate a peace process.”
Four members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, a group responsible for reconciliation efforts, are taking part.
“The agenda of these talks is to determine how direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government can begin soon,” Asadullah Barakzai, a spokesman for the Afghan peace council, told Afghanistan’s Tolo News TV.
The Taliban, however, have opposed negotiating with Kabul and instead insist on talking to the United States because they say the Afghan government is a puppet of Washington. Purported Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said their representatives in Moscow will not hold "any sort of negotiations" with the peace council.
In a statement this week, the Taliban said the conference was "not about negotiating with any particular side" but aimed at "comprehensive discussions on finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan quandary and ending the American occupation."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S envoy for Afghan peace, reportedly met with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, in October. A Taliban statement at the time said both sides "agreed to continue such meetings."
A U.S. State Department statement says Khalilzad is traveling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar from November 8 to 20.
“He will meet with Afghan government officials and other interested parties to advance the goal of an intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations that include the Taliban and lead to a sustainable peace,” the November 8 statement noted.
Finding a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war has emerged as the preferred course for Washington as Kabul has continued losing territory to the Taliban and its security forces have sustained high casualties.
In its latest report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) predicted more challenges for the government in Kabul. "The control of Afghanistan's districts, population, and territory overall became more contested this quarter," its latest report said.
A new study by Brown University shows that more than 147,000 people have died in the war in Afghanistan since a U.S.-led military intervention toppled the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. The study, titled Human Costs of The Post 9/11 Wars, says most of the fatalities are Afghan soldiers, insurgents, and civilians. More than 7,000 U.S. and allied troops and contractors were also killed in the war.
The Afghan government, however, is not weighing the war in terms of losses. Given its dependence on international funding and military support, its most pressing problem is to ensure the current political system can survive.
Kabul is thus adamant that any peace process should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. In a November 9 statement, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said the High Peace Council was taking part in the talks "in its own capacity as a national but nongovernment institution, with a view to discuss the dynamics and details of initiating direct negotiations."
The council was established by former President Hamid Karzai as part of the internationally funded Peace and Reintegration Program. Its aim is to negotiate with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the U.S. government adviser, says the Moscow meeting is based on the Kremlin’s belief that a peace process led by Washington or the U.S.-supported Afghan government will set conditions for a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which Russia, Iran and Pakistan opposes.
“The Moscow process is meant to come from and align with the interests of these regional powers, who believe that a peace process in Afghanistan should lead to the withdrawal of the U.S. military presence,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara website. “It also is another sign of Russia's assertiveness and follows the model of the Russia-led peace process for Syria.”
Rubin, however, sees a significant shift in Washington’s thinking under the leadership of Khalilzad, who seeks to muster a regional consensus and support.
“The decision to send a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow shows a significant shift,” he noted. “Under Khalilzad's leadership, the U.S. is willing to cooperate with anyone -- maybe even Iran -- to bring stability to Afghanistan, and it is no longer is looking for a way to assure a long-term military presence.”
Many former Afghan officials and politicians, however, are highly skeptical.
“This is an attempt to legitimize an illegitimate phenomenon,” former Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said in an apparent reference to the status of Taliban leaders and factions who are sanctioned and labeled by countries and international organizations.
The Taliban are banned in Russia because Moscow considers them a terrorist organization.
“How can the representatives of the Taliban and the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] be accepted as diplomats on international forums?” he asked while repeating the accusation that the Afghan Taliban are proxies of the Pakistani secret service.
Islamabad, however, denies supporting the Taliban. A senior Pakistani diplomat is representing his country in Moscow.
“We have always maintained that the most viable solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. The role of Afghanistan's neighbors would be very important in such a process,” Mohammad Faisal, spokesman for the Pakistani foreign ministry told journalists on November 8.
He hoped a peace process with wider regional and global support will succeed. “It can be expected that this meeting would contribute to developing a regional consensus in support of the Afghan peace process,” Faisal said.
Pakistan’s archrival and neighbor India, however, is more cautious. It is sending two former officials to participate in the meeting at “non-official level” but insists that any peace talks “should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled and with participation of the government of Afghanistan”.
Outspoken former Afghan spy chief Amrullah Saleh is highly critical.
“Twelve countries have their own so-called peace process for Afghanistan and they all call it Afghan-owned and Afghan-led,” he wrote on Twitter. “In reality much of it is aimed to connect with terrorists and buy safety for their homelands. Neither their intent nor their conduct of peace effort is helping Afghanistan.”
Mohammad Omar Daudzai, a former interior minister, questioned the logic of peace talks that apparently sideline the Afghan government.
“However weak or bad, it is our only government and it should not be sidelined,” he noted.