A senior Afghan official says the government and the Taliban have agreed at a meeting in Moscow to try to accelerate talks aimed at ending decades of war in the country.
The March 19 meeting followed an international conference in the Russian capital on the intra-Afghan peace process, just six weeks before a deadline for the United States to pull out troops that have been in the war-torn country for nearly 20 years.
The gathering was aimed at breathing life into negotiations that started in September between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which have stalled over government accusations that the insurgents have done too little to halt violence.
Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that the sides did not discuss any specific issues when they met on March 19.
But he said the Afghan government team expressed “readiness to accelerate the [peace] process" and that the Taliban “did as well."
Abdullah also warned that if the current opportunity for peace is missed, neither side would benefit.
In a joint statement issued by the U.S. State Department after the conclusion of the March 18 conference, the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan called on Afghanistan's warring sides to “engage immediately in discussions on fundamental issues to resolve the conflict.”
Such issues included “the foundations of the future peaceful and stable Afghan state, the content of a political road map leading to an inclusive government, and the modalities of a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire,” it said.
“At this pivotal moment, our four states call on the parties to negotiate and conclude a peace agreement that will bring an end to over four decades of war in Afghanistan,” the statement said, urging the Taliban not to launch a spring offensive.
Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the joint statement and said the government in Kabul is committed to engaging in "substantive and serious" negotiations on establishing a cease-fire and achieving "a comprehensive political settlement that ends the war and brings about sustainable peace in the country.”
The Moscow meeting was the first of three planned international conferences ahead of a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
The date was fixed under a February 2020 agreement between the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump. But his successor, Joe Biden, has warned that it could be difficult for the United States to meet the deadline, especially with violence escalating in the country.
A member of the Taliban delegation sent to Moscow on March 19 said that if Washington fails to withdraw its forces by May 1, there could be a "reaction," which could mean increased attacks by the group.
“They should go,” Mohammad Suhail Shaheen told a press conference, warning that staying beyond the deadline would breach the U.S.-Taliban deal.
“After that, it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side...Their violation will have a reaction,” he added, without elaborating on what form the “reaction” would take.
In keeping with the agreement, the insurgents say they have not attacked American or NATO forces.
The Moscow conference was seen as a curtain-raiser for a larger meeting of regional players in Turkey in April, as well as a summit that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has asked the United Nations to organize.
The meeting included representatives of the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the country's negotiation team, as well as officials from Russia, China, Pakistan, and the United States.
It marked the first time Washington has sent a senior official to participate in Afghan peace negotiations convened by Russia.
Khalilzad's presence was seen as a sign of Washington's increasing effort to attract support among regional powers for its plans for Afghanistan.