By host­ing talks, Rus­sia reen­ters the ‘great game’

Tal­iban, Afghan envoys meet pub­licly in Moscow to dis­cuss peace ef­forts

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY AMIE FER­RIS- ROT­MAN amie.fer­ris-rot­man@wash­post.com Sayed Salahud­din in Kabul con­tributed to this re­port.

moscow — Rus­sia pledged Fri­day to use its diplo­matic mus­cle to help spur peace ef­forts in Afghanistan af­ter host­ing Afghan envoys and their Tal­iban foes — a meet­ing that Moscow also used to show­case its drive to re­assert in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

Sit­ting be­tween Afghan rep­re­sen­ta­tives and their Tal­iban ri­vals, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov played the roles of me­di­a­tor and ex­pe­ri­enced hand in Afghanistan’s con­flicts.

Rus­sia hosted the land­mark talks al­most 30 years af­ter it pulled out of Afghanistan in dis­grace, end­ing a decade-long Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion that was seen as an­other chap­ter in what his­to­ri­ans called the “great game” by world pow­ers to hold away over Afghanistan and nearby areas.

The United States and other na­tions have re­peat­edly failed to stem the fight­ing that has racked the coun­try al­most con­tin­u­ously for four decades.

“Rus­sia stands for pre­serv­ing the one and un­di­vided Afghanistan, in which all of the eth­nic groups that in­habit this coun­try would live side by side peace­fully and hap­pily,” Lavrov said, seated be­tween a five-man Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion and four mem­bers of Afghanistan’s High Peace Coun­cil, a gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed body charged with over­see­ing the peace process.

“Rus­sia, as the or­ga­nizer of this ses­sion, sees its role in work­ing 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,” he said.

There were no sig­nif­i­cant break­throughs dur­ing the Moscow meet­ing, which was at­tended by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of 11 coun­tries, in­clud­ing re­gional heavy­weights China, Iran and Pak­istan. But del­e­gates widely ac­knowl­edged that the meet­ing it­self was a feat.

As they gath­ered around a large cir­cu­lar ta­ble in a Moscow ho­tel, the at­mos­phere was jovial and al­most fes­tive. Hugs were ex­changed with mem­bers of the Tal­iban. There was wav­ing and wink­ing at fa­mil­iar faces.

Ahead of the talks, Tal­iban del­e­gates gath­ered in the lobby to drink cups of green tea, while their Rus­sian min­ders downed lat­tes.

Tal­iban del­e­gates said they laid out the Is­lamist in­sur­gent group’s de­mands for a peace process. They also re­it­er­ated their wish to speak to the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

“Con­sid­er­ing our main de­mand is the with­drawal of for­eign troops, we will dis­cuss peace­ful set­tle­ment with the Amer­i­cans,” said the Tal­iban’s top po­lit­i­cal en­voy, Mo­ham­mad Abbas Stanekzai. “We do not rec­og­nize the in­cum­bent gov­ern­ment as le­git­i­mate.”

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow at­tended, but only as an ob­server.

Bring­ing both sides of the Afghan con­flict to Moscow is still a ma­jor suc­cess for Rus­sia as the Krem­lin seeks to re­claim its clout and in­flu­ence on the world stage.

Afghanistan also brings up some painful his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ries. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Red Army in­vaded Afghanistan, be­gin­ning a dis­as­trous decade-long war that ended with the Sovi­ets’ hu­mil­i­at­ing with­drawal.

“Rus­sia has the ex­pe­ri­ence of war. If it gains the ex­pe­ri­ence of peace, we wel­come it,” said Habiba Sarabi, the deputy chair of the High Peace Coun­cil and the only woman — from any coun­try — to take part in the talks.

Sarabi said she pushed the Tal­iban on the plight of Afghan women, who were de­nied ba­sic rights dur­ing the Tal­iban’s reign, which drew world­wide scorn of the coun­try and a loss of cred­i­bil­ity.

“I asked them, ‘When will you bring a woman to th­ese talks?” Sarabi said. “They laughed and said, ‘Why don’t you rep­re­sent us?’ ”

In re­cent years, the Tal­iban has sought to re­dress its no­to­ri­ous short­com­ings in the area of women’s rights, pub­licly stat­ing that all girls and women should have ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion. But there are deep sus­pi­cions over the Tal­iban’s claims.

“We are ready to give women all the rights that ex­ist in Is­lam,” said Muham­mad So­hail Sha­heen, a spokesman from the Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion. “This means ed­u­ca­tion, work, prop­erty. We ask only one thing, that they ob­serve wear­ing the veil.”

The talks come af­ter years of back-chan­nel diplo­macy be­tween Moscow and the Tal­iban.

The Tal­iban has spo­ken to a range of coun­tries in re­cent years, in­clud­ing the United States, Turkey, Saudi Ara­bia and Iran, but of­ten un­der the shroud of se­crecy.

Fri­day’s meet­ing in Moscow was the first of its kind to take place pub­licly.

A pre­vi­ous at­tempt to host Afghan talks two months ago was thwarted — and the Krem­lin’s in­vi­ta­tion to the Tal­iban re­scinded — when the Afghan gov­ern­ment ob­jected, say­ing it must lead the out­reach. Wash­ing­ton also de­clined to at­tend, say­ing the talks were un­likely to yield any progress.

“The United States stands ready to work with all in­ter­ested par­ties to sup­port and fa­cil­i­tate a peace process,” State Depart­ment deputy spokesman Robert Pal­ladino said this week.

Any peace plan also would need close co­or­di­na­tion with the U.S. mil­i­tary.

In re­cent months, the U.S. spe­cial ad­viser on Afghan peace, Zal­may Khalilzad, met Tal­iban rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Qatar, where both sides agreed to con­tinue di­a­logue. Khalilzad’s re­ported meet­ing — only the Tal­iban vouched it had taken place — came just months af­ter se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial Alice Wells went there.

Last year, Pres­i­dent Trump roughly dou­bled the num­ber of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to the cur­rent de­ploy­ment of 14,000.

SERGEI CHIRIKOV/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov passes mem­bers of the Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion dur­ing Afghan peace talks Fri­day in Moscow. Eleven coun­tries took part, in­clud­ing China, Iran and Pak­istan. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow at­tended as an ob­server.

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