Rus­sia hope­ful of Afghan, Tal­iban talks


MOSCOW — Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov on Fri­day voiced hope that a con­fer­ence on Afghanistan tak­ing place in Moscow could help pave the way for peace talks.

“The Moscow for­mat of talks is aimed at es­tab­lish­ing an in­clu­sive in­ter-Afghan di­a­logue in the in­ter­ests of ad­vanc­ing the process of na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” Lavrov said as he opened the meet­ing that has brought to­gether rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Afghan au­thor­i­ties and the Tal­iban.

He em­pha­sized the threat posed by the Is­lamic State group in Afghanistan, say­ing that it has re­lied on for­eign spon­sors in a bid to “turn Afghanistan into a spring­board for its ex­pan­sion in Cen­tral Asia.”

The con­fer­ence is Moscow’s ef­fort to get the Afghan au­thor­i­ties and the Tal­iban to­gether at a ta­ble.

The Tal­iban, in a state­ment to me­dia, said it was send­ing top po­lit­i­cal en­voy Mo­ham­mad Ab­bas Stanekzai and his deputy, Abdul Salam Hanafi, both from the Tal­iban’s po­lit­i­cal of­fice in Doha, the Qatari cap­i­tal.

The U.S. Em­bassy has sent a diplo­mat to ob­serve the dis­cus­sions, and en­voys from China, In­dia, Pak­istan and the ex-Soviet na­tions of Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Ta­jik­istan and Uzbek­istan also at­tended the meet­ing.

Rus­sia’s first at­tempt to hold the meet­ing in Septem­ber fell through af­ter the Afghan au­thor­i­ties re­fused to at­tend.

This time, the Afghan gov­ern­ment hasn’t sent its en­voys, but sev­eral mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed Peace Coun­cil are at­tend­ing the event.

Fac­ing a grow­ing in­sur­gency, Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani likely agreed to par­tic­i­pate this time “be­cause he rec­og­nized the sig­nif­i­cance of this meet­ing, even though it won’t re­sult in any­thing sub­stan­tive,” said Michael Kugel­man, a se­nior as­so­ciate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wil­son Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton.

No gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing Rus­sia, can be a sub­sti­tute for the Afghan au­thor­i­ties in di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban, the U.S. State De­part­ment said in an emailed state­ment.

Tal­iban of­fi­cials and Peace Coun­cil mem­bers have met at past fo­rums else­where, and while no for­mal talks were ever held they have had some face-to face dis­cus­sions.

The Tal­iban has re­fused di­rect talks with the Afghan gov­ern­ment, which it views as a U.S. pup­pet, say­ing it will only ne­go­ti­ate the end of the 17-year war di­rectly with Wash­ing­ton.

The group reaf­firmed that po­si­tion in Moscow, say­ing it would talk di­rectly to the U.S. to de­mand its pull­out from the coun­try.

“When we reach a so­lu­tion about the pull­out of their forces, then we en­ter a sec­ond phase among the Afghans, about how to bring about peace in Afghanistan,” said Mo­ham­mad Suhail Sha­heen, a Tal­iban spokesman.

The U.S. State De­part­ment said Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghanistan Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, Am­bas­sador Zal­may Khalilzad, headed Thurs­day to Afghanistan and other coun­tries in the re­gion to 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.”

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin sup­ported the U.S. mil­i­tary cam­paign in Afghanistan af­ter the Sept. 11 at­tacks, but Moscow has grown in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal of U.S. ac­tions as re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton have soured, and is step­ping up its own diplo­matic outreach across the re­gion. In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Vladimir Isachenkov, Kathy Gan­non and Matthew Pennington of The As­so­ci­ated Press; by Henry Meyer and Eltaf Na­jafizada of Bloomberg News; and by Amie Fer­ris-Rot­man and Sayed Salahud­din of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

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