Afghan rivals say no closer to direct talks after Moscow meeting


MOSCOW: Afghanistan rivals failed to reach a breakthrough on holding direct peace negotiations after international talks in Moscow on Friday, the latest international push to end the conflict.

Russia, which said it invited representatives from the United States as well as India, Iran, China and Pakistan, hailed the meeting as an opportunity to “open a new page” in Afghanistan´s history and seek an end to the war 17 years after the US-led invasion.

The talks came with the Taliban ratcheting up pressure on Afghan police and troops this year even as the militants showed a tentative willingness to hold talks with the United States.

The Moscow meetings ended without the sides agreeing on a path to direct dialogue, the delegations from the Taliban and Kabul´s High Peace Council said.

“This conference was not about direct talks,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told journalists in translated comments quoted by Interfax news agency.

The Taliban “does not recognise the current government as legal and therefore we won´t hold talks with them,” he added.

“Considering our main demand is the withdrawal of foreign forces, we will discuss a peaceful resolution with the Americans.”

A Taliban delegation met with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar in October to discuss ending the Afghan conflict.

Russia says the Moscow talks marked the first time that a Taliban delegation had taken part in such high-level international meeting.

Afghan delegation member Hajji Din Mohammad told journalists that Russia invited them to a new meeting but that “agreement was not reached on holding direct talks” with the Taliban, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said as the talks opened that Russia hoped “through joint efforts to open a new page in the history of Afghanistan”.

He said the participation of both Afghan leaders and the Taliban was an “important contribution” aimed at creating “favourable conditions for the start of direct talks”.

“I am counting on you holding a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hopes of the Afghan people,” he said before the rest of the meeting was held behind closed doors at a Moscow hotel.

‘Greater chance for peace’

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg had said Tuesday that Afghanistan´s chances for peace were “greater now” than in many years, even as the Taliban step up attacks on Afghan forces, which are suffering record high casualties.

The Taliban sent five representatives to Moscow but insisted they would not hold any negotiations with the delegation from Kabul.

The Afghan delegation was made up of four representatives of the High Peace Council, a government body responsible for reconciliation efforts with the militants, spokesman Sayed Ihsan Taheri said.

The Afghan foreign ministry emphasised that the council did not represent the Afghan government at the meeting, however, but was acting as a “national” non-government institution.

The US embassy in Moscow sent a representative to observe the discussions.

US President Donald Trump launched a revised Afghan plan more than a year ago that saw the US scrap any timetables for a US pullout and re-commit thousands more troops to Afghanistan, most of them dedicated to training and advising local forces.

The Moscow meeting was initially scheduled for September but was postponed after Kabul insisted the process should be Afghan-led.

The meeting came at a sensitive time.

Newly appointed US peace envoy Khalilzad has been trying to convince the Taliban to agree to negotiate an end to the war and there are fears the Russian meeting could derail those efforts.

A US government watchdog last week said Kabul´s control of Afghanistan had slipped in recent months as local security forces suffered heavy casualties while making minimal or no progress against the Taliban.