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February 3, 2019

Taliban to meet Afghan politicians, not Ghani in Moscow

Top Story

February 3, 2019

KABUL: The Taliban are expected to meet with the Afghan opposition leaders in Moscow in the coming days, a development that could further undermine the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has found itself excluded from the talks seeking an end to the 17-year war.

Even as the insurgents say they are close to a deal on the core issues with the American diplomats, they have refused to meet with the Afghan government. President Ghani has repeatedly expressed concern that if the Americans rush to make a deal with the Taliban before the insurgents agree to negotiate with his officials, it could undermine a fragile Afghan state built at a tremendous cost, reported international media.

For the Taliban to go around Ghani to meet with some of the country’s major political leaders, many of whom are at odds with him, would surely further anger the Afghan president. “At this moment, we do not see the need for such a meeting,” said Sebghat Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry. “We know it will not help Afghanistan toward reaching peace at all, so it’s little more than a political drama.” The officials and members of the Afghan political parties said invitations to talks in Moscow, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, have been sent to the representatives of a broad cross-section of the country’s political elite, including all the major parties. It was not immediately clear who is organising the event or who would attend. Some who received invitations said an Afghan diaspora group in Moscow was organising the talks. But the venue — the President Hotel, which is owned by the Kremlin — and the number of visas that would be required suggested that, at the very least, the organisers are working closely with the Russian government.

In response to a question about who was organising the event, a senior Taliban official said it was the Russian Federation. In public, at least, Russia has sought to distance itself from the talks. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, did not mention them while discussing Afghan developments during a weekly briefing. Tass, the Russian state-run news agency, quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying that the talks were unrelated to formal negotiations that the Russian government previously hosted, including a November conference in Moscow hosted by Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov that Taliban representatives also attended.

A senior Afghan official said Zamir Kabulov, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, is behind the initiative. In several discussions about the possibility of such a meeting, the Afghan government made it clear that it would participate in direct talks only with the Taliban, not a situation in which the government is one of several parties at the table, according to the official. Mr Ahmadi, the Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Russia had formally acknowledged that talks to end the war must be Afghan-led if they were to deliver a lasting peace. “We hope Russia will follow through with that promise,” he said. Among the many Afghan politicians going to Moscow are Hamid Karzai, the former president, and Atta Mohammad Noor, a former governor and one of the leaders of Jamiat-e-Islami, a major political party, their offices confirmed. Mohammad Mohaqiq, the leader of Wahdat, another major party, is considering attending, his office said.

The Taliban will send representatives from their political office in Doha, Qatar, which has been leading the negotiations with American diplomats, said a spokesman for the office, Suhail Shaheen. When Karzai was in power, similar efforts by the United States to start talks with the Taliban — which he, like Mr Ghani, saw as legitimising the insurgency and cutting him out of the early steps toward a deal — so angered him that he briefly called off talks with the Americans over a strategic security agreement. He lashed out at Afghan political leaders who went to France to meet with the Taliban, in talks that were much less direct than the Moscow talks are likely to be.

Officials close to Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term in an election scheduled for July, say the opposition leaders have seen their ability to dispense political patronage reduced by reforms introduced by the Afghan president. They accuse the opposition leaders of rallying to a rushed peace process because they want a share of power in any interim government formed with the Taliban, even if that means jeopardising the progress the country has made since the insurgents were driven from power in 2001. Recent remarks by the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, have contributed to such concerns. In a videotaped interview that has circulated in Afghanistan, Mr Stanekzai said the Taliban did not recognise the government and expected the Afghan Army to be disbanded after a peace deal, stirring memories in Kabul of the anarchy that followed the Soviet Union’s withdrawal. “This force, this army — this was made by the Americans,” Stanekzai said. “When the Americans leave, they will naturally finish.” Stanekzai’s remarks may have amounted to a negotiating stance, and he said the Taliban did not seek a political “monopoly” in Afghanistan. But to some, his rhetoric — “We will involve the nation, we will give the nation shares,” he said at one point — suggested that the insurgents saw themselves as the dominant force in a future government.

The opposition leaders, for their part, say Ghani, has alienated much of the country’s political elite, including some of those who helped bring him to power. They say that he could squander a rare opening for peace, and that his resistance stems from a fear that if talks progress, he could lose his chance for five more years of power. Fariba Ahmadi Kakar, a member of the Afghan Parliament from Kandahar Province in the south, said that while any dialogue on ending the war was welcome, the government’s absence from the talks in Doha, and now in Moscow, would complicate the situation. “The absence of the government in all these important talks hurts us — even if this government has made mistakes, this is our government, this is our leadership,” Ms. Kakar said. “The absence of the government in meetings where the conversation is about the future of Afghanistan could lead to the Taliban taking advantage at the cost of the system here.” But Ms. Kakar said she was equally concerned about the divisions among the Afghan political elite. “I hope we don’t reach a day where the Taliban are ready for peace, but our leaders on this side can’t make peace with each other,” she said.

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