Taliban and Afghan groups find common ground in landmark talks

Insurgents attend Moscow peace summit, but Afghan president is excluded

The Taliban and top Afghan powerbrokers have ended two days of landmark talks in Moscow with a broad but vague statement of shared principles, whose content was perhaps less important than the fact of the meeting itself.

As the departure of US troops draws nearer, the insurgents have refused to meet the Afghan government, which they denounce as a puppet regime.

But in Moscow they talked, ate and prayed with the powerful men who have fought against them on the battlefield, served in past governments and aspire to rule in Kabul again.

The delegation from Kabul included a former president, Hamid Karzai, an aspiring one, Hanif Atmar, and only two women. It was the closest the Taliban had come to acknowledging that swathes of the population opposed to their rule will also need representatives at the table for any peace talks. Karzai said a nine-point agreement that was adopted late on Wednesday at Moscow’s President hotel included calls for “peace, stability and an Afghanistan free of foreign forces”.

The Taliban’s lead negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, in a statement to the press, described the meeting as “very successful – we managed to agree on a lot of points”.

Participants attend the opening of the two-day Afghan peace talks in Moscow.
Delegates at the talks in Moscow. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The Afghan government did not attend the talks and Wednesday’s vague agreement glossed over most thorny details, including any possible timetable for a western withdrawal from the country.

In remarks to journalists, Stanikzai denied previous statements byTaliban negotiators that the US had agreed to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, saying that no deadline had been agreed and talks were continuing.

He had also told the BBC on Tuesday that the Taliban had no plans to seize the whole of Afghanistan by military force, and saying a push for total military domination “will not bring peace to Afghanistan”.

The Moscow meeting came as Donald Trump signalled an increased determination to end the US military presence there after more than 17 years. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

He has appointed a senior envoy to push for a negotiated end to the war, and US and Taliban negotiators spent six days last month hammering out a framework draft of a peace deal in Qatar.

In Moscow some of the pro-government delegates warned that the US should not leave too fast. “We know that President Trump is in a hurry about this peace process,” said Atta Muhammad Noor, one of the most influential men in northern Afghanistan.

“Anything which is done in a hurry can lead to some damage. We have to be very careful,” he said, calling for any withdrawal to take place only after Afghanistan’s security had been guaranteed.

The latest rounds of talks have left the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, uncomfortably isolated.

But seated around the table in Moscow were some of Afghanistan’s most wealthy and influential men, warlords and others who wielded power in civilian governments. Several had formed part of Ghani’s government until recently.

Ghani denounced his exclusion in an angry interview on Afghanistan’s Tolo TV channel. “At the end of any peace deal, the decision-maker will be the government of Afghanistan,” he said. “Rest assured that no one can push us aside.”

Karzai, who led the delegation, shrugged off charges of hypocrisy; during his terms as president he denounced any efforts to talk to the Taliban that excluded his own government.

The talks saw hundreds of Afghan representatives, veterans of wars for and against both the US and the Soviets, and rounds of civil war, descend on the marble lobby of Moscow’s President hotel. The negotiations took place in a grand conference room flanked by souvenir shops, with occasional breaks for prayer.

Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, a former finance minister, said in an interview that the conference’s location showed that Russia was once again becoming “relevant” in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai (left) with Stanikzai.
Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai (left) with Stanikzai. Photograph: TASS/Barcroft Images

“In the past few years, Russia has reasserted its role” in Afghanistan, said Ahady. “It has relations with the Taliban and some of the leading personalities of Afghanistan. I think it’s a sign of the re-emergence of Russia in Afghan politics.”

The Moscow talks are officially being organised by members of the Afghan diaspora. But there is little question of official support, not least because the Taliban delegation given visas to travel are all still on a terror watchlist. The meeting was also held at a Kremlin-owned hotel.

Women’s rights have played a prominent role in the talks, with concerns that an empowered Taliban could seek to roll back new civil rights if they gain great power. The two women delegates called for women’s rights to be at the heart of any settlement, and protected by the international community.

The Taliban at the talks have disavowed responsibility for some of the most heinous acts of violence against women in areas controlled by the group, and have said they will grant all women their rights under Islamic law.

But Fawzia Koofi, a politician and women’s rights activist, said Afghan women wanted a mechanism to enforce any promises. “How do you ensure that all these nice statements are not just made to convince the US and international community to leave and then life goes back to how it was under the Taliban?” she asked.

“We have to be very careful with these nice statements. If there’s no guarantor, how can we ensure that things won’t return to how they were under the Taliban?”


Emma Graham-Harrison and Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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