On Friday talks opened between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Moscow, in an unprecedented moment where both sides have come together for formal face-to-face talks hosted by the Russian government.
Following a press conference wherein Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged “I am counting on you holding a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hopes of the Afghan people,” the talks commenced behind closed doors.
This is Moscow’s first successful attempt to get all sides at the same table as a prior summit was deemed a failure when Afghan government authorities refused to attend. And while Kabul high officials are nowhere present for this week’s talks, members of the government-appointed Peace Council are attending the event. Notably, among the dozen nations to send envoys to the event is the United States; however, the US has merely sent a diplomat from the American Embassy in Moscow as an observer.
This comes at a sensitive time for the United States and NATO mission in Afghanistan as according to the New York Times starting in 2017 the Taliban regained control of more Afghan territory than at any time since the 2001 American invasion. While the Kabul government has control over 65% of the population it remains that only 55% of Afghanistan’s 407 districts remain under the government, with the rest largely under Taliban control or influence.
Speaking to reporters, FM Lavrov said further that Russia hopes “through joint efforts to open a new page in the history of Afghanistan.” He especially played up the threat of ISIS expansion into Afghanistan, saying that through foreign sponsors the terror group is trying to “turn Afghanistan into a springboard for its expansion in Central Asia”.
According to an AFP report citing Pakistan officials, a key power which many analysts blame for the Afghan Taliban’s resurgence, would “definitely” attend. Significantly India has sent an envoy to attend the talks at a “non-official level”.
The Moscow talks also come at a time when the US is itself holding controversial face-to-face dialogue with the Taliban, such as recent talks between the newly appointed US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Taliban representatives in Qatar.
The State Department confirmed this recent meeting in a statement saying, “On his last trip to the region in October, Special Representative Khalilzad called on the Afghan Government and the Taliban to organise authoritative negotiating teams, and has been encouraged to see that both parties are taking steps in that direction.”
The statement came as part of an announced plan for the US special to visit Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar from Nov. 8 to 20 to attempt to bring the Taliban to the table for formal peace negotiations. The statement continued, “The United States remains committed to a political settlement that results in an end to the war and to the terrorist threat posed to the United States and the world.”
The State Department announcement came a week after the newly-appointed American general in charge of US and NATO operations, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, told NBC News that the Afghan war cannot be won militarily and peace will only be achieved through direct engagement and negotiations with the Taliban. “This is not going to be won militarily,” Gen. Miller said. “This is going to a political solution.”
However, there’s no doubt the United States will only want to ensure this happens on Washington’s terms and not in the context of the ongoing Moscow-hosted talks.