KABUL — Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s political rivals plan to discuss the future of Afghanistan in Moscow on Tuesday, a move viewed here as a further blow to the authority of Ghani’s administration.
The two-day meeting will bring key Afghan power brokers together with the insurgents to discuss ending the war that began with the ouster of the Taliban from power in late 2001, and it follows up on an earlier such meeting in Moscow in November. Ghani’s government was invited to participate but declined to do so this time because the meeting did not provide for direct talks with the Taliban, and the attendance of Ghani’s rivals would put them on an equal footing with the government, officials said.
The Moscow talks follow negotiations between Taliban members and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad amid a renewed push by President Trump to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Officials in Ghani’s government were excluded from those meetings because of the Taliban’s objection to direct talks with an administration it regards as a U.S. puppet. According to two Afghan daily newspapers, Kabul’s absence from the Moscow gathering further “isolates Ghani” and “sabotages the authority of the government.”
Among nearly 40 Afghans invited to the meeting are former president Hamid Karzai; Hanif Atmar, Ghani’s national security adviser until late last summer and his key rival in July’s presidential election; and factional leaders such as Ismail Khan, Mohammed Mohaqeq and Atta Mohammad Noor.
The Afghan government has described the meeting as “not in the interest of Afghanistan and the efforts for peace process,” and it accused Moscow of not fulfilling its past pledge to facilitate direct talks between its officials and Taliban members.
The Russian Embassy in Kabul said the gathering was an intra-Afghan dialogue to discuss ways to end the war. The meeting, to be held at a Moscow hotel, was organized by Afghan refugees living in Russia, it said.
Like the Taliban, Moscow has been insisting on a pullout of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarked on a tour of Central Asian countries this week, coinciding with the Moscow talks. Beginning Sunday, Lavrov will visit the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, meeting the leaders of each country and navigating the security landscape in light of Trump’s stated intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Moscow is considering establishing a second military base in Kyrgyzstan and wishes to bolster security along the southern flanks of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which share a border with Afghanistan.
Ahead of his journey, former president Karzai, who has forged closer ties with Moscow in recent years, said he will carry to the Taliban a message of peace, unity and sovereignty, and will emphasize that all Afghan men and women need to progress.
Atmar said in a statement that the Afghan nonstate actors will try to make future such meetings more inclusive and involve the government as well.
The Taliban’s longtime negotiator, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, who has taken part in all rounds of discussions in recent months between the insurgents and Khalilzad, among other U.S. diplomats, will lead the Taliban delegation in Moscow.
The U.S.-Taliban talks have revolved around a pullout of foreign troops in return for a guarantee from the insurgents that Afghan soil will not be used against U.S. interests by militant groups such as al-Qaeda and affiliates of the Islamic State.
Members of Ghani’s administration have spoken about their frustration and anger over behind-the-scenes discussions between the Taliban and Khalilzad.
Ghani wants the peace process to be led and owned by his government. His opponents say he has alienated much of the country’s political elite, including some of those who helped bring him to power. They argue that Ghani seeks to spoil this rare opening for peace and that his resistance derives from a fear that if talks progress, he could lose his chance for five more years in power.
Khalilzad has said that one of his main goals is to facilitate direct talks between Ghani and the Taliban. For now, the Taliban is hesitant to sit at the same table with Afghan government officials because the insurgents view such face-to-face talks as giving Ghani concessions ahead of the presidential election this summer.
Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.