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Moscow shows it’s back in the ‘Great Game’ by hosting Taliban-Afghan peace talks

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during Afghanistan peace settlement talks Friday in Moscow. (Sergei Chirikov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MOSCOW — Russia pledged Friday to use its diplomatic muscle to help spur peace efforts in Afghanistan after hosting Afghan envoys and their Taliban foes — a meeting that Moscow also used to showcase its drive to reassert influence in the region.

Sitting between Afghan representatives and their Taliban rivals, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played the roles of mediator and experienced hand in Afghanistan’s conflicts.

Russia hosted the landmark talks almost 30 years after it pulled out of Afghanistan in disgrace, ending a decade-long Soviet occupation that was seen as another chapter in what historians called the “great game” by world powers to hold away over Afghanistan and nearby areas.

The United States and other nations have repeatedly failed to stem the fighting that has racked the country almost continuously for four decades.

Troops in tanks, waving Soviet flags, rolled out of Afghanistan in 1989 as Moscow withdrew from its costly, decade-long war with mujahideen guerrillas. (Video: Getty Images)

“Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all of the ethnic groups that inhabit this country would live side by side peacefully and happily,” Lavrov said, seated between a five-man Taliban delegation and four members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the peace process.  

“Russia, as the organizer of this session, sees its role in working together with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table today to extend all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue,” he said.

Behind the scenes, Moscow rebuilds its influence in Afghanistan

There were no significant breakthroughs during the Moscow meeting, which was attended by representatives of 11 countries, including regional heavyweights China, Iran and Pakistan. But delegates widely acknowledged that the meeting itself was a feat.

As they gathered around a large circular table in a Moscow hotel, the atmosphere was jovial and almost festive. Hugs were exchanged with members of the Taliban. There was waving and winking at familiar faces.

Ahead of the talks, Taliban delegates gathered in the lobby to drink cups of green tea, while their Russian minders downed lattes.

Taliban delegates said they laid out the Islamist insurgent group’s demands for a peace process. They also reiterated their wish to speak to the U.S. government.

“Considering our main demand is the withdrawal of foreign troops, we will discuss peaceful settlement with the Americans,” said the Taliban’s top political envoy, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai. “We do not recognize the incumbent government as legitimate.” 

A representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended, but only as an observer. 

Bringing both sides of the Afghan conflict to Moscow is still a major success for Russia as the Kremlin seeks to reclaim its clout and influence on the world stage. 

Afghanistan also brings up some painful historical memories. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, beginning a disastrous decade-long war that ended with the Soviets’ humiliating withdrawal.

“Russia has the experience of war. If it gains the experience of peace, we welcome it,” said Habiba Sarabi, the deputy chair of the High Peace Council and the only woman — from any country — to take part in the talks.

Sarabi said she pushed the Taliban on the plight of Afghan women, who were denied basic rights during the Taliban’s reign, which drew worldwide scorn of the country and a loss of credibility. 

“I asked them, ‘When will you bring a woman to these talks?” Sarabi said. “They laughed and said, ‘Why don’t you represent us?’ ” 

In recent years, the Taliban has sought to redress its notorious shortcomings in the area of women’s rights, publicly stating that all girls and women should have access to education. But there are deep suspicions over the Taliban’s claims.

“We are ready to give women all the rights that exist in Islam,” said Muhammad Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman from the Taliban delegation. “This means education, work, property. We ask only one thing, that they observe wearing the veil.”

The talks come after years of back-channel diplomacy between Moscow and the Taliban. 

The Taliban has spoken to a range of countries in recent years, including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but often under the shroud of secrecy. 

Friday’s meeting in Moscow was the first of its kind to take place publicly. 

A previous attempt to host Afghan talks two months ago was thwarted — and the Kremlin’s invitation to the Taliban rescinded — when the Afghan government objected, saying it must lead the outreach. Washington also declined to attend, saying the talks were unlikely to yield any progress.

Kabul chose not to send diplomats to Friday’s talks, instead sending the High Peace Council. 

“The United States stands ready to work with all interested parties to support and facilitate a peace process,” State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said this week. 

Any peace plan also would need close coordination with the U.S. military.

Heavily strained ties between Washington and Moscow are influencing decisions on who should join the Afghan talks, according to a former senior U.S. official. “The U.S., of course, is naturally skeptical, but that’s only because the Russians are convening it,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss views on U.S. diplomacy. 

The Taliban delegation came from its political office in Doha, the Qatari capital. That office, established in 2011, is increasingly acting as a mediator.

In recent months, the U.S. special adviser on Afghan peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Taliban representatives in Qatar, where both sides agreed to continue dialogue. Khalilzad’s reported meeting — only the Taliban vouched it had taken place — came just months after senior State Department official Alice Wells went there. 

Last year, President Trump roughly doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to the current deployment of 14,000. 

Besides serving as a potential peace broker, Russia has considerable worries of its own about an unstable Afghanistan. 

Groups affiliated with the Islamic State have gained footholds in northern Afghanistan near countries with close Moscow ties, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Earlier this week, Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for a prison riot in Tajikistan’s north, where 27 people were killed. 

Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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