Moscow has invited delegates from 11 countries, including regional heavyweights China, Iran and Pakistan, which border Afghanistan, to attend the Sept. 4 talks in the Russian capital. If the Taliban does come, it would mark its first attendance at such an event.
The radical Islamist movement rejected an offer to attend a similar meeting in Moscow last year, as did Washington.
The United States indicated Tuesday that it would not attend. “We support Afghan-owned and -led initiatives to advance a peace settlement in Afghanistan,” said a State Department spokesman. “We believe this initiative is unlikely to yield any progress toward that end.”
Back-channel diplomacy between the Taliban and a range of countries — including the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — has taken place over several years, often under a shroud of secrecy, in an effort to end the crippling and costly 17-year war.
Taliban representatives said they held private talks last month with American diplomats, with no members of the Afghan government present, in the Qatari capital of Doha, where the group maintains a political office, the only one of its kind.
The Afghan leadership is not always consulted and included in talks, even though the Taliban and the government in Kabul held a maiden round of peace talks three years ago in Pakistan. Kabul’s ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayyum Kochai, told reporters Monday that he often learned of Moscow’s interactions with the Taliban through media reports.
A brief cease-fire in June between the Taliban and U.S.-supported Afghan armed forces injected a dose of rare optimism into the weary populace of Afghanistan, where a homegrown peace activist movement has strengthened in recent months.
Following that success, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday proposed a three-month, conditional truce, but the Taliban has since sent out conflicting signals in response. As Ghani delivered a speech Tuesday marking the beginning of the important Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, a sustained rocket attack shook Kabul. No casualties were reported, and the Taliban denied involvement.
A visit to Moscow by the Taliban for talks would be a major coup for Russia, coming as the country regains influence on the global stage. Nearly 40 years have passed since Moscow sent its own troops into Afghanistan, beginning a disastrous decade-long war that is seen as the precursor to the country’s endemic violence today.
Moscow has long maintained that instability in Afghanistan, which bordered the Soviet Union and is still seen by Russia as well within its sphere of influence, poses a threat at home.
Engaging with the Taliban is necessary “in order to ensure the security of Russian citizens and also to encourage Taliban members to forgo the armed struggle and join the nationwide dialogue with the government,” Lavrov told reporters.
To its north, Afghanistan is bordered by the Muslim-majority countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — former Soviet republics with which Russia maintains close ties. The Kremlin worries that violence could spill over into Central Asia from Afghanistan, especially with the emergence there of the Islamic State.
Those fears were realized last month when four cyclists, including two Americans, were killed in Tajikistan in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. It was the extremist group’s first deadly assault in Central Asia.