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Taliban talks shift to Moscow with possible U.S.-brokered deal on table

Lead Taliban negotiator Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai speaks at a conference arranged by the Afghan diaspora in Moscow on Tuesday. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Members of the Taliban and key Afghan power brokers, including former president Hamid Karzai, discussed their vision for the future of Afghanistan on Tuesday, meeting in Moscow for talks aimed at ending the war.

The meeting shifted the fragile peace process from the United States, whose special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad declared a potential breakthrough with the Taliban just days ago. Moscow seeks to reassert its influence in the region and probably would want a role in shaping any possible peace plan.

But the talks, being held over two days in a hotel maintained by the Russian government, included no representatives of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, inviting fierce criticism from the U.S.-backed Afghan leader. 

“A peace deal with the Taliban will not be implemented unless there is a nationwide consensus,” Ghani said, adding that any agreements made without the Afghan government were meaningless. “Let hundreds of such meetings be held.” 

Afghan government frozen out of Moscow peace talks with the Taliban

 This did not stop some prominent Afghan politicians, such as Mohammad Mohaqiq, deputy to the government’s chief executive, from attending the intra-Afghan talks, but they did so in an independent capacity.

“The process here in Russia will further strengthen the negotiation of Khalilzad, and it’s much more effective and fruitful to have it in this region,” said former Balkh province governor Atta Mohammad Noor, who is challenging Ghani in elections planned for July.

The large and somewhat chaotic gathering in the Russian capital was the most noteworthy contact between Afghan officials and the Taliban in several years. It marked another triumph for a Kremlin eager to boost its sway in Afghanistan 30 years after pulling out its troops in disgrace. President Trump’s recent push to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, long a key requirement by the Taliban before joining peace talks, may have accelerated the process.

Unlike Moscow’s landmark peace talks with the Taliban in November, no members of the Russian government — or any other government — were at Tuesday’s meeting, although the Afghan organizers live in Moscow and have ties to Russian authorities. 

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Karzai, wearing his trademark silk cape and lambskin hat, presided over the 42-member roundtable, where members of the Taliban occupied 10 seats and women, notably, just two.

With unbridled confidence on show by the Taliban — including the conducting of prayers for those assembled — its chief negotiator, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, detailed how he saw the country’s future once the 18-year war comes to an end.

Underscoring the longtime conflict, the Taliban attacked an army base in the northern city of Kunduz as the Moscow talks were underway, killing 26, mostly soldiers and policemen.

Stanekzai departed from previously vague messages about the Taliban’s stance on women. Treatment of women under the group’s reign, when they were denied the most basic of rights, drew worldwide scorn. 

Stanekzai said women should be given the rights granted under Islam — access to work, education, property rights and the ability to choose one’s own husband. He blamed Western television shows and women’s rights activists for the challenges Afghan women face. The insecurity and poverty plaguing the nation, making Afghanistan one of the worst places on earth to be a woman, were not mentioned. 

“The Islamic Emirate is committed to eliminating all those evil customs and traditions that violate women’s rights and do not comply with Islamic principles,” he said, using the name the Taliban calls itself. 

Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan parliament and one of the two women to participate, said she received a cool reception from the Taliban when she pressed them on women’s rights during closed-door meetings in Moscow. 

“We clearly told them we need assurances on the future of Afghan women. We told them how far we have come and that we will not go back, we will not reverse,” Koofi said. “They were quiet. Let’s see what comes. This is just the beginning — it’s a warm-up.” 

The Taliban also wants to scrap Afghanistan’s constitution, which Stanekzai described as having been “copied from the West and imposed on Afghanistan’s Muslim society under the shadow of occupation.” Instead a new one should be drawn up, adhering to “Muslim principles” and a sense of national achievements, he said. 

The meeting is likely to further squeeze Ghani’s political power base at home, where he is eyeing reelection in elections scheduled for July. Sitting near Karzai at the talks were Noor and former Afghan vice president Yunus Qanuni, who is also running in the election. 

Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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