The war in Afghanistan was on the agenda this week in two world capitals.
In Washington, US President Donald Trump endorsed a political settlement to end the 17-year-old conflict in his State of the Union address. In Moscow, members of the Taliban sat at the table with some of Afghanistan’s most prominent politicians.
For now, the talk is all about peace talks.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said, highlighting his pledge to find a “new approach” to US military operations overseas. “I have also accelerated our negotiations to reach, if possible, a political settlement in Afghanistan. The opposing side is also very happy to be negotiating.”
That opposing side – representatives of the Taliban movement – were in Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday to take part in a conference that had tacit backing from the Russian government. The conference, which took place at a hotel owned by the Kremlin, brought together members of the Taliban’s Qatar-based negotiating office with some of Afghanistan’s main political players, including regional strongmen and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
No major breakthroughs were announced in Moscow, but just getting the players to sit at one table was a coup. It would be hard to overstate how striking it was to see northern power broker Atta Mohammad Noor, ethnic Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Panjshiri Tajik politician Yunus Qanuni, all longstanding opponents of the Taliban, sitting – and praying – at the same table with the Taliban delegates.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a more assertive foreign policy a centerpiece of his administration, and the Moscow conference advertised Russia’s diplomatic clout. But that doesn’t mean the meeting went down well with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“Moscow talks hold no weight,” he said in an interview with local Tolo TV. “A peace deal with the Taliban will not be implemented unless there is a nationwide consensus. Let hundreds of such meetings be held, but these would only be paper agreements unless there is an agreement by the Afghan government, Afghanistan’s national assembly and Afghanistan’s legal institutions.”
‘Insults and rants’
Representatives of Ghani’s administration were notably absent from the Moscow forum.
“We understand that the government in Kabul needs to be part of these negotiations, we wish that they would have been here today,” Karzai, the former President, said Tuesday. “But that is an issue that has to be resolved between the Islamic Movement of Taliban, whose representatives are here to speak about (that), and the Afghan government.”
Some were skeptical about the intentions of those attending the conference in Moscow.
Amrullah Saleh, a former Afghan interior minister and intelligence chief, was particularly scathing, calling the forum on Twitter a “marvelous embarrassment,” saying that participants “listened to insults and rants from the reps of terrorist Taliban and secured nothing in return.”
And much distance still needs to be closed between the Taliban, a hardline religious movement, and large segments of Afghan society that have seen significant gains in press freedom, economic growth and women’s rights in the years since the collapse of the Taliban regime.
The head of the Taliban delegation, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, said a solution to the conflict should include all Afghans, but added: “The sovereignty and establishment of an Islamic system conforming to our religious and Afghan values is our legal right, and our armed and political efforts are for this exact purpose.”
The next step, then, is to see what progress is made when talks resume between US special adviser to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban negotiators. In the interim, the US government appears keen to reassure the Afghan President that Afghanistan will not be abandoned.
In a statement Tuesday, State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken by phone with Ghani and underscored “the important gains made by the Afghan people since 2001 and US desire for a long-term partnership with Afghanistan.”