Russia hopes for progress as US joins Afghan peace talks

MOSCOW (Reuters): Russia said it hoped international talks in Moscow on Thursday would breathe new life into the Afghan peace process, after a high-level US official joined the Russian-hosted talks for the first time.

The talks, which also include representatives of Pakistan and China, are designed to give a boost to negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha, stalled lately by government accusations that the insurgents have done too little to halt violence. “We regret that so far the efforts to launch a political process in Doha have yet to yield a positive result,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in his opening remarks at the talks. “We hope today’s talks will facilitate the creation of conditions to achieve progress in intra-Afghan negotiations.”

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s presence was a sign of Washington’s increasing effort to attract support among regional powers for its plans for Afghanistan, where it has agreed to withdraw its forces after nearly 20 years. Khalilzad has been trying to drum up backing for a proposal that includes an interim government and ceasefire, as President Joe Biden reviews plans ahead of a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops agreed under his predecessor Donald Trump.

There was no immediate indication whether the US participation at the talks would be affected by a separate announcement from Moscow that it was withdrawing its ambassador from Washington for consultations, following an interview in which Biden criticised President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, which fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has hosted talks among Afghan sides and regional powers since 2017. Previously, Washington had largely kept its distance from the so-called “Moscow Format”.

Arkady Dubnov, a Russian political analyst, said Khalilzad’s participation would bolster Moscow’s role, and “should, according to the Russian leadership, highlight that a settlement is impossible without Russia”. Nevertheless, an immediate breakthrough is unlikely, given the distance between the Afghan sides, said Andrew Watkins, Senior Analyst for Afghanistan at International Crisis Group. President Ashraf Ghani objects to an interim government and the Taliban have said they will not join one.

“The Taliban and the Afghan government, in particular President Ghani and his senior officials, have just as much reason to resist,” Watkins said. The Moscow gathering will be followed by a meeting of regional players in Turkey next month and a summit that Khalilzad has asked the United Nations to organise.