Russia invites Taliban, Afghan officials to Moscow meet

KABUL (AFP): Afghan politicians are set to attend a two-day meeting with the Taliban in Moscow this week, officials confirmed on Monday, as fighting continues to rage in Afghanistan amid troubled peace talks.

The meeting, set to run the 28th and 29th of May, will mark the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said a 14-member delegation was heading to Moscow, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s top political leader.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s chief negotiator and former deputy minister of foreign affairs, will also attend, Mujahid said in a statement.

From the Afghan political establishment, former president Hamid Karzai is set to make an appearance, with his spokesperson Yousof Saha suggesting the Afghan and Taliban delegations might meet on the sidelines for informal talks, but he noted nothing was guaranteed.

And a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s high peace council — tasked with helping facilitate peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban — will attend, said Karim Khalili, who heads the body.

The potential talks would mark the second time leaders from the militant movement have met with opposition leaders in Russia, following a rare summit in February that saw the former foes praying together and chatting over meals.

However, no representatives from President Ashraf Ghani’s administration were at those informal talks, spurring fears he was being further sidelined in the ongoing peace process.

The latest meeting in Moscow comes weeks after a sixth round of talks between the US and Taliban wrapped in Doha with no tangible progress cited by the negotiating teams.

The Taliban have said peace negotiations were stumbling over the fundamental question of when foreign forces would depart Afghanistan.

The US however has refused to agree to a withdrawal as part of an eventual deal until the Taliban put in place security guarantees, a ceasefire, and other commitments including an “intra-Afghan” dialogue with the Kabul government and other Afghan representatives.

The Taliban have a political wing in Qatar and in recent weeks have met with Roland Kobia, the EU’s special envoy for Afghanistan, as well as German special envoy Markus Potzel.

Moscow appears to be gaining influence in the ongoing process, with the US announcing last month that Washington had reached a consensus with China and Russia on the key formula for a peace deal it is negotiating in Afghanistan.