Taliban to travel to Russia for Afghanistan peace talks after 17 years of war
Talks follow wave of violence but also series of overtures from Afghan government
The Afghan Taliban will travel to Moscow for peace talks next month in a high-profile embrace of public diplomacy that will be a landmark for the group and their Russian hosts after 17 years of war.
“The first reaction was positive, they are planning to take part in the meeting,” the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said, adding that he hoped for productive negotiations at the talks, which will bring together a dozen groups including regional heavyweights China, Iran and Pakistan, starting on September 4.
The Taliban did not officially comment on the reports from Moscow, but a senior member of the group confirmed to Associated Press that they would send a delegation “for the sake of finding peace in Afghanistan”.
The official said the group plans to send representatives to other countries in the region, including Pakistan and China, “to take them into confidence and address their concerns”.
The talks in Moscow would mark the Taliban’s first public participation in a regional forum since they were ousted from power in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks on America. They were invited to a previous round of talks in Russia last year but did not attend.
The talks will come after a wave of intense violence, but also in the wake of increased diplomatic outreach by the insurgent group and a series of peace overtures from the Afghan government.
A ceasefire in June, during the Eid holiday at the end of the month of Ramadan, showed huge public appetite for ending decades of war.
It also showed the Taliban had command and control over thousands of militants scattered across the country.
President Ashraf Ghani, who made the first offer to halt fighting then, called for another break in hostilities for the Eid al-Adha holiday this week.
The Taliban have not responded formally and the centre of Kabul was hit by rockets on Tuesday as Ghani made a speech on peace. However, The Wall Street Journal reported that they planned to mark an unofficial truce.
The announcement from Moscow comes after a flurry of other diplomatic activity.
In recent months the Taliban sent official delegations to Uzbekistan and Indonesia, and held talks with US diplomats in Qatar, where the militants’ political wing has an unofficial base.
Both sides may have more appetite to talk now than they did a few years ago, when US-led forces insisted they could crush the Taliban and the militants argued they had the patience and morale to fight foreign forces until they gave up.
In recent years the Taliban have made gains in rural areas around Afghanistan and have briefly seized several cities, but US air support and other military backing have ensured they cannot capture and hold urban centres.
And while US President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the cost and length of the conflict, American officials fear withdrawing support would allow militant extremists free rein again in the country where the September 11 attacks were planned.
The rise of the regional branch of Isis has only added to those concerns.
The militants have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they denounce as a puppet, and insist they will only attempt to broker peace directly with Washington. The meeting in Moscow could offer a rare public platform for the Afghan government and senior Taliban leaders to interact directly.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, supported the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, but recently American officials have accused Moscow of backing and arming the Taliban.
The Taliban are banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation. Moscow says it maintains contacts only because of security concerns.
It fears that radical groups could use Afghanistan as a base to target Russian interests or build up cells in neighbouring countries including Tajikistan, where last month four cyclists were killed in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
Additional reporting by The Washington Post