As Russia plans Afghan peace talks, Kabul questions Taliban’s murky motives

KABUL —Just over a week ago, Afghan and U.S. officials hoped that after 17 years of war, the Taliban was starting down a road to peace. Despite a deadly four-day attack on the city of Ghazni, President Ashraf Ghani had offered the insurgents a second cease-fire since June, and Taliban leaders had hinted that they wanted to continue private talks held with U.S. officials in July.

Now, that optimism has all but collapsed. With the Taliban ignoring Ghani’s truce offer and accepting an invitation for talks in Moscow instead, analysts said the momentum for direct negotiations has been derailed by international politics. And the intentions of insurgent leaders — who spout constant propaganda but remain invisible to the public — seem more inscrutable than ever.

“This could be a political ploy by the Taliban to exploit Washington’s poor relations with Russia and pressure it to agree to more generous terms, or they may merely want to see what the Russians have to offer,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on Afghanistan at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Kugelman and others said they thought the Taliban’s fierce assault early this month on Ghazni, which left more than 320 dead on both sides and parts of the provincial capital in ruins, was part of a two-pronged military and diplomatic strategy in which the insurgents calculate that their persistent success in battle can gain them negotiating leverage on issues such as their desire to implement full Islamic law in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban are getting very clever at maneuvering,” Kugelman said. Because the insurgents are convinced they can win on the battlefield, he said, “they have the luxury of shopping around for the best negotiating situation.” Otherwise, they can “happily return to the battlefield and continue the fight.”

Moscow included U.S. and Afghan representatives on its list of invitees for a conference on Afghanistan early next month, but the event was viewed in both Kabul and Washington as a direct slap at their efforts to engage the Taliban in direct talks. Both governments quickly declined to send representatives.

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan cannot attend such a meeting when the Taliban do not have a commitment for peace negotiations,” Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Nasir Andisha said in a statement Friday. He said the Afghan insurgents have “disrespected internationally sanctioned principles and rejected the message of peace and direct negotiations” with Kabul.

On Friday, however, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Afghan government signaled it would take part in the Moscow meeting if the Taliban agreed to hold direct talks with Afghan representatives on the sidelines. There was no immediate confirmation of this from Kabul.

The State Department announced that the Trump administration would not participate in the meeting, to which China, Pakistan, Iran and India were also invited, saying that such a broad gathering would “not advance the cause of peace.”

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said Thursday in a brief telephone interview that a Taliban delegation would attend the Moscow meeting and discuss the group’s position. “We do not know why Kabul and America are not taking part,” he said.

On its face, there might seem to be no harm in Moscow’s move to host a conference on Afghanistan. A major actor and powerful influence in the region, Russia has done so before, although little tangible progress resulted. Russia also has repeatedly expressed concerns about terrorism and violence spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Russia itself, especially from the regional affiliates of the Islamic State militants.

“The U.S. has tried to bring Afghanistan to peace on its own, and it didn’t work either,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Thursday in Moscow. “Therefore the international community now has to take care of this matter collectively, because the U.S. actions [are not] improving stability in the region in this situation.”

Russian officials also expressed disappointment that the Taliban did not accept Ghani’s offer of a second truce after a successful three-day cease-fire in June that brought Taliban fighters into peaceful contact with Afghan civilians and security forces. The insurgents did offer to release several hundred prisoners but never responded directly to Ghani’s proposal of a three-month truce.

U.S. and Afghan officials have accused Russia of providing support to the Taliban as a counterweight to the Islamic State, and Afghan officials have voiced concern that the Moscow conference would serve to further cement the Kremlin’s ties with the Taliban rather than prodding the insurgents to settle the Afghan conflict. Russian officials have denied having such motives or role in abetting the Taliban.

For the Taliban, it might seem reasonable to engage with a variety of regional governments in an effort to resolve the Afghan conflict, since numerous efforts to begin domestic peace negotiations have failed in recent years. But the current involvement of the successor to the Soviet Union, which fought a bloody war against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan in the 1980s, seems suspicious and intrusive to many Afghans.

“For the Taliban to be zipping around the planet is not conducive to a settlement,” one Western diplomat in Kabul said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “It can give them global stature, but it is also a distraction from the central effort. They are doing it for show, and the right people are not at the table.”

Moreover, recent public statements by U.S. officials and private meetings between Taliban representatives and U.S. diplomats seemed to signal a breakthrough in a long-standing impasse to peace talks. The Taliban has always insisted that it wants to negotiate with the United States, while Washington has maintained that only Afghans can be involved. Lately, though, U.S. officials have indicated they would be willing to participate in such talks.

But the Taliban appears to be caught between two competing concerns, analysts said. The June cease-fire made clear a nationwide yearning for peace and exposed insurgent fighters to fellow Muslim civilians who begged them to end the war. That apparently disturbed hard-line Taliban leaders and commanders, who reportedly worry that their troops could lose the will to fight.

“If the Taliban were to accept Ghani’s new cease-fire, they would never let their fighters enter the cities this time,” said one foreign analyst. “All that mingling undercut a lot of their propaganda.”


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