MOSCOW (Reuters) – Members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a body overseeing peace efforts, met Taliban officials at a conference in Moscow on Friday and repeated President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace talks without pre-conditions.
For the first time, the meeting of regional officials on ways to end the war included a Taliban delegation, as moves toward achieving a political settlement pick up.
“We discussed the subject of direct talks with the Taliban and asked them to choose the place and the starting time,” said Ehsan Tahiri, High Peace Council spokesman, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.
The meeting, which underlines Russia’s desire to be involved in any settlement in Afghanistan, took place as U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad prepared for a fresh round of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that “we reaffirm our position on the lack of alternative to a political settlement in Afghanistan and the need for active coordinated efforts by Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and regional partners”.
Western officials and Ghani’s government view the Moscow meeting with some suspicion, seeing it as an attempt by Russia to push its way into a process that they say must be led by Afghanistan.
As well as the five-member Taliban delegation, Russia brought to the meeting several senior Afghan political figures, including some who have clashed with Ghani in the past. Ghani’s government sent only a delegation from the High Peace Council, a group set up to coordinate reconciliation efforts.
The Taliban issued a statement this week saying the conference was “not about negotiating with any particular side”.
It said the meeting was “about holding comprehensive discussions on finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan quandary and ending the American occupation”.
Ghani offered in February to talk to the Taliban without pre-conditions but the insurgents, who regard his government as a foreign-controlled regime, have refused, saying they will deal only with the United States.
Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Hugh Lawson