Russia convened Taliban officials, Afghan government envoys and representatives from seven nations for talks aimed at catalyzing an end to a 17-year war and burnishing Moscow’s credentials as a regional power broker.
The meeting Friday appeared to yield no significant breakthroughs, although participants agreed to gather again at an undetermined date. However, the participation of the Taliban marked the Islamist movement’s first official visit to the Russian capital and its highest-profile diplomatic foray in years, as it seeks to translate its gains made on the battlefield in the past 18 months into political leverage.
“We’re attending the conference to prove we’re willing to agree on a peaceful solution of the Afghan issue and to participate in any meeting which is for that purpose,” a Taliban delegate said ahead of the talks.
The Taliban’s attendance is a triumph for Russia’s re-engagement in a country the Soviet Union departed ignominiously in 1989 after a nine-year occupation that left 15,000 Soviet soldiers and between 600,000 and 1.5 million Afghans dead. The political costs of the war, both at home and abroad, fueled the dissolution of the Soviet Union nearly three years later.
“Moscow is trying to show it is one of the main players in Afghanistan,” said Arkady Dubnov, a Russian expert on the region. “Russia is competing with America in many global arenas and crisis zones.”
Russia has pushed into Afghanistan as it has grown increasingly concerned about the U.S.’s efforts there and what it says is the threat of a persistent pocket of Islamic State militants to Central Asia, a region it considers within its sphere of influence.
Russia has sought deeper ties with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. Moscow has posted more diplomats to northern Afghanistan, increased their contacts with members of the Afghan parliament, and opened consulates in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan.
According to Afghan security officials, it has also supplied small arms to the Taliban and expanded political contacts with the insurgent group.
“I think what they [Russia] are trying to do is they are pursuing a strategy which is to compete with us by trying to exert their influence wherever they can, whether it is in Afghanistan or Syria or anywhere else,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told government-funded radio network Voice of America last month.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov opened the meeting Friday with a short speech from a seat in between delegations from the Taliban and the High Peace Council, which is responsible for facilitating talks with the Taliban on behalf of Afghanistan’s government. Officials from countries in the region, including China, Iran and Pakistan, took part, according to a list of participants provided by the Russian Foreign Ministry. The U.S. and India sent observers.
However, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Thursday the group’s five-person delegation wouldn’t hold any negotiations with the Kabul delegation or any other conference participants, signaling that the path to substantive talks to end the war is unlikely to pass through Moscow.
The Taliban’s delegation is made up of members of its political commission based in the Qatari capital Doha and led by the commission’s head, Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai.
None of the so-called Taliban Five, senior fighters who were freed in 2014 from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for the U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Berghdahl, traveled to Moscow. The five joined the commission in October in a move seen as boosting the credibility and negotiating authority of the commission.
The talks have been postponed at least twice since Russia announced them in August, amid intense diplomatic jockeying on the part of the three major players in the Afghan war.
While the Taliban quickly accepted Moscow’s invitation to attend, the U.S. announced it wouldn’t go, saying the initiative was unlikely to yield progress toward an Afghan-owned and -led peace settlement. The Afghan government said it wouldn’t participate either, insisting the Taliban should first agree to direct talks with Kabul.
Later, when it appeared Moscow and Kabul had agreed to jointly host the meeting, the Taliban balked. In the end, the Russian government tilted in favor of hosting the Taliban in Moscow rather than acceding to the demands of the Afghan government to co-host the conference.
The State Department said Thursday that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, was departing on another round of talks with officials in the region, his second in as many months. He will travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in a trip that will stretch nearly two weeks.
What, if any, future role Russia has in the embryonic Afghan peace process isn’t certain. But Alexey Malashenko, chief researcher at the Moscow office of the Dialogue of Civilizations, said that for Russia, Friday’s conference qualified as a significant accomplishment.
“The Taliban came,” Mr. Malashenko said. “This is Russia’s success.”