Afghanistan ‘will not attend’ Russia-led peace talks

Afghanistan will not attend multinational peace talks hosted by Russia early next month, the Afghan foreign ministry has said, a decision that could make Moscow reconsider its plan to invite the Taliban.

“The peace process definitely needs to be carried out under the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We will not participate in the Moscow talks,” said Sibghat Ahmadi, the deputy spokesman of Afghanistan’s foreign ministry, Afghan news website TOLOnews reported on Wednesday.

Separately, an Afghan official working with the foreign ministry in Kabul told Reuters news agency that the government had “decided against attending the Moscow conference”, adding that they will “hold direct talks” with the Taliban, without the direct involvement of foreign powers.

The comments came a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying that the Taliban plans to take part in the September 4 talks in Russia’s capital, Moscow.

The Taliban has confirmed to Al Jazeera that they will attend the talks.

Russia has invited 12 countries, including the United States, to the talks, but Washington has declined the invitation. Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday it regretted the US decision.

It is unclear whether the Afghan officials’ statements on Wednesday will affect Russia’s decision to invite the Taliban.

Truce rejected

The Taliban this week rejected a government offer of a three-month ceasefire and said they would press on with their war, two commanders of the group told Reuters news agency, after a series of attacks, including a prolonged assault on a key city of Ghazni, in which hundreds of people have been killed.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayyum Kochai, said earlier this week that “Russia wants to use the Taliban against [ISIL],” according to comments carried by the Russia-focused Interfax news agency.

Lavrov brushed aside such speculation, saying it would be “hypocritical” for “Russia to use the Taliban movement for the fight against [ISIL]”.

This year, Moscow rejected an accusation by NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan that it had been supporting and even supplying weapons to the Taliban. The group is fighting to remove US and other foreign forces and defeat Afghanistan’s Western-backed government.

Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, meanwhile told Alexander Mantytski, Russia’s ambassador, that Kabul appreciated Moscow’s support for the peace process and called upon it “to put pressure on the Taliban to begin negotiations with the Afghan government”, the Afghan official’s office said earlier on Wednesday.

Mantytski said Moscow was ready to help Afghanistan make “the peace process a success”, Atmar’s office said but did not clarify how it could achieve that.

Image to improve

A Western diplomat in Kabul said Russia was seeking to increase its influence and improve its image in Afghanistan by inviting Taliban leaders for talks.

It comes nearly 40 years since Moscow sent its troops into Afghanistan, beginning a bloody decade-long occupation and factional conflict which is still going on.

According to a senior diplomat in Kabul, Moscow in recent months has stepped up direct contacts with the Taliban, which is formally banned in Russia.

Back-channel diplomacy between the Taliban and a range of countries – including the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – has taken place over the years to end the latest phase of Afghanistan’s decades of war, which began with a US invasion in 2001.

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