Russia hosts Afghan peace conference, hoping to boost talks

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia hosted a peace conference for Afghanistan on Thursday, bringing together government representatives and their Taliban adversaries along with international observers in a bid to help jump-start the country’s stalled peace process.

The one-day gathering is the first of three planned international conferences ahead of a May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country, a date fixed under a year-old agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban.

Moscow’s attempt at mediation comes as talks in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban, still waging an insurgency, have stalled. Washington and Kabul have been pressing for a cease-fire while the Taliban say they will negotiate it as part of peace talks with the Afghan government.

“We hope that today’s talks will help achieve progress in the inter-Afghan talks,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the start of the meeting.

The Moscow conference is attended by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Representatives of Pakistan, Iran, India and China are also participating.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan that ended with Soviet troops’ withdrawal in 1989, has made a diplomatic comeback as a mediator in Afghanistan, reaching out to feuding factions as it jockeys with the U.S. for influence in the country. In 2019, it hosted talks between various Afghan factions.

Lavrov on Thursday urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to take a constructive stance and make compromises, adding that international participants should help create the necessary conditions for reaching a deal.

“The Afghan parties interested in the national reconciliation can reach peace only through negotiations and compromises,” Lavrov said. “It’s important to sign an agreement that would serve the interests of all key ethnic and political forces of the country and determine the vector of its development.”

He emphasized that it was important to quickly reach a peace deal “amid the deteriorating military-political situation” before the summer, when an upsurge in fighting is likely.

The U.S. has waged a war in Afghanistan for 20 years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks masterminded by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, making it America’s longest conflict. But despite the U.S. spending nearly $1 trillion, al-Qaida is still present in Afghanistan, and an affiliate of the Islamic State group has taken root in the east of the country.

Many Afghans fear the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops could lead to an upsurge in fighting between the country’s rival factions.

The Taliban now want more prisoners released from Afghan prisons and their leaders removed from the U.N.’s so-called black list.

The Taliban, who during their rule imposed a harsh brand of Islam on Afghanistan, now control about half of the country, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that it could make quick gains without U.S. and NATO troops.

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Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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