Russia organizes Afghan talks, marks growing role

Russia organized together with its Taliban rivals a group of Afghan envoys affiliated with the government on Friday, while the Kremlin tried to put an end to a 17-year conflict in which the Western efforts repeatedly failed.

"Russia stands for the preservation of one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all ethnic groups who inhabit this country live peacefully and happily side by side," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement in which the talks in Moscow were opened.

"I am counting on you to have a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hope of the Afghan people," Lavrov added, calling for "a new page in the history of Afghanistan".

Despite the lofty rhetoric, Russian officials were careful to keep expectations low prior to the event. Talks were billed as negotiations aimed at securing future peace talks – successfully defined as only getting the two parties to sit together.

Two earlier high-profile Russian attempts to organize talks were canceled at the last moment after the Afghan government refused to participate.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the second left, speaks as he attends a conference on Afghanistan, gathering representatives from the Afghan authorities and the Taliban in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2018.

Although this time was no different – officials in Kabul again rejected direct participation – a vision-saving solution to the solution came from the inclusion of envoys from the government-appointed High Council for Peace. The council does not represent the government but monitors peace efforts.

In real terms, however, the conversations yielded little but bitterness.

In a statement after the talks, the High-Peace Council representatives said that they had asked Taliban representatives "to determine a place and time for the start of these discussions in the near future." Those negotiations, the representatives added, could continue "without conditions".

But the Taliban officials demanded that foreign troops – especially the United States and NATO – leave Afghanistan before the negotiations with the government in Kabul could begin.

"Once the external dimension is resolved, we can solve the internal dimension, including questions about the constitution, human rights issues, women, drug problems and all internal problems," said an official in a statement after the talks.

The council, in turn, rejected the "preconditions" of the Taliban.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) poses for a photo with the participants in the conference on Afghanistan, in which representatives of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban meet in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2018.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) poses for a photo with the participants in the conference on Afghanistan, in which representatives of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban meet in Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2018.

Eleven countries were present for the talks, including regional powers, China, Pakistan and Iran. The US Embassy in Moscow confirmed that it had sent an observer to the meeting.

Washington has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the Russian initiative, some claiming to undermine US peace efforts under the leadership of special adviser Zalmay Khalilzad.

Meanwhile, the Russian effort was the latest sign of the Kremlin's growing role as a power broker – a role that Russian officials seemed to enjoy, as the US-led military operation of NATO in Afghanistan, 17 years and counts, has been struggling.

"It is unacceptable to try to turn Afghanistan into a competitive area for external players, because it causes bad consequences," Minister Lavrov said in a barely concealing reference to Afghanistan's reputation, which dates back centuries, as the "cemetery of rich people". . "

And yet Lavrov's criticism was also a warning story for Moscow.

In 1979 the then Soviet Union launched an occupation of Afghanistan, and became a decade long conflict that ended with the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The USSR was no longer within two years.

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