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2 day Afghanistan Peace Talks begins in Moscow

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    Posted: 05-Feb-2019 at 1:34pm

Thirty years after the last Soviet troops retreated from Afghanistan, Russia on Tuesday reasserted itself as a player in the region, hosting talks between the Taliban and senior Afghan politicians aimed at speeding another superpower exit, this time by the United States.

2 day Afghanistan Peace Talks begins in Moscow

The talks, held in Moscow's President Hotel, which is owned by the Kremlin, offered a more detailed window onto how the Taliban see an end to the 18-year war.

While the Afghan politicians, part of a delegation of about 40 led by the former president Hamid Karzai, spoke of protecting the hard gains of the past 18 years, the Taliban denounced a new Afghan constitution that lays out a system of governance built at enormous cost.

On one issue, however, the insurgent representatives offered rare clarity. While they barred women from public life during their time in office, they now said they respected women's rights, including to education and work.

The Moscow gathering, which included a Taliban delegation led by their chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, represented the most significant contact between senior Afghan politicians and the Taliban since the United States toppled the hard-line Islamist group from power at the end of 2001.

Absent from the talks, however, was the American-backed Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has strongly criticized the Moscow meeting as an affront designed to undermine the president's authority and the Afghan state.

Mr. Ghani is in an uncomfortable position, at odds not only with his American backers, whom he sees as moving too quickly to reach a deal, but also with others in the country's political elite who are rallying around the American-led effort.

"What are they agreeing to, with whom? Where is their implementing power?" Mr. Ghani told the Afghan channel ToloNews on Tuesday in dismissing the Moscow meeting. "They could hold a hundred such meetings, but until the Afghan government, the Afghan Parliament, the legal institutions of Afghanistan approve it, it is just agreements on paper."

The delegation headed by Mr. Karzai consisted entirely of former officials, representatives of political parties - many of them involved in the country's bloody civil war - and members of Parliament. There were only two women in the group.

Afghans on social media were critical of the delegation, questioning whether they represented Afghanistan.

"Those who are in the meeting in Moscow, they have been pushed aside," said Khaled Abedy, 31, who works at a private company in Kabul. "They just want to build their own business. The country isn't important to them. I think this sort of meeting can't help the peace process at all."

Atta Muhammad Nur, a powerful former governor forced from office last year by President Ghani, dismissed Mr. Ghani's concerns as sour grapes, complaining that "those who sit comfortably in their seats are worried that peace will disturb them."

Speaking on the sidelines of the Moscow event, he said that all foreign forces, including around 14,000 troops from the United States, must leave Afghanistan. But he cautioned that they should be withdrawn gradually, to avoid a repeat of the violent chaos that engulfed Afghanistan after the abrupt Soviet pullout in February 1989.

The talks, scheduled to last two days, opened just a week after American diplomats and Taliban representatives ended six days of negotiations in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, that both sides said had produced progress toward ending a generation of conflict that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and intensified after the United States intervened following the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.

Both sides said they had agreed, in principle, to a framework on two issues: a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil would never again be used by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, and a pledge from the United States to withdraw its troops. But many Afghans are concerned that the Americans might be too eager to strike a deal.

The organizer of the Moscow talks is ostensibly the Afghan diaspora in Russia, not the Russian government. But Afghan officials, as well as Taliban members, have said that the Russian government is playing a major role in orchestrating the meeting behind the scenes.

Russia, chastened by the crippling damage done to the Soviet Union by its occupation of Afghanistan, has shown no interest in getting involved militarily again, at least not directly, but it has positioned itself as a force to be reckoned with, relishing Washington's agonies at the hands of Taliban insurgents.

Russia designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization in 2003 and at first strongly supported American efforts to purge Afghanistan of extremist Islamist groups, which President Vladimir V. Putin described as a threat to Russia's own security.

Amid rising Cold War-style rivalry between Moscow and Washington, Russia has increasingly pointed to the American military presence in Afghanistan as a major obstacle to peace, hedging its bets by opening channels with the Taliban. Moscow allowed a 10-member delegation from the banned Islamist movement to enter Russia in November for the Moscow talks, called the Inter-Afghan Dialogue on Peace.

After the delegations arrived at the President Hotel on Tuesday, they prayed together in a session led by one of the Taliban participants, and then went into lunch before convening for broader discussions.

Mr. Karzai, the first speaker, made an appeal to end the bloodshed. He said Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters were being buried next to each other in graveyards.

"All around them in these graveyards are the regular Afghans £ their graves are plenty," Mr. Karzai said. "The dream of every mother, the hope of every father is buried there."

He added, "The people of Afghanistan want a country with sustainable peace, a united and democratic Afghanistan, a prosperous Afghanistan built by the educated women and men of it."

Mr. Karzai was first installed as leader in Kabul by the United States in late 2001, but later, the relationship soured. He has visited Russia often since leaving office in 2014, and in meetings with Mr. Putin and other officials, he has aligned himself with Moscow's view that the United States must leave Afghanistan, just as the Soviet Union did.

Speaking after Mr. Karzai, in a speech that lasted half an hour, Mr. Stanekzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, said that the group did not seek any agenda beyond Afghanistan, nor did they seek a monopoly of power inside Afghanistan. They were pursuing an Islamist government in the country "in consultation with all Afghans," he said. He added that the group did not recognize the country's current Constitution, describing it as having been copied from the West and drafted in the shadows of occupation.

Perhaps the most revealing part of his speech came in his description of how the Taliban saw a future role for Afghan women. When in power, the group banned women from public life, with religious-police officers patrolling the streets and giving out lashes to any woman for actions including having ankles showing.

"We believe in all rights given to women by Islam," Mr. Stanekzai said. "Islam has given women all fundamental rights - such as trade, ownership, inheritance, education, work, and the choice of partner, security and education, and a good life."

A veteran of the anti-Soviet struggle, Mr. Stanekzai said he welcomed Russia's renewed interest in Afghanistan, as long as that interest remained peaceful. "The Russians now promote peace. This is positive. We appreciate this," he said after a prayer break in the Moscow hotel.

In a statement released before the Moscow meeting, a group of Afghan women, including activists, academics and politicians, objected to the domination of the peace process so far by men and by non-Afghans. They said Afghan women had been marginalized in talks about a future in which they had more to lose than anyone.

The statement called on the Afghan delegation to stand up for the country's 17-year-old democratic system, which has given women more space and more rights, even if some of those rights are still routinely violated.

Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan Parliament who is attending the meeting, said she wanted assurances that women's rights would be respected in any power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.

"The Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 1999 or 1998, where the Taliban would force women to stay home," Ms. Koofi said. "A lot of progress has happened since."

On Tuesday, the violence continued unabated in Afghanistan. The Taliban attacked police and army outposts around the northern city of Kunduz before dawn, killing at least 23 members of the Afghan security forces and capturing two of the outposts. More than 20 Taliban were also killed.

In Takhar province, gunmen attacked a women's radio station, killing two of its staff members.

Andrew Higgins reported from Moscow, and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi from Kabul; and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Source: The New York Times

Edited by AfghanistanNews - 05-Feb-2019 at 1:48pm
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