Members of Afghanistan's Peace Council, who met Taliban delegates in Moscow, repeat President Ashraf Ghani's offer of peace talks with Taliban without pre-conditions. Taliban says it will negotiate with US only.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, center, poses for a photo with the participants of the conference on Afghanistan bringing together representatives of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban in Moscow, Russia on Nov. 9, 2018.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, center, poses for a photo with the participants of the conference on Afghanistan bringing together representatives of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban in Moscow, Russia on Nov. 9, 2018. (AP)

Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, a body overseeing peace efforts, met Taliban officials at a conference in Moscow on Friday and repeated President Ashraf Ghani's offer of peace talks without pre-conditions. 

Taliban delegation, however, said it will negotiate with the United States instead.

For the first time, the meeting of regional officials on ways to end the war included a Taliban delegation, as moves towards achieving a political settlement pick up.

"We discussed the subject of direct talks with the Taliban and asked them to choose the place and the starting time," said Ehsan Tahiri, High Peace Council spokesman, according to Russia's RIA news agency.

The meeting, which underlines Russia's desire to be involved in any settlement in Afghanistan, took place as US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad prepared for a fresh round of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar.

Taliban said it is not ready for direct talks with the Kabul government and will negotiate with the United States instead, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban delegation, as saying.

Russia for 'direct talks' 

On Friday, Russian foreign ministry said that "we reaffirm our position on the lack of alternative to a political settlement in Afghanistan and the need for active coordinated efforts by Afghanistan's neighbouring countries and regional partners".

Russia hopes "through joint efforts to open a new page in the history of Afghanistan," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said as the talks opened at a Moscow hotel on Friday morning.

He said that the participation of both Afghan leaders and the Taliban was an "important contribution" aimed at creating "favourable conditions for the start of direct talks."

"I am counting on you holding a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hopes of the Afghan people," he said before the talks continued behind closed doors.

Representatives of the Taliban attend international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on November 9, 2018.
Representatives of the Taliban attend international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on November 9, 2018. (AFP)

Not holding 'any sort of negotiations' - Taliban

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP news agency the group's five representatives will not hold "any sort of negotiations" with the delegation of Kabul administration.

"This conference is not about holding negotiations with any party whatsoever –– rather it is about finding a peaceful solution to the issue of Afghanistan," he added.

The meeting marks the first time the Taliban and Afghan government meet for direct talks at a high level. 

The conference is being held at the level of deputy foreign ministers and related special representatives.

TRT World speaks with Omar Samad, former Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, for more.

Kabul seeking political solution 

Russia's first attempt to hold the conference in September fell through after the Afghan authorities refused to attend. 

This time, the Afghan government hasn't sent its envoys, but members of the government-appointed Peace Council are attending the event.

Before the meeting, Habiba Sarabi, a member of the High Peace Council, said the delegation came to Moscow to talk to the Taliban.

"Our expectations are to talk to the members at this meeting," she said.

"We came here for a political solution. We appreciate the efforts of any country that tries to contribute to Afghan peace," she added.

Taliban officials and Peace Council members have met at past forums elsewhere, and while no formal talks were ever held they have had some face-to face discussions.

The conference marks Moscow's attempt to get the Afghan authorities and the Taliban together at a table. The US Embassy in Moscow has sent a diplomat to observe the discussions.

Delegates from Iran, China, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are also participating in the conference. India is participating at "non-official" level, NDTV reported.

The Moscow talks underline the increasingly active role Russia is playing in Afghanistan, decades after Soviet forces withdrew from the country, with business investment plans, diplomatic and cultural outreach and small military support for the central government.

Sensitive time

The meeting comes at a sensitive time.

Newly appointed US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been trying to convince the Taliban to agree to negotiate an end to the war and there are fears the Russian meeting could derail those efforts.

A US government watchdog last week said Kabul's control of Afghanistan had slipped in recent months as local security forces suffered record casualties while making minimal or no progress against the Taliban.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies