The Taliban said on Monday they will participate in "intra-Afghan" talks in Moscow designed to bring together prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai, opposition figures and tribal elders — but no Kabul government officials.
The two-day meeting in the Russian capital, which starts on Tuesday, is seen as another step in a process aimed at resolving Afghanistan's 17-year war, one that has accelerated since the appointment last September of US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad has been holding separate negotiations with the Taliban even as he presses for a dialogue that would bring together all key Afghan players.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office criticised the meeting in Moscow, saying that Afghan politicians attending the gathering were doing so "in order to gain power." Ghani's chief adviser, Fazel Fazly, tweeted that it was "regrettable."
Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, confirmed the insurgents' participation. A 10-member Taliban delegation would be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.
The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani's government, which they denounce as a US puppet.
A statement released on Monday by Afghans attending the Moscow meeting described it as "the first step toward intra-Afghan dialogue."
Along with Karzai, the former president, many of the 38 delegates from Kabul have held prominent government positions.
Two presidential hopefuls are among those going to Moscow, including Hanif Atmar, who resigned as Ghani's security adviser last August, apparently over differences with the president.
Also on the list are powerful warlords-turned-politicians and former Taliban insurgents who reconciled with the Kabul administration.
The only woman on the list, lawmaker and activist Fawzia Koofi, has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights and girls' education, once posting pictures of her daughters on her Twitter feed asking the Taliban: "What about my daughters' education?"
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, imposing harsh rules limiting women's education and rights.
However, Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive, said the Afghan government should be at the center of any peace talks, adding that Kabul "would prefer the Moscow meeting had a different shape."
Abdullah said that Taliban were the biggest obstacle to peace, but that if the Moscow meeting creates "an opening for real peace talks, it would still be a step forward."
The Taliban have been staging near-daily attacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the embattled Afghan army and security forces.
The Moscow gathering is likely to further isolate Ghani, who has been irked by Khalilzad's direct talks with the Taliban as well as the US envoy's successive rounds of talks in regional countries.
The Russian government has denied orchestrating the meeting. Monday's statement from Kabul said the Council of Afghan Society, a Moscow-based organisation of the Afghan diaspora, was behind it.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said the meetings are an Afghan initiative aimed at laying the foundation for an eventual peace process.
"The Russian side welcomes this initiative of Afghanistan's civil society and believes that a direct dialogue between Afghans can make a political dialogue in Afghanistan more inclusive and open the way for engaging armed opposition," said the Russian statement.
"The planned meeting effectively implements the principle of a peace process led by the Afghans and owned by the Afghans, which has been approved by the international community."
The statement did not address the absence of Afghan government representatives or Ghani's criticism.
The Afghan statement issued by those attending the meeting said the participants would discuss a range of issues, from a cease-fire, supporting Khalilzad's initiative to further "intra-Afghan" talks and ways to ensure a "powerful and democratic central government" in Afghanistan.
A statement from the Taliban said the Moscow conference aims to "open channels to reaching an understanding with non-government Afghan political groups" and that the Taliban would use the opportunity to clarify their position, based on Islamic law, for the future and an intra-Afghan Islamic system of governance.
Washington has made no comments so far about the Russia-hosted talks.
Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington has spent more than $1 trillion on Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to bring US troops home, adding to the urgency of Khalilzad's mission.
Reports late last year suggested Trump was considering withdrawing at least half of Washington's estimated 15,000 troops from Afghanistan by the summer.