Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow
Officials in President Ashraf Ghani’s administration could not confirm who would comprise the Afghan government delegation. (Press Office of President of Afghanistan/AFP)
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Updated 14 March 2021

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow
  • Both conferences will see participation from Washington, China and Pakistan

KABUL: Kabul government delegates will participate in a US-proposed and UN-led conference in Turkey, and a separate meeting in Russia, to expedite the stalled Afghan peace process, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

“Representatives of the government of Afghanistan will take part in both meetings. Consultations are going on as to who will attend them,” Gran Hewad, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told Arab News.

Last week on Tuesday, Kabul said that it was “considering” Russia’s offer to host the talks two days after the leak of a letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani over the impasse.

Blinken’s letter had included an urgent proposal to help restart discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which began in Doha, Qatar, in September last year but failed to make any headway.

Besides Afghan government emissaries, the March 18 meeting in Russia and the Turkey conference slotted for April will also host delegates from the Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), factional and influential leaders, and representatives from the US, China and Pakistan.

While officials in Ghani’s administration could not confirm who would comprise the Afghan government delegation, the Taliban said that it was “mulling over participation in both conferences.”

“So far, politically responsible people have not come up with a new stance. Our position is the same that we have received an invitation for both, and it is under deliberation,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News on Sunday.

Russia’s offer to host the conference comes a week after US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, shared a proposal with key Afghan leaders, including Ghani, for the formation of a participatory government — which would include Taliban members — as part of efforts to end Washington’s engagement in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history.

Khalilzad’s proposal was circulated ahead of a May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, based on a controversial accord signed between former American President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

Moscow, similarly to Iran and Pakistan, has been pressing for the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan for years. Russia recently hosted two rounds of talks between the Taliban and influential national leaders, besides being a vocal supporter for forming a new government to replace Ghani, whose second term ends after four years.

Ghani has repeatedly said that he is against the idea and vowed to oppose the set-up “at the cost of my life.”

His resistance prompted Blinken’s letter to Ghani — a copy of which was published by several media houses last Sunday — asking the Afghan president to “develop constructive positions” on Khalilzad’s proposals to “jumpstart the flailing peace process.”

The letter pressed upon the urgency for a new government in Afghanistan to break a stalemate in the Doha talks between the Taliban and Kabul government representatives, which have been riddled with disputes.

The US secretary of state has been pushing for a UN-facilitated conference with international stakeholders, including proposals to arrange a discussion between the Taliban and Kabul to form a negotiated settlement and enforce a cease-fire.

The letter also made it clear to Ghani that US President Joe Biden’s administration continued to consider a “full withdrawal” of the 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline, as negotiated by the Trump administration during a controversial deal signed with the Taliban in February last year.

“I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the US has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options,” Blinken said in the letter.

Some of the letter’s proposals included the formation of a participatory government that would eventually transfer power to a permanent government “following the adoption of a new constitution and national elections.”

In a recent speech, however, Ghani said that the “transfer of power after the election is a principal for us that will not be compromised,” arguing that the formation of an interim government would “descend the country into a chaos like the 1990s” when the former communist regime collapsed after the departure of ex-Soviet troops.

Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reiterated Ghani’s stance last week when he said: “The West and America have the right to decide about their troops in Afghanistan, but it is also our right not to make a deal and compromise on the destiny of 35 million Afghans based on others’ timetable.”

Shortly after Saleh’s statement, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar adopted a softer tone and told the BBC that the letter was “not a matter of concern for Kabul. We allowed for this in our diplomacy — that such contacts are made — therefore, I don’t see it as a type of offense or indifference.”

The minister added that government leaders would “debate on the letter and proposal, discuss it with national leaders and offer a response later.”

Experts, however, believe that Kabul was “avoiding a confrontation in the global arena” by agreeing to participate in both conferences.

“The Afghan government has avoided a first collision with the international community. It will get somewhat tricky now. Merely accepting to attend is one thing, but who will do so is more important,” Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former government, told Arab News.

He added that Ghani “could be reluctant to attend the meetings” as officials from his administration had refused to divulge more details about the key participants.

Afghan political leaders, however, welcomed the move, with former president Hamid Karzai saying in an interview with the Associated Press that the US draft for a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban was the “best chance to accelerate stalled peace talks between the country’s warring sides.”

“Afghans themselves are in a hurry for peace,” he said.

Ahmad Samin, an Afghan analyst and former adviser for the World Bank, agreed, telling Arab News: “The United States has made it clear that there is only one political solution to the Afghan war, in which international support is required for peace negotiations.”

He added that there was “growing frustration and hesitation” to continue a partnership with the current Afghan government, “which is riddled with corruption, human rights abuses and a dependency on foreign aid without any economic or political development.”

“These are factors that don’t make for a reliable partnership between the United States and Afghanistan. This translates as additional pressure by the United States for regional involvement in future peace negotiations,” Samin said.