By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The United States and Afghanistan both say they will not attend Russia-hosted peace talks scheduled for next month, with Kabul asserting it prefers instead to hold direct talks with the Taliban.
Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sibghatullah Ahmadi told RFE/RL on August 22 that the decision not to participate in the planned Moscow conference was made after consultations between President Ashraf Ghani and other officials — a move that could lead Moscow to call off its planned gathering of a dozen countries.
Without being specific, an unidentified official working with the Afghan Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying that the government in Kabul would “hold direct talks” with the Taliban without the direct involvement of foreign powers.
Meanwhile, a State Department spokesman confirmed earlier reports that the United States would not take part in the meeting scheduled for September 4, saying the talks were “unlikely to yield any progress toward” a peace settlement.
Russia says it has invited the Taliban and 12 countries, including Afghanistan and the United States, to the Moscow talks.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that the militant group will send a delegation to Russia.
An unidentified Taliban commander was quoted as saying that the delegation will be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, head of the Islamist group’s political office in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
Another commander said Taliban delegates also would be sent to other countries in the region — including Pakistan and China — “to take them into confidence and address their concerns.”
The U.S. decision not to attend the Moscow talks drew an angry response from Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on August 22 that Washington’s “refusal to attend the Moscow meeting on Afghanistan shows Washington has no interest in launching a peace process in Afghanistan.”
“We have learned with regret from the United States Department of State’s statement that the Americans will not take part in the Moscow” meeting, the ministry said. “Admittedly, this step does not cause great surprise.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said other countries invited to the talks include Pakistan, China, Iran, India, and the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Moscow also rejected the claim, made by Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayyum Kochai, that Russia aims to use the Taliban to fight against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
The Foreign Ministry said that the allegation “completely distorts the meaning of Russia’s policy on Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was fighting the IS militants “with all means available.”
“We support Syria in that struggle, we help equip the Iraqi Army for the same goal and we naturally would like to see the people of Afghanistan getting rid of the IS.”
An IS affiliate in Afghanistan has staged a series of major attacks in recent years and has repeatedly clashed with Taliban fighters.
That Afghan branch of the IS has been seen as threatening to Russia and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia because it includes many battle-hardened Uzbek militants.
Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But Moscow has been stepping up its own diplomatic outreach across the region, and has grown increasingly critical of U.S. actions, as relations with Washington have deteriorated in recent years.
The Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO combat troops in 2014.
Taliban leaders have so far ignored an offer by the Afghan government of direct peace negotiations, calling instead for direct talks with the United States.