Kabul misses its chance in Moscow to make progress with the Taliban

In February 2018, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani announced a peace offer to the Taliban. The move was criticized by some in Afghanistan who said Ghani was displaying weakness. Despite this criticism, the Afghan president stood by his offer and even offered to recognize the Taliban as a political party and engage in unconditional talks with the militant group.

Ghani went on to announce a truce during the summer followed by a meeting of clerics, who had issued a fatwa condemning militant violence as un-Islamic. All the Taliban offered in return was a three-day ceasefire. At that time, it seemed like Kabul wanted to take any chance to meet with Taliban representatives in order to convince the group of ending its war with the western-backed Afghan government.

However, in contrast to this apparent willingness for dialogue, the Afghan government decided not to attend a peace conference hosted by Russia in Moscow on Friday, which was attended by a Taliban delegation and a mid-level group from Afghanistan's High Peace Council.

No high-ranking Afghan government officials from Kabul attended the meeting, a move that observers say has undermined any chance for progress. The conference, originally planned for September 4, was postponed at the request of Afghan government officials who said they needed more time to prepare.

Now, after more than two months, it seems the Afghan government has failed to make any use of a rare chance to hold direct talks with the Taliban.

Did Kabul undermine the Moscow conference?

"Kabul did almost nothing to make the meeting a success, on the contrary, there were active efforts to make sure it failed," Wahid Muzhdah, a former Taliban official based in Kabul, told DW.

Muzhdah claimed that the Russian embassy in Kabul had revoked invitation letters to a number of prominent Afghan politicians including Hamid Karzai, the former president.

"They all wanted to attend the conference but could not do so because Kabul intervened and asked the Russians to cancel their invitations," he added. This claim was rejected both by the Afghan foreign ministry and Hamid Karzai's own spokesperson.

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"As a result of talks between Kabul and Moscow, as well as negotiations between the Afghan government and influential figures including the former president, it was decided that the High Peace Council delegation would represent Afghanistan, which the former president fully approved," Yusuf Saha, a spokesperson for Hamid Karzai, told DW.

The meeting in Moscow was organized and chaired by Russia, which indicates that the Taliban are straightening ties with other regional players on top of its historic supporter, Pakistan.

The US and the Afghan government do not want to share credit for a future peace deal with other counties – especially Russia.

"In the larger context of world politics and rivalries between Russians and Americans, Washington does not want Moscow to play a big role in the Afghan peace negotiations," Kabul University lecturer Khalid Sadat, told DW, adding that the current White House wants its own peace efforts to yield results.

Afghan peace must be led by Afghans

Former US ambassador to Afghanistan, and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmai Khalilzad, was tasked by US President Donald Trump's administration to strike a deal with the Taliban. Despite his recent meetings with representatives of the group in Qatar, along with Pakistani and Afghan officials, Khalilzad has not been able to break the deadlock facing the Afghan reconciliation process.

For any direct peace talks to take place, the Taliban continues to demand that NATO sets a withdrawal date for of all its troops from Afghanistan. Until then, the Taliban has said it will not hold peace talks with Kabul.

On the other hand, President Ghani's government insists that any peace talks with the Taliban should be led and owned by Afghans.

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"Any peace effort in any country must recognize Afghanistan's leadership and ownership in the peace process," Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Sebghatullah Ahmadi said, adding that this was why the Afghan government did not attend Friday's Moscow meeting.

In any case, Afghanistan's decision to skip the conference turned the event in to just another failed attempt at bringing the conflicting Afghan parties to peace talks.

Sadat from Kabul University is of the view that Kabul's current position and its efforts to undermine peace efforts by countries like Russia will only prolong the war in Afghanistan.

"I believe as a country in need of peace, we should not miss any chance to talk with the Taliban," Sadat said. "As more time goes by, the price for peace increases for Afghans."