Over 90 prominent opponents of Afghan President Ghani are meeting Taliban representatives in Moscow to discuss peace. The move has further sidelined the president and could pave the way for US exit from Afghanistan.
It was hard to find any influential critic of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on Tuesday — not because he has become popular among his opponents overnight, but because almost all government critics are in Moscow to meet with Taliban representatives. This latest development has further isolated the Kabul government in peace negotiations.
Afghans living in Russia are hosting the meeting between Afghan politicians and Taliban members who refuse to talk with President Ghani, one organizer Ghulam Mohammad Jalal told DW. "Afghan organizations which are active in Russia have organized the meeting […] it will focus on intra-Afghan dialog," he said. The Afghan foreign ministry, however, says the Russian government has been active behind the scenes to convince more Afghan politicians to take part in the meeting.
"The Russian ambassador to Afghanistan has knocked on the doors of all those invited to the meeting many times, urging for their participation," said Sebghatullah Ahmadi, spokesperson for Afghanistan's foreign ministry. He, however, added that the Afghan government does not consider the gathering to be in the interest of peace.
"Decisions taken during the meeting will not be practical and we believe it will not help the Afghan peace process," Ahmadi stressed. It appears that Russia facilitated the meeting despite strong opposition from President Ghani, who has also been sidelined from other peace initiatives led by US special envoy Zalmai Khalilzad in recent months.
President Ghani and his allies campaign for an "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" peace process, in which the government plays a central role by engaging directly with the Taliban. The Taliban, on the other hand, refuse to negotiate with Ghani. Instead, the group's representatives have held meetings with US officials in Qatar, during which they have agreed to not let terrorist outfits operating on Afghan soil to pose a threat to the US, in return for American troops' withdrawal from the South Asian country.
President Ghani believes such an agreement will not result in lasting peace and could eventually lead Afghanistan to yet another civil war. In a lengthy interview with the privately owned ToloNews TV, Ghani denounced the ongoing Moscow meeting, arguing the attendees did not have the executive power to translate decisions into action.
"They could hold a hundred such meetings, but until the Afghan government, the Afghan parliament and the legal institutions of Afghanistan approve it, it is just agreements on paper," Ghani said.
Read more: Why a US-Taliban agreement is likely
Pushed to sidelines
Ghani's representatives were not welcomed by the Taliban to Qatar, where the insurgents held talks with US representatives for six days in January alone. In Moscow, they were not even invited to the gathering. Instead, the Taliban chose to sit with the Afghan president's biggest rivals — among them former Afghan President Hamid Karzai who has been campaigning hard for more Russian involvement in Afghanistan.
"The people who are in Moscow, including the Taliban and Afghan politicians, have one thing in common: they are all against Ghani," Yunus Fakur, a Kabul-based Afghan analyst, told DW. "This move will further sideline Ghani and his administration," he added.
Ghani enjoyed strong support from Washington when he took office in 2014. It allowed him to push forward some of his reform agenda, push most of his opponents to the sidelines and sack former warlords who held high-ranking government posts.
Despite opposition from his powerful critics, President Ghani was still able to maintain a strong position due to the backing of his most important ally — Washington. But the Afghan leader has lost that luxury in recent months as he has openly opposed the outcome of US-Taliban talks, led by US special envoy Zalmai Khalilzad.
"Washington is backing Khalilzad's efforts because it could pave the way for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan — something US President Donald Trump wants to happen," Fakur said. "This has put Ghani in a difficult position because he does not have the support of the influential Afghan figures, and cannot agree with the US on peace," the analyst noted.
Winners of the Moscow conference
The Moscow meeting undermines the progress the US has made during the talks in Qatar with the insurgent group, and highlights Russia's growing influence in Afghanistan.
The Kremlin hosted another Taliban meeting in November last year which brought to the negotiating table representatives of the insurgent group as well as members of the Afghan peace council — a body created by the Afghan government to facilitate peace talks.
"It is Russia against the US all over again, but the other way around," Fakur said, in reference to Washington's support former Mujahidin fighters against the former Soviet Union-backed government in the 1990s.
Russia is seeking to play a bigger role as peace broker in Afghanistan, ensuring that any post-peace Afghan government includes people close to the Kremlin. Former Afghan President Karzai is one such figure who has transformed into a US critic in recent years and has pushed for more Russian influence in Afghan politics.
'They could hold a hundred such meetings, but until the Afghan government, the Afghan parliament and the legal institutions of Afghanistan approve it, it is just agreements on paper,' Ghani said.
Karzai, who is still active in behind-the-scenes politics, has put himself at the center of Afghan politics one more time. As the first speaker of the conference in Moscow, the former president stressed on the need for peace rather than defending the achievements of post-2001 Afghan governments.
"The people of Afghanistan want a country with sustainable peace, a united and democratic Afghanistan, a prosperous Afghanistan built by the educated women and men of it," he said.
But it was the Taliban who achieved the most from yesterday's gathering. Their current chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, painted a picture of the group's current view of the role of women in society, rejected the current Afghan constitution and called for the end of US presence in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban are dancing to different songs at the same time. In case their talks with the US yield results, Ghani will be out of office and they could be part of a new government," Fakur underlined. "But if that does not happen, they still want to have the Russian option open which has now brought them closer to Ghani's biggest opponents."