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US skips out on Afghanistan-Taliban conference in Moscow

Mikhail Bushuev | Masood Saifullah
April 14, 2017

The Trump administration's decision not to attend could be yet another sign of an increasingly icy relationship between Washington and Moscow. The meeting came just after the US bombed targets in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Taliban Kämpfer in der Provinz Zabul
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Khan

Despite receiving an invitation, the Trump administration did not attend Friday's meeting in the Russian capital aimed at facilitating peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

According to a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday, senior diplomats from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan and ex-Soviet Central Asian nations who took part in Friday's talks had supported the Afghan government's peace efforts. They urged the Taliban to stop fighting and engage in a direct dialogue with the government.

Read More: Taliban expansion worries north Afghans

In a press briefing on Thursday, US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner cited skepticism of the conference aims as the reason for the United States' lack of participation.

"I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks - it was unclear to us what the purpose was," Toner told the assembled press. "It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn't constructive at this time," he added.

However, Toner also stated that "we do plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue" between the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

Russland Moskau Rex Tillerson und Sergei Lawrow
Tillerson and Lavrov met earlier in the week to discuss deteriorating US-Russian relationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/S. Krasilnikov

A sign of geopolitical competition?

Washington's thanks-but-no-thanks to its conference invitation came amid rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and Russia, due in large part to US President Donald Trump's order to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian air base also used by Russian forces in support of Syrian President Assad.

Nicole Birtsch
Nicole Birtsch from SWP thinks the US will not accept Russian leadership on Afghanistan negotiationsImage: SWP

The announcement of the administration's absence from the conference coincided with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visit with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday. After the visit, Tillerson described US-Russian relations as being at a "low point," with many experts suggesting an increasing geopolitical rivalry.

In an interview with DW, Nicole Birtsch from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) pointed out that a previous Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) headed up by the US had failed to reach its goal of establishing peace talks. "Washington will not likely accept Russia in a leading role," Birtsch said.

Read More: Will Washington and Moscow come together on Afghanistan?

A questionable relationship between Russia and the Taliban

One reason for the QCG's failed outcome was a lack of willingness on the part of the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. Experts agree that the Taliban's participation is essential for reaching a lasting peace in the war-torn country.

"Precisely because the Taliban has had real power for over 20 years, an Afghan peace is not possible without them," Russian expert in central Asia Arkadi Dubnow told DW.

Read More: Entrechened instability in Afghanistan

Arkadij Dubnov russischer Experte für Zentralasien
Arkadi Dubnow is a Russian expert for central AsiaImage: DW/G.Fasthudinov

At the end of March, the Russian Ambassador to NATO Alexander Gruschko announced, "We have contact with the Taliban," adding that the two-fold purpose for such communication centered on the security of Russian citizens and Taliban participation in peace talks.

But NATO has accused Moscow of supporting the rebel Islamic group with weapons.

Birtsch believed Russia's relationship to the Taliban had two key policy purposes: firstly, supporting the Taliban in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS); and secondly, maintaining an influence in Afghanistan.

Despite Russia's ties to the Taliban, it remains unclear whether or not Taliban representatives will attend Friday's conference.

US policy in Afghanistan unclear

The underlying foundation of US policy in Afghanistan also remains unclear, especially in light of the Trump administration's surprise bombing of an IS cave in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The Afghan presidential palace said the largest non-nuclear bomb was dropped in coordination with the Afghan government. However, the confirmed presence of Afghan government officials in Moscow on Friday and the absence of the US could raise questions as to just how close the two countries are.