Moscow hosted Afghan settlement consultations on November 9, bringing together representatives of Russia, India, Central Asian countries, Pakistan, Iran and China, as well as a semi-official delegation from Afghanistan and several representatives of the Taliban movement, which is banned in Russia. Despite previous reports, U.S. officials were not seen at Moscow's President Hotel, where the forum took place behind closed doors.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov opened the consultations. He sat at the head of the table together with two other Russian diplomats - Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Morgulov and Russian Presidential Special Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov - who organized the forum. Representatives of the Taliban and official Kabul sat on the sides of Russian diplomats. Kabul sent six people to the consultations, and the Taliban five.
The agenda of the consultations included work on initiatives that would promote the beginning of direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement. A delegation of four representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council represented Kabul at the forum.
Minister Lavrov noted the unprecedented nature of the forum, as representatives of Kabul and the Taliban took part in the same event for the first time. Speaking at the opening ceremony the Russian minister stressed that the event's format is aimed at searching together for ways to establish intra-Afghan dialogue for the purpose of promoting peace. "Russia is ready together with other countries to do its best to help settle the situation in Afghanistan. This can be done only with participation of all parties. I hope we will have a serious and constructive conversation which will justify the expectations of the Afghan people," the minister said.
The Russian foreign minister greeted the representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban delegation, saying that its participation is an important step towards direct dialogue with the government of Afghanistan. Lavrov stressed that the many-year conflict in Afghanistan can be resolved by solely peaceful means through dialogue between all conflicting sides. He expressed Russia's readiness to make every effort to resolve the Afghan problem, underlining that the positions of the forum's participants coincide with Afghanistan's national interests. "Russia stands for the preservation of a unified and indivisible Afghanistan where all of the country’s ethnic groups will live happily at peace with each other. I do not doubt for a second that this approach is shared by the other participants of the Moscow format and that all of us are acting in the fundamental interests of the Afghan people," Lavrov said.
The minister said that it is impermissible to turn Afghanistan into a field of confrontation between external players, because thinking in terms of "geopolitical games" evokes severe consequences for Afghanistan itself and its neighbors. "Our countries and the multilateral organizations active in the region must help the people of Afghanistan foil these plans and root out the terrorist threat," the Russian minister said.
Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi on behalf of the Taliban said that the movement supports any initiatives of promoting peace process in Afghanistan. The Taliban delegation comprised five representatives of the Taliban's office in Qatar – Haji Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Sheikh al-Hadith Mullah Shahabuddin Delawar, Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, Haji Muhammad Sohail Shaheen and Mullah Zia-ur-Rahman Madani.
Yours truly managed to talk with one of the Taliban representatives in Moscow. The Taliban is ready for talks in search for peace in Afghanistan, the representative said on conditions of anonymity. The Taliban stresses that its participation in the Moscow consultations is an unparalleled event that signals that the movement is ready for dialogue. The Taliban member underscored that the current format of the Moscow meeting did not provide for direct contacts with representatives of official Kabul. The main demand, which is the complete withdrawal of foreign and occupational troops from Afghanistan, has remained invariable, he said. Until this condition is fulfilled, the Taliban is not going to have direct talks with Kabul, he said.
As for official Afghan authorities, strictly speaking they did not send an official delegation to the forum. The Afghan High Peace Council, whose members represented Kabul, is a semi-official body that is called to search for consent in Afghanistan. This is a kind of representative body that brings together respectful elder Afghan politicians and diplomats, who are close to the Taliban and who can talk with the movement's representatives. Russian representatives told yours truly that they with no doubt wanted to see official representatives of Kabul. As for U.S. representatives, there were none at the President Hotel, although U.S. Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino said earlier that "...the United States embassy in Moscow will send a representative to the working level to observe the discussions."
A number of important conclusions may be drawn in the wake of the conference. Firstly, the conference took place, which is Russia's diplomatic success. Secondly, rather serious representatives of the Taliban came to Russia. Saying that these people enjoy no influence in the movement is absurd. The Taliban's office in Qatar represents the movement in the global world. Representatives of Taliban from Qatar are political representatives of the movement's moderate wing. Naturally, there are their opponents in the movement. Moreover, there are groups in the Taliban that in fact oppose negotiations. However, they are small in numbers, and the Taliban leadership is speaking for negotiations.
Thirdly, a major drawback of the conference is that official Kabul in fact sabotaged it, having failed to send any senior diplomat or politician. Obviously, the move has political colors. Fourthly, the fact that the United States sabotaged the forum cannot be called justified or somewhat well-thought-out. However, the forum did take place in spite there was no American delegate in his chair at the table.
In general, the Moscow consultations were not a breakthrough or any serious success, but this is a step forward.