BRUSSELS -- NATO is backing the full participation of the Afghan government in peace talks involving U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives to end the 17-year conflict, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg told RFE/RL on February 14 in Brussels.
The Afghan government has been absent from the U.S.-Taliban talks, prompting anger and frustration in Kabul. The militants consider the Afghan government a Western puppet and have so far refused to directly negotiate with it.
"There's no way it is possible to have a lasting peace without the full involvement of the Afghan government and, therefore, we strongly support the efforts by [U.S. special envoy] Ambassador Khalilzad in his engagement with the Taliban to create the conditions to agree on an Afghan-owned reconciliation process," Stoltenberg told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
"Of course, the Afghan government has to be part of that. There's no way you can have an Afghan peace process -- lasting peace -- without totally involving the Afghans, including the government," Stoltenberg said.
During recent talks in Qatar, U.S. officials and the Taliban both expressed some optimism over prospects for a deal.
On February 8, Khalilzad said he was "hopeful" a deal could be finalized before Afghanistan’s presidential election in July, but he cautioned there is still a "long way to go" before a final agreement.
U.S. officials have said President Donald Trump wants to withdraw about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since an October 2001 invasion that brought down the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for launching the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The government in Kabul has struggled to contain the resurgent Taliban after a NATO-led coalition turned over military operations to Afghan troops and took a more advisory and training role in the country.
Stoltenberg said NATO is ready to help facilitate "an Afghan reconciliation, Afghan process," since allies "invested a lot in protecting [democratic] values" in Afghanistan.
"But the only way to do that is to make sure that we have an Afghan-owned reconciliation process, because peace is extremely important for human rights," Stoltenberg said.
Taliban representatives and an Afghan delegation led by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai held two days of talks in Moscow, with the militants continuing to insist upon the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan as a first step in the peace process.
The talks were "very satisfactory," Karzai said at the end of the February 5-6 gathering, which have been described by some as part of an "intra-Afghan" peace process, despite the absence of Kabul government representatives.
The gathering was strongly criticized by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Stoltenberg said that efforts to create a framework for an intra-Afghan peace process and reconciliation should be backed by everyone, including Russia.
"It remains to be seen whether the meeting in Moscow contributes to that," Stoltenberg said, adding, "NATO's focus is how we can provide maximum support to the efforts by the United States and Ambassador Khalilzad by continuing to provide support to the Afghan security forces, and also by giving political support to those efforts, because that's the only way to peace."