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Hosting Taliban Delegates, Russia Calls For Withdrawal Of Foreign Forces From Afghanistan

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai talk at a meeting dedicated to the 100th anniversary of official Russian-Afghan diplomatic relations in Moscow on May 28.

Hosting Taliban delegates and Afghan politicians in an effort to promote itself as a peacemaker in Afghanistan, Russia has called for the complete withdrawal of international forces from the war-ravaged country.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke at a May 28 ceremony in Moscow marking what the government says is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Russia and Afghanistan.

The ceremony was followed by talks between the 14-member Taliban delegation and senior Afghan politicians, including candidates challenging President Ashraf Ghani in a presidential election due to be held in September.

"We are calling for a total pullout of foreign forces from the country. We are calling on all Afghan sides to start talks as soon as possible involving a broad range of social and political forces," Lavrov said in welcoming the Taliban delegation, despite the fact that the militant movement is designated a terrorist organization in Russia.

The remarks appeared aimed in part at the United States, which has thousands of troops in Afghanistan nearly two decades after leading an invasion that ousted the Taliban from power following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. The Taliban was harboring Al-Qaeda leaders behind 9/11.

"Russia is convinced that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan," Lavrov said. "The only possible way...is to achieve peace by political and diplomatic means."

The leader of the Taliban delegation, chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said later that the group was "committed to peace" but "believes that, first of all, the obstacle on the way to peace must be removed, which means ending the occupation of Afghanistan."

It was the first ever public media appearance for Baradar, a co-founder of the group who was jailed for years in Pakistan before his release last year.

Among the Afghan politicians in attendance were ex-President Hamid Karzai; Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful figure from northern Afghanistan; Ghani's former national-security adviser Hanif Atmar, who is contesting the presidential election; and Omar Zakhilwal, the ambassador to Pakistan. Two women were present, including lawmaker Fawzia Koofi.

The meeting in Moscow comes amid a push by the United States for a peace settlement with the Taliban as fighting and attacks persist. Afghan officials said on May 28 that a a total of at least 23 members of the security forces were killed in two Taliban attacks targeting security checkpoints, one in western Ghor Province and one in Logar Province in the east.

The meeting in Moscow comes amid a push by the United States for a peace settlement with the Taliban as fighting and attacks persist.

Afghan officials said on May 28 that a total of at least 23 members of the security forces were killed in two Taliban attacks targeting security checkpoints, one in western Ghor Province and one in Logar Province in the east.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy seeking a peace deal with the Taliban, has held several rounds of talks with the militants in Qatar in recent months.

The sides have made progress, but the Taliban has so far rejected the idea of direct negotiations with the Afghan government, and a summit planned for April in Qatar was canceled.

U.S. and Taliban negotiators have been trying to find agreement on four interconnected issues: the Taliban breaking off ties with groups designated as terrorist by Washington; the timetable of a U.S. military withdrawal; a cease-fire in Afghanistan; and an intra-Afghan dialogue that would include the Taliban and government representatives.

The sides have reached a draft agreement on the first two issues, but progress on the latter two have been slow.

Advocates of talks like those held in Moscow say meetings between Taliban members and political figures not formally associated with the Afghan government are a way of laying groundwork for broader negotiations, but critics contend that they undermine the government and strengthen the Taliban.

After the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 following an unsuccessful nine-year war of occupation and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, partly due to the cost of the conflict in terms of money and morale, Moscow had less involvement in Afghanistan. But Russia has been assuming a more prominent role in diplomacy over Afghanistan in recent years, as President Vladimir Putin has sought to increase its clout around the world.

Taliban officials met a delegation of powerful Afghan power brokers in Moscow in November and February, but those talks did not include members of Ghani's government.

The February talks marked the most significant contact between senior Afghan political figures and the militant group since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Khalilzad welcomed Russia’s efforts in the peace process, although some U.S. officials have said Moscow is promoting itself as a power broker in order to challenge the U.S.-backed peace process with the Taliban in Qatar.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a 23,000-strong NATO-led mission that is training and assisting the government’s security forces in their fight against Taliban militants and other extremist groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Reuters, TASS, Interfax, and AFP
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