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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2019 file photo, released by the Foreign Office, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, left, receives U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad, Pakistan. Khalilzad is in a hurry to find a peace deal for Afghanistan that would allow America to bring home its troops after 17 years of war. The main talks are between Khalilzad and the Taliban’s political leadership, which is based in the Gulf nation of Qatar. Khalilzad is meeting with Pakistan, which is widely believed to harbor the Taliban’s top leadership, as well as China, India and Russia, which have an interest in stabilizing the region -- and in expanding their influence. (Pakistan Foreign Office, via AP, File)

ISLAMABAD -- The Taliban said Monday they will participate in "intra-Afghan" talks in Moscow designed to bring together prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai, opposition figures and tribal elders -- but no Kabul government officials.

The two-day meeting in the Russian capital, which starts today, is seen as another step in a process aimed at resolving Afghanistan's 17-year war, a process that has accelerated since the appointment last September of U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad has been holding separate negotiations with the Taliban even as he presses for a dialogue that would bring together all key Afghan players.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office criticized the meeting in Moscow, saying that Afghan politicians attending the gathering were doing so "in order to gain power." Ghani's chief adviser, Fazel Fazly, tweeted that it was "regrettable."

Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, confirmed the insurgents' participation. A 10-member Taliban delegation would be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.

The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani's government, which they denounce as a U.S. puppet.

A statement released Monday by Afghans attending the Moscow meeting described it as "the first step toward intra-Afghan dialogue." Along with Karzai, many of the 38 delegates from Kabul have held prominent government positions. Two presidential hopefuls are among those going to Moscow, including Hanif Atmar, who resigned as Ghani's security adviser last August, apparently over differences with the president.

Also on the list are powerful warlords-turned-politicians and former Taliban insurgents who reconciled with the Kabul administration.

The only woman on the list, lawmaker and activist Fawzia Koofi, has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights and girls' education, once posting pictures of her daughters on her Twitter feed asking the Taliban: "What about my daughters' education?" The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, imposing harsh forms of Islamic law limiting women's education and rights.

Karzai tweeted he was traveling to Moscow with "a message of peace, unity, sovereignty and progress for all of us; the men, women and children of our beloved country."

However, Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive, said the Afghan government should be at the center of any peace talks, adding that Kabul "would prefer the Moscow meeting had a different shape."

Abdullah said that the Taliban were the biggest obstacle to peace, but that if the Moscow meeting creates "an opening for real peace talks, it would still be a step forward."

The Taliban have been staging near-daily attacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the Afghan army and security forces.

The Russian government has denied orchestrating the meeting. Monday's statement from Kabul said the Council of Afghan Society, a Moscow-based organization of the Afghan diaspora, was behind it.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said the meetings are an Afghan initiative aimed at laying the foundation for an eventual peace process.

"The Russian side welcomes this initiative of Afghanistan's civil society and believes that a direct dialogue between Afghans can make a political dialogue in Afghanistan more inclusive and open the way for engaging armed opposition," said the Russian statement.

"The planned meeting effectively implements the principle of a peace process led by the Afghans and owned by the Afghans, which has been approved by the international community."

The statement did not address the absence of Afghan government representatives or Ghani's criticism.

The Afghan statement issued by those attending the meeting said the participants would discuss a range of issues, from a cease-fire and supporting Khalilzad's initiatives to further intra-Afghan talks and ways to ensure a "powerful and democratic central government" in Afghanistan.

A statement from the Taliban said the Moscow conference aims to "open channels to reaching an understanding with non-government Afghan political groups" and that the Taliban would use the opportunity to clarify their position, based on Islamic law, for the future and an intra-Afghan Islamic system of governance.

Washington has made no comments so far about the Russia-hosted talks.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington has spent more than $1 trillion on Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to bring U.S. troops home, adding to the urgency of Khalilzad's mission.

Information for this article was contributed by Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/05/2019

Print Headline: Taliban set Afghan talks; government not invited

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  • Foghorn
    February 5, 2019 at 1:28 p.m.

    So after almost 2 decades of US troop presence in Afghanistan, over 2000 US troop deaths and over 20,000 US troop mailings, Trump’s boss, Putin, is hosting a meeting of Taliban + former and future leaders of Afghanistan, but not the current administration because they represent US interests. And Taliban continue to murder people on a daily basis using US-provided weapons taken from the cowardly Afghan army. If this is not proof certain that we need to pull all US personnel from Afghanistan immediately, I don’t know what is.

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