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Russia circles Afghan peace talks

by The Associated Press | February 21, 2021 at 2:40 a.m.
FILE In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. With talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalled and Washington reviewing its options, Russia has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to push peace in Afghanistan making the rounds of regional players, including in Pakistan on Friday, as well as meeting Taliban and senior Afghan officials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

ISLAMABAD -- With talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalled and the new administration in Washington mulling its options, Russia is stepping up efforts to find a way forward in the peace process.

Moscow's emissaries have been making the rounds, visiting regional players and meeting officials and senior Taliban figures -- even as a NATO ministerial conference last week concluded that there is no easy solution on how to end Afghanistan's protracted war.

Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for Afghanistan, was in Pakistan on Friday for talks with officials. Islamabad has been a key player with significant influence over the Taliban.

Separately, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, was in Pakistan last week to meet with Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Their agenda too was Afghanistan. While the statement following the meeting was vague, Pakistan is seen as key to getting the Taliban, whose leadership maintains homes and headquarters in Pakistan, to agree to a reduction in violence leading to an eventual cease-fire.

Washington and Kabul have been pressing for a cease-fire while the Taliban say they will negotiate it as part of peace talks with the Afghan government.

Under a February 2020 deal that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban, Washington committed to a May 1 withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan -- which, after 20 years, has become America's longest conflict.

President Joe Biden is now conducting a review of that deal, though the Taliban have warned that there would be no wiggle room on the deadline, threatening to restart the war with the U.S. and NATO if it's not met.

Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement was signed, the Taliban have kept their commitment not to attack NATO and U.S. troops but are relentlessly targeting Afghan forces, which have also been conducting operations against the insurgents. The spike in violence across Afghanistan is undermining any prospects of a tangible cease-fire.

The Taliban today are the strongest they have been since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled their regime for sheltering the mastermind of 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

During his unannounced visit to Islamabad on Friday, the Russian envoy met with Bajwa, as well as Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Few details came out of Kabulov's meetings except a statement saying that Afghanistan and efforts to reach a peace deal dominated the discussions.

Russia has often waded into the diplomatic arena on Afghanistan, and last month a delegation of the Taliban visited Moscow -- as they have done in the past, during critical moments for the peace process.

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

FILE - In this file photo taken on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, left, speaks to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, third left, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, third right, and other members of the Taliban delegation prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia. With talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalled and Washington reviewing its options, Russia has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to push peace in Afghanistan making the rounds of regional players, including in Pakistan on Friday, as well as meeting Taliban and senior Afghan officials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
FILE - In this file photo taken on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, left, speaks to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, third left, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, third right, and other members of the Taliban delegation prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia. With talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalled and Washington reviewing its options, Russia has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to push peace in Afghanistan making the rounds of regional players, including in Pakistan on Friday, as well as meeting Taliban and senior Afghan officials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
In this photo released by Inter Services Public Relations, Zamir Kabulov, left, Russia's President Vladimir Putin's special envoy on Afghanistan meets with Pakistan's Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, I Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. Kabulov was in Pakistan, a key regional player in efforts to find a peaceful end to Afghanistan's protracted war. During his unannounced visit , Kabulov met Pakistan's powerful army chief as well as the foreign minister. Few details came out of the meeting except that Afghanistan and getting to a peace deal dominated talks. Last month a delegation of the Taliban was in Moscow. (Inter Services Public Relations via AP)
In this photo released by Inter Services Public Relations, Zamir Kabulov, left, Russia's President Vladimir Putin's special envoy on Afghanistan meets with Pakistan's Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, I Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. Kabulov was in Pakistan, a key regional player in efforts to find a peaceful end to Afghanistan's protracted war. During his unannounced visit , Kabulov met Pakistan's powerful army chief as well as the foreign minister. Few details came out of the meeting except that Afghanistan and getting to a peace deal dominated talks. Last month a delegation of the Taliban was in Moscow. (Inter Services Public Relations via AP)
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