By Elena Teslova
As the second round of the Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan ended in the Russian capital, the Afghan government and Taliban still seemed far apart and unlikely to negotiate unmediated without a breakthrough.
Participants at the meeting focused on launching direct inter-Afghan dialogue aiming at stabilization of the country and “agreed to continue consultations within the framework of this mechanism," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a final communique following the meeting.
Din Mohammad Azizullah, head of the Afghan government delegation, confirmed that he had "brief talks" with the Taliban members at a working lunch, characterizing the talks as "friendly."
But Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who led the Taliban group, reiterated that the Taliban does not see the current government in Kabul as legitimate.
"This government does not represent the people of Afghanistan, so we reject direct contact with them before the problem with the U.S. is solved. Therefore, we will talk with the Americans, especially about the withdrawal of troops," he said.
"We met with the American side at the negotiating table and asked them to leave Afghanistan. But, of course, so far these negotiations are at a very early stage, we haven’t reached an agreement yet," he said.
First direct, high-level talks
The meeting marked the first time the Afghan government and Taliban meet for direct talks at a high level.
The conference was held at the level of deputy foreign ministers and related special representatives.
Addressing participants at the start of the conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the meeting is meant to seek paths to national reconciliation in Afghanistan.
Before the meeting, Habiba Sarabi, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council delegation, said the Afghan government delegation came to Moscow to talk to the Taliban.
"Our expectations are to talk to the Taliban members at this meeting," she said.
She added: "We came here for a political solution. We appreciate the efforts of any country that tries to contribute to Afghan peace."
Afghan government urges talks without preconditions
The Afghan government and Taliban representatives made separate statements following the end of the official part of the conference.
Eshan Taheri, representative of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, said that Kabul was ready for direct talks with the Taliban without preconditions.
"We confirmed to them [Taliban representatives] that we are ready to go on negotiations without conditions. We asked them to define a date and place for the direct talks," he said.
The meeting in Moscow helped move things in this direction, he added.
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Mohammed Suhail Shaheen stressed that the withdrawal of foreign troops is crucial for the Afghan peace process.
He also denied reports of deliveries of Russian weapons to the Taliban, saying that they are not true.
Kabul sent to Moscow a five-member delegation led by Azizullah, the deputy chair of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, with Habiba Sarabi as spokesperson.
Afghan Ambassador to Russia Qayum Kochai joined the group in Moscow.
Taliban spokesman Mohammed Suhail Shaheen declined to specify the number in their delegation, but five Taliban representatives were present at a roundtable in the conference hall, and beforehand, up to nine people were seen. Stanikzai, the head of the Taliban’s Political Office, led the delegation.
The Afghan and Taliban delegations were divided at the roundtable only by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, presiding over the meeting on behalf of the host country.
Russian Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov helped Morgulov mediate the conference.
Diplomats from seven countries gave speeches during the meeting: Pakistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Muhemmed Aejaz, Iranian Foreign Ministry top official for Western Asia Rasul Eslami, China’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Deng Xijun, Kazakhstan’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi, Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nurlan Abdrahmanov, Tajikistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zohir Ozod Saidzoda, and Uzbekistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ismatulla Irgashev.