Afghan opposition leaders are set to meet Taliban envoys in a meeting decried by Afghanistan government officials as a betrayal that could let insurgents exploit political divisions.
Leading politicians including the former president, Hamid Karzai, will start two days of talks in Moscow on Tuesday, even as the insurgent movement refuses to talk to the current president.
A 10-man Taliban delegation said it hoped to use the talks for “opening channels to reaching an understanding with non-government Afghan political groups”.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government has so far been sidelined from talks, with the Taliban saying his administration is a puppet of Washington.
The Afghan opposition figures heading to Moscow, including presidential election candidate Hanif Atmar and influential former governor Atta Mohammad Noor, said they would “defend national values”. Their meeting could open up the tentative US-led peace process up for Afghan-to-Afghan talks, they said.
But Mr Ghani’s government said the move undermined the Kabul administration and was a power grab by political rivals. The Moscow talks come ahead of a July presidential election.
Fazel Fazly, chief adviser to Mr Ghani, expressed “regret” that politicians who previously led Afghanistan’s democratic transition were to meet the Taliban.
“[They] are ready to bypass these principles and move towards [the principles’] destruction due to differences and being away from power,” he said.
Amrullah Saleh, Mr Ghani’s running mate for the July presidential elections, said there was “no alternative and substitute” to state-led peace negotiations. “We shouldn’t allow terrorists to divide our views.”
The Moscow meeting comes little over a week after Donald Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad said he and the Taliban had agreed in principle to a peace “framework”.
America would withdraw its troops, while the Taliban would promise to ensure international terrorist groups cannot again use the country to hatch attacks against the world.
The Taliban should talk to the government and hold a ceasefire, he said. Taliban envoys said they needed more time to discuss the ceasefire and talks with Kabul, and a new round of negotiations is set for later this month.
The Kremlin has denied orchestrating the Moscow meeting, but Western diplomats believe Russia is trying to influence any eventual settlement.
While the prospect of peace is welcomed by Afghans after years of bloodshed, many fear the talks are a fig leaf allowing Mr Trump to quit a war he believes is a costly failure.
It is unclear if the Taliban will abide by Afghanistan’s fragile democracy or whether they seek to seize power and reimpose the harsh Islamic law of their 1990s regime. A precipitous American pullout will only pitch the country into renewed civil war, many Afghans fear.
A Taliban statement said it would use the talks to clarify “Shariah-based and ethical stance to various parties”.
Activists on Monday warned that peace talks cannot allow the Taliban to roll back gains made on women’s rights since 2001.
“Afghan women would not accept peace bought at the cost of their hard-gained freedoms,” said a declaration by the Afghan Women’s Network.
“ We believe that any peace that threatens Afghan women’s rights, freedoms and gains will not be sustainable. Temporary restrictions on women’s rights in the name of peace and security is utterly unacceptable.”