Taleban negotiators visit Moscow days after Trump says talks are 'dead'

Taleban spokesman Suhail Shaheen (pictured) reportedly said that the Taleban delegation held consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy for Afghanistan.
Taleban spokesman Suhail Shaheen (pictured) reportedly said that the Taleban delegation held consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy for Afghanistan.PHOTO: AP

MOSCOW (AP) - A negotiating team from the Taleban arrived on Friday (Sept 13) in Russia, a representative told The Associated Press, just days after US President Donald Trump declared dead a deal with the insurgent group in Afghanistan.

Russian state news agency Tass cited the taleban's Qatar-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen as saying the delegation had held consultations with Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin's envoy for Afghanistan. The visit was confirmed to the AP by a Taleban official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to reporters.

The Interfax news agency cited an unidentified Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the meeting in Russia underlined the necessity of renewing talks between the U.S. and the Taleban, and that the Taleban confirmed their readiness to continuing dialogue with Washington.

It was the Taleban's first international visit following the collapse of talks with Washington. The team was being led by Mullah Sher Mohammad Stanikzai.

"This is a notable development, as it suggests the Taleban wants to underscore its continued interest in dialogue, even after President Trump pulled the plug on the US-Taleban talks," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Centre. "And how striking that the insurgents have chosen to telegraph a message of conciliation by engaging with Moscow, a key U.S. rival that has made great efforts to deepen ties with the Taleban in recent months." In a weekend tweet, Trump had called off negotiations and cancelled a meeting he said he wanted to have with Afghan government leaders and the Taleban at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Shaheen told the Taleban's official website on Tuesday that the group was still communicating with U.S. negotiators, at least to find out what to do next.

The Taleban shura, or leadership council, opposed its negotiators going to Camp David and admonished those who had accepted U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad's invitation that was extended at the end of August.

Shaheen was quoted on the website as saying the Camp David visit was delayed, saying the Taleban wanted the agreement signed and witnessed by foreign ministers of several countries, including Russia. He said Taleban also wanted Qatar to announce the agreement before any Camp David meeting.

Moscow has been accused of aiding the Taleban as a safeguard against a burgeoning Islamic State affiliate that has close ties to the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, a militant group in Central Asia. Russia has stepped up its defences in Central Asia and has claimed thousands of IS fighters were in northern Afghanistan Moscow has twice this year hosted meetings between the Taleban and prominent Afghan personalities.

While Washington has been seeking an exit to its longest war, the Taleban are at their strongest since their ouster in 2001 and hold sway over more than half the country, staging near-daily, deadly attacks across Afghanistan.

Khalilzad's year-long peace mission has been Washington's most dedicated push for peace, focusing not just on the Taleban, Afghanistan's government and prominent Afghan powerbrokers but also on Pakistan and Russia, as well as Iran, which has trained Afghan fighters known as the Fatimayoun Brigade that fought alongside Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Syria.

Khalilzad has focused his efforts on regional players almost as much as on the Taleban and Afghan government interlocutors. Earlier this year, the U.S. released a statement signed by the U.S., China and Russia supporting Khalilzad's peace efforts that called not just for an agreement on U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal and Taleban anti-terrorism guarantees but also a promise for intra-Afghan talks in which Afghans would decide the fate of their country as well as the terms of a cease-fire.