Unlikely allies Russia and U.S. push Afghan enemies to accept interim government

Charlotte Greenfield and Rupam Jain
·4-min read
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Kabul

By Charlotte Greenfield and Rupam Jain

(Reuters) - Russia hosts a summit on Thursday to revive the Afghan peace process, the first in a series of meetings that make unlikely allies of Washington and Moscow as they try to pave the way for an interim government in Kabul and end the bloodshed.

The United States is shifting the focus from largely stalled negotiations in Qatar's capital to meetings among key regional countries aimed at pushing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Taliban insurgents and other Afghan political leaders to form a transitory government as soon as possible.

The Moscow meeting will include U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and representatives from Pakistan and China, according to officials. A team of Afghan political leaders and government representatives and a Taliban delegation will also attend.

Khalilzad has been trying to drum up support for a written proposal that includes an interim government and ceasefire, as U.S. President Joe Biden reviews plans for Afghanistan ahead of a May 1 troop withdrawal deadline agreed with the Taliban by the Trump administration.

The Moscow gathering will be followed by a meeting of regional players in the first week of April in Turkey and a summit that Khalilzad has asked the United Nations to organise, styled on a 2001 conference in the German city of Bonn.

It was there that Afghan leaders met to set up a provisional administration after the Islamist Taliban was ousted by local forces backed by the U.S. military.

Some diplomats and experts said that for the renewed peace push to succeed, Washington must align itself with countries including Russia, China and Iran, with which it has strained relations.

Both Russia and the United States support the idea of an interim government, said a diplomatic source whose country will be present in Moscow, which could pressure Afghan leaders to give ground while Pakistan leans on the Taliban to do the same.

"If they are working together it is very possible to bring this war to an end," the source said, adding the main hurdle was any lingering mistrust between Moscow and Washington.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the meeting in Russia complemented the Doha process and that Washington was engaging with regional countries, though believed the peace process should be "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned at its core".

"We have never sought to be prescriptive. Rather we are encouraging the sides to accelerate the peace process and make progress toward a political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire," the spokesperson said.

MUTUAL SUSPICION, CHALLENGES AHEAD

The warring Afghan sides have yet to reach a peace deal amid mutual suspicion and ongoing violence in Afghanistan which the government largely blames on the Taliban.

The Islamist militant movement sees Ghani as a lackey of the West and insists remaining foreign troops leave the country.

Iran, which borders Afghanistan, is not attending the Moscow meeting. The source said Tehran had communicated it would accept an interim government so long as it had representation from minority ethnic groups that have historic ties with Iran.

Iranian officials and Russia's foreign ministry could not be immediately reached for comment.

Three diplomatic sources and one international official said that traditional U.S. partners including European and NATO nations felt sidelined by Washington's regional push.

Some experts said that, although talks in Doha had struggled to make headway since starting in September, peace negotiations tend to take time.

"They're scrambling as if they need to fix a broken process, but it's barely even started," said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst at International Crisis Group.

There are also concerns among some officials over whether an interim government – which Ghani has vehemently opposed and the Taliban have said they would not join – is feasible.

A Taliban leader said they would avoid joining an interim government, although they would support replacing Ghani's administration. He added that they had refused a request to allow U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan after April.

A Taliban spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Three more diplomatic sources familiar with the discussions said Ghani was under intense pressure from the United States to accept an interim government.

Key to the Taliban, a separate source familiar with negotiations said, was an Islamic jurisprudence council that would oversee the president. They also wanted half of government positions and the chance to nominate a president.

A spokesman for Ghani's office denied any pressure, saying the leader had a respectful working relationship with the United States and that no amount of pressure would lead him to accept an unelected interim government.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Rupam Jain in New Delhi, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Jonathan Landay in Washington and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan and Dubai Newsroom; Editing by Mike Collett-White/Mark Heinrich)