Moscow strengthens foothold in Afghanistan as US mulls pullout

Published 08.02.2019 00:03

In a broader effort to counter the U.S. and NATO in the region, Russia has emerged as a major player by holding its own peace talks with the Taliban and Afghan politicians.

Following two days of negotiations in Moscow, representatives from the Taliban insurgency and Afghan politicians agreed for a broad road map to end the decades-long war in Afghanistan.

The road map is mostly focused on a U.S. troop withdrawal and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan would not again be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack other countries.

Russia is ready to help the U.S. advance its negotiations with the Taliban on withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, the RIA news agency cited Russia's foreign ministry as saying yesterday.

A Taliban official said Wednesday that the U.S. had promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, but the U.S. military said no timeframe had been set.

Taliban official Abdul Salam Hanafi, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow between the Taliban and other prominent Afghan figures, said that U.S. officials promised the pullout will begin this month. "The Americans told us that from the beginning of February to the end of April, half of the troops from Afghanistan will be withdrawn," he said. Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning said, however, the U.S. military had received no orders to begin withdrawing. "Peace talks with the Taliban continue, but (the Defense Department) has not received a directive to change the force structure in Afghanistan," he said. Hanafi said the U.S. and the Taliban will each create a technical committee that "will work on a timetable for the withdrawal of remaining troops." The Pentagon has reportedly prepared plans to withdraw half its 14,000 troops by the summer. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the U.S. has been holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. "As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counterterrorism," he said.

Meanwhile, the extraordinary two-day gathering in Moscow saw Taliban leaders stand shoulder-to-shoulder with former president Hamid Karzai, who called the insurgents his "brothers" as both sides agreed to seek lasting peace. No government official was invited to the roundtable, which saw heavyweight Afghan politicians and other sworn enemies of the Taliban praying and dining with the militants. It was the second time President Ashraf Ghani was frozen out of such talks in recent weeks after the U.S. held entirely separate discussions with the insurgents in Doha without Kabul.

The two sides agreed to hold another meeting "as soon as possible" in Qatar, they said in a joint statement quoted by TV station Tolo News. The Taliban have a semi-official office in Doha. The lack of a formal address in Afghanistan has been a sticking point in talks with the Afghan government. The head of the Taliban delegation, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said in Moscow that having such a base was vital for peace talks to move forward.

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