- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2018

Russia on Monday officially called off a major peace conference on Afghanistan scheduled for next week after both the U.S. and Afghan governments said they wouldn’t attend, leaving the Taliban as the only key player left on the guest list.

The disintegration of the high-stakes gathering is a blow to Moscow’s efforts to exert its influence over the region and raise its profile as a force on the geopolitical stage. Monday’s development also underscores the deep difficulty that remains in bringing together the Taliban and Afghan government for any formal peace talks amid an uptick in deadly, high-profile Taliban attacks across the country.

Russian officials said they were merely postponing the Moscow conference and that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has agreed to participate at some point in the future. The meeting had been scheduled for Sept. 4.

“While supporting the idea for organizing a Moscow meeting in principle, the president of Afghanistan offered to postpone it due to a necessity to develop a consolidated position of the Afghan side on this issue, keeping in mind the changes in the leadership of Afghanistan’s power bloc,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “They have agreed to set a new date for the meeting together via diplomatic channels.”

Russia, which has searing memories from the ill-fated Soviet invasion in the 1980s, invited 12 countries and the Taliban to the meeting. It’s unclear exactly which nations were still planning to attend, but the meeting would’ve carried little weight without the U.S. and Afghan governments in attendance.

Mr. Ghani’s government had already said last week it wouldn’t attend the conference because it wouldn’t allow for direct negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban has steadfastly refused to talk to Mr. Ghani’s administration, viewing the government in Kabul as an illegitimate puppet of the U.S. and the West.

“The main and essential principle is to hold peace talks under the ownership of Afghans,” Mr. Ghani said in a statement, according to Bloomberg.

There have been unexpected signs of diplomatic movement in the 17-year conflict in recent months, following an unexpected successful but brief cease-fire earlier this summer.

The Taliban have said they are willing to talk with the U.S. directly. Late last month, senior U.S. officials met with Taliban leaders in a historic round of peace talks in Qatar, though so far it appears the Trump administration has been unable to persuade Taliban leaders to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

After that meeting, administration officials maintained that the peace process would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.”

Publicly, U.S. officials have expressed renewed optimism that nearly two decades of conflict in Afghanistan could be nearing an end and that Mr. Ghani’s government could reach a lasting peace accord with the Taliban.

“We believe that there are many actors who are coming together to try and achieve what it is President Ghani has so elegantly discussed. … We’re optimistic that the region, the world are all tired of what’s taking place here in the same way the vast majority of the Afghan people no longer wish to see violence and war,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Afghanistan last month.

But there’s still reason for concern. The Taliban in recent months has launched a wave of major attacks, including a brief takeover of the provincial capital of Ghazni and a rocket attack last week on the presidential palace as Mr. Ghani was marking the start of the Islamic holiday of Eid-al Adha.

As of May, the Afghan government controls roughly 56 percent of the country’s 407 districts, according to U.S. government figures, with much of the rural countryside in the Taliban’s hands.

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