Russia holds high-profile Afghanistan talks with Taliban

Russia has hosted the most high-profile international talks on Afghanistan since the Taliban took power, calling for an injection of aid to help the crippled economy but also demanding a more inclusive government.

Senior Russian diplomats made clear that formal recognition of the Taliban regime was not on the table until it does more to improve human rights and broadens an all-male cabinet, most of them clerics from the Pashtun ethnic group.

“A big political bargaining is going on,” Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told reporters at the Moscow conference, which was attended by Taliban officials. He said the international community’s key demands for the Taliban were “both human rights and inclusivity”.

There are particular concerns that the Taliban are barring girls from secondary schooling, and have banned women from most work outside the education and healthcare sectors. The women’s affairs ministry has been replaced by the Taliban’s notorious enforcers, the ministry for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue.

Other major human rights abuses documented over the last two months include reprisal killings, despite an official amnesty, and driving members of ethnic and religious minorities out of their homes.

Despite concerns about the Taliban government, Kabulov said Afghanistan needed international aid to ward off an impending catastrophe. The economy has all but collapsed and the UN has already said 95% of Afghans are not getting enough to eat.

“Not everyone likes the new government in Afghanistan, but by punishing the government, we punish the whole people,” Kabulov said. He also urged the international community to abandon its “bias”.

Failure to provide immediate food aid and other support could lead to a refugee crisis, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said before the meeting, which brought together regional powers including China, Iran, Pakistan and central Asian republics. The US did not attend.

The Taliban have been a designated terrorist group in Moscow for the best part of two decades, but Russia has kept its embassy in Kabul open and is in regular contact with Afghanistan’s new rulers.

It is particularly worried that drugs and extremism could spill over the Afghan border into the central Asian states that link the two nations, and Lavrov paid tribute to Taliban efforts to stabilise the country.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer, and a strong regional Islamic State group has already mounted a string of suicide attacks.

“Numerous terrorist groups, notably the Islamic State and al-Qaida are trying to take advantage of the instability in the country mounting bloody attacks,” Lavrov said. “There is a real danger of terrorism and drugs spilling into the neighbouring nations under the guise of migration.”

Russia, which called on the Taliban to ensure Afghanistan did not become a base for international terrorists, has promised military support to central Asian nations and held joint drills with their militaries, most recently one this week with Tajikistan involving 5,000 troops.

The Taliban delegation was headed by Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, who said the previous time his group ruled offered a warning to the world now.

Millions of Afghans fled the group’s hardline rule in the 1990s, and the pariah regime offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the US.

“The isolation of Afghanistan is not in the interest of any side. This has been proven in the past," Egli ha detto. “The government of Afghanistan is ready to address all the concerns of the international community with all clarity, transparency and openness.”

The gathering came the day after the country’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, addressed male relatives of suicide attackers inside a high-end Kabul hotel that had previously been targeted by Taliban suicide squads.

He praised the “martyrs” as “heroes of Islam and the country” and promised land and about £70 in cash to their surviving relatives.

The most recent suicide attack on the Kabul Intercontinental hotel in 2018 killed dozens of people including many airline employees. It was attributed to the Haqqani network, run by the interior minister’s family.

Haqqani is on an FBI wanted list, with a $10m (£7m) bounty on his head, and has not been photographed in years. Images from his latest Kabul gathering showed his face obscured or blurred out.

Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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