ISLAMABAD - Russia said Monday the Taliban has secretly held 10 rounds of talks with the United States, other than the officially announced recent contact between the two sides in Qatar on how to end the war in Afghanistan.
There have been only two publicly known meetings U.S. officials have held with representatives of the Islamist insurgency since July in their so-called "political office in Doha", the capital of the Gulf country. The latest contact occurred last month where the newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, led the U.S. team.
"We have been told they (the Taliban) held around 10 secret consultations with Americans. This is a normal process when countries, and we want to believe in this, are trying to stimulate both parties, the Taliban and the Afghan government, to sit on the negotiating table without prerequisites," said Russian presidential envoy Zamir Kabulov.
The Trump administration has stepped up its efforts for a way to end the war in Afghanistan, the longest-ever U.S military intervention launched in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on American cities.
Last week, Khalilzad began his second visit in a month to Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to push his peace mission. He will be in the region until November 20.
FILE - Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (R) and U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), meet in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2018. (Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters)
'Modest first step'
Kabulov told a news conference in Moscow the American special envoy also plans to visit the Russian capital early next month to discuss Afghan peace efforts with him.
The Russian diplomat was briefing reporters on last Friday's conference of 12 nations Moscow hosted to discuss peace and security in Afghanistan, with a high-ranking Taliban delegation also in attendance.
The multilateral meeting in Moscow was a "unique" and broad international forum, Kabulov added, where Taliban delegates for the first time in 17 years publicly joined and sat next to an official Afghan delegation on the conference table for exchange of views.
He emphasized the goal of the conference was not to seek direct negotiations between Afghan warring sides, but was a "modest first step in that direction."
'They (Taliban) have outlined their plan of action in detail. [They] said they will be ready to speak with the Afghan government only after fixing a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan with the US," he added.
The Russian diplomat said the Taliban "as confidence-building measures under a preliminary plan, demand that all political prisoners be freed and anti-Taliban sanctions, which were imposed back in 1997, be lifted."
Diplomats, special representatives and officials from Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, the United States, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan participated in the event.
FILE - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) poses for a photo with participants of a conference on Afghanistan, in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 9, 2018.
'Broad representation' sought
Kabulov disputed Kabul's assertions that Afghan delegates who attended the meeting were not representing the government, but the country's "non-governmental institution" the High Peace Council. The Russian diplomat said the Afghan ambassador to Moscow joined the Afghan delegation at the table, making it "an official representative' of Afghanistan.
He said Moscow had sought a "broad representation' of Afghans at the meeting and proposed to invite prominent political personalities, including ex-president Hamid Karzai, former National Security advisor Haneef Atmar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and representatives of Hazara as well as Tajik communities.
But, Kabulov asserted, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opposed the Russian invitations as an interference in internal affairs of his country.
"Almost all of them were ready to participate, but we were quite surprised that the president of Afghanistan, being quite nervous, began to oppose the invitation of these political figures [who] are of course legitimate political leaders of Afghanistan," he said.
Kabulov added Moscow was attempting only to ensure representation of all Afghan groups at the table to make it inclusive consultations.
There was no immediate reaction from Afghan officials to Kabulov's comments about Ghani's rejection of Russia's initiative.