US skips out on 11-state Afghanistan peace conference, says Russia trying to ‘assert influence’

Irshad Salim, MAMOSA Report — Washington did not attend the latest international conference hosted by Moscow, where 11 nations discussed ways of bringing peace to Afghanistan. The US branded it a “unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region.”

Friday’s meeting is the latest in a series of similar events in the Russian capital that have grown from trilateral consultations between Russia, China, and Pakistan held in December of last year into talks involving the majority of the Afghan region’s powers. The latest included Russia, China, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Representatives of NATO nations and the United Nations were not in attendance.

This is the third meet in five months, stepping up diplomatic efforts to find ways for reconciliation in the war-torn country and settling Afghanistan’s drawn-out struggle and Taliban insurgency, Radio Pakistan reported.

An invitation was sent to America, but was rejected, Russian TV (RT) reported on its website. The Trump administration’s decision not to attend could be yet another sign of an increasingly icy relationship between Washington and Moscow.

“I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks – it was unclear to us what the purpose was,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday, in explaining the US absence, the report said.

“It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn’t constructive at this time,” he noted.

However, Toner also stated at the press briefing on Thursday that “we do plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue” between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Related article: U.S. National Security Adviser McMaster to visit Pakistan, Afghanistan, India

Moscow responded by saying it “could not comprehend” the US’ reason for snubbing the gathering. However, Trump has dispatched his first high-level delegation to Afghanistan led by the National Security Adviser HR McMasterto begin to formulate a strategy for a war that has entangled NATO forces for over 15 years.

In an interview with DW, Nicole Birtsch from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) pointed out that a previous Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) headed up by the US had failed to reach its goal of establishing peace talks. “Washington will not likely accept Russia in a leading role,” Birtsch said.

The announcement of U.S. administration’s absence from the conference coincided with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visit with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday. After the visit, Tillerson described US-Russian relations as being at a “low point,” with many experts suggesting an increasing geopolitical rivalry.

The conference in Moscow comes a day after the US dropped its most powerful conventional bomb called “mother of all bombs” on a IS hideout in Afghanistan, marking the first time the 22,000-lb weapon has been used in combat.

Participants in the event reiterated their support for a peaceful transition in Afghanistan, while calling for Kabul to be supported in moving in that direction.

“A call has been sent to the Taliban movement to abandon its line for a military solution of the Afghan conflict in favor of direct talks with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the issue of national reconciliation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the conference.

The statement added that more consultations in this format will follow, while noting that Moscow has offered to host them again.

Moscow and China have separately been trying to persuade the Taliban to focus less on Kabul and more on the more imminent threat – the advances of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group.

Washington has criticized such initiatives, citing the Taliban’s record of waging guerilla warfare against the Afghan government.

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