Representatives of the Taliban took a seat at a conference table in Moscow on Friday alongside members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, in a forum the Russian Foreign Ministry has billed as an unprecedented event.
To be clear, Friday's discussions are not peace talks. In opening remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday's conference -- the second session in a series dubbed the "Moscow format" -- was meant to encourage an atmosphere for dialogue between the warring sides in Afghanistan's long-running civil war.
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"The participation of the Taliban movement will be a large contribution to the formation of a good environment for the direct talks between the government, the Taliban movement and representatives of wide civil and political circles of the country," he said.
The very public presence of the Taliban in Moscow, however, is striking. The militant group has been previously designated as a terrorist organization by the Russian government, and Lavrov acknowledged the "mutual resentments and mistrust" that linger between the warring sides.
This is not the first time Taliban representatives have engaged in dialogue with members of the High Peace Council, a body originally set up by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But Friday's meeting brought together delegates from governments in the region, including those of Pakistan, India and Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. The US also sent a diplomat from its embassy in Moscow as an observer.
Organizing the meeting has required a delicate diplomatic dance. In August, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the Taliban would take part in a meeting planned for September, but the Russians subsequently agreed to postpone those talks at the request of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Russia said Ghani agreed to send the delegation to Friday's meeting. But Afghan officials have emphasized that the High Peace Council was not formally representing the Afghan government. Sibghatullah Ahmadi, the spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that Kabul, after negotiations with Moscow, decided not to participate in this meeting as a government.
Russia's long game
Previous efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan have faltered. The Taliban opened a political office in Qatar in 2013 as part of a U.S.-supported effort to create a platform for peace talks. But the opening of the Qatar office infuriated Karzai, who was angered by what became a publicity coup for the Taliban after they raised their flag over the office and gave it the trappings of an embassy.
Since then, the Taliban have made more territorial gains. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a congressionally mandated watchdog, recently issued a report saying the Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since the US invaded in 2001. Violence has continued, and Afghanistan has seen record numbers of civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, Russia is playing a long game in Central Asia. The Russian government and the US once shared a common cause in fighting the Taliban: Moscow once actively backed the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban for control of Afghanistan, and joined Washington in supporting UN sanctions against the Taliban during their rule.
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin even consented to US plans to establish bases in Central Asia, Russia's strategic backyard, as part of the campaign to topple the Taliban.
But relations between Washington and Moscow have soured in recent years, and US officials have accused Russia of hedging its bets by supplying arms to the Taliban.
Russia denies arming the Taliban, but readily admits its stepped-up diplomatic outreach to the militant group.
On Friday, such efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. Much as in Syria, where Russia has brokered successive rounds of peace talks, Moscow appears intent on shaping outcomes as the warring sides fumble toward a peace process.
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