The Taliban said Monday they will participate in what they call "intra-Afghan" talks in Moscow designed to bring together prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai, opposition figures and tribal elders — but no Kabul government officials.
The two-day meeting in the Russian capital, which starts Tuesday, is seen as another step in a process aimed at resolving Afghanistan's 17-year war, a process that has accelerated since the appointment last September of US peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad has been holding separate negotiations with the Taliban even as he presses for a dialogue that would bring together all key Afghan players.
However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office criticized the meeting in Moscow, saying that Afghan politicians attending the gathering were doing so "in order to gain power." Ghani's chief adviser, Fazel Fazly, tweeted that it was "regrettable."
Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, confirmed the Taliban participation. Their delegation is to be led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.
The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani's government, which they denounce as a US puppet.
A statement released on Monday by Afghans attending the Moscow meeting described it as "the first step toward intra-Afghan dialogue."
Along with Karzai, the former president, many of the 38 delegates from Kabul have held prominent government positions. Two presidential hopefuls are among those going to Moscow, including Hanif Atmar, who resigned as Ghani's security adviser last August, apparently over differences with the president.
Also on the list are powerful warlords turned politicians and former Taliban insurgents who reconciled with the Kabul administration.
The Moscow gathering will further isolate Ghani, who has been irked by Khalilzad's direct talks with the Taliban as well as the U.S. envoy's successive rounds of talks in regional countries.
The Russian government has denied orchestrating the meeting. Monday's statement from Kabul said the Moscow-based Council of Afghan Society, an organization of the Afghan diaspora in Russia, was behind it.
It said the participants would discuss a range of issues, from a cease-fire, supporting Khalilzad initiatives to further "intra-Afghan" talks and ways to ensure a "powerful and democratic central government" in Afghanistan.
Washington has made no comments so far about the Russia-hosted talks. Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, following the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington has spent more than USD 1 trillion on Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to bring US troops home, adding to the urgency of Khalilzad's mission.
Reports late last year suggested Trump was considering withdrawing at least half of Washington's estimated 15,000 troops from Afghanistan by the summer.