Russia is hosting the Taliban for talks in Moscow on Wednesday, seeking to assert its influence in Central Asia and press for action against Islamic State group fighters who it says have focused on perennially volatile Afghanistan.
The talks, which attract officials from 10 countries, including China and Pakistan, are one of the most important international gatherings of the Taliban since they took power in mid-August.
They come after Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that IS fighters were gathering in Afghanistan to sow discord in the former Soviet republics that flank Russia.
Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will address the meeting.
The Taliban delegation is led by Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, a high-ranking figure in the new Afghan leadership who led talks with the European Union and the United States last week.
Those followed talks in Ankara between the Taliban and Turkish officials.
Brussels has pledged a billion euros ($ 1.2 billion) to prevent a humanitarian crisis after the hardline group took office.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that one of the goals of the Moscow meeting was to consolidate “efforts by the international community to prevent a humanitarian crisis.”
Moscow also said that the formation of an “inclusive government” would be on the agenda and that the parties to the talks were expected to issue a joint statement later.
Moscow has reached out to the Taliban and hosted their representatives in Moscow several times in recent years, despite the Taliban being a designated terrorist organization in Russia.
‘Grupo IS, concerns about drug trafficking’
Senior Russian officials, including Putin, have voiced a host of other security-related concerns since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and foreign troops withdrew after nearly 20 years.
The Russian president warned last week that some 2,000 fighters loyal to the Islamic State group had converged in northern Afghanistan, adding that its leaders planned to send them to neighboring Central Asian countries disguised as refugees.
After the Taliban takeover, Russia conducted military exercises together with Afghanistan’s neighboring ex-Soviet countries.
Lavrov also warned that drug trafficking from Afghanistan had reached “unprecedented” levels, a concern that has since been echoed by the Kremlin during meetings with other Central Asian countries and China.
Despite reaching out to the Taliban, Russian officials, including Putin, have made clear in recent weeks that Moscow is not moving toward formal recognition of the Islamist regime.
“Official recognition is not being discussed and that has been publicly stated,” Lavrov said, but noted that Russia, like other countries in the region, maintains contact with the group.
In the 1980s, Moscow fought a disastrous decade-long war in Afghanistan that killed two million Afghans, forced seven million more to flee their homes, and killed more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers.