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EXPLAINER: Stakes high as Moscow opens 1st of 3 Afghan meets

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FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2020, file photo, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Russia is to host on Thursday, March 18, 2021, the first of three international conferences aimed at jump-starting a stalled Afghanistan peace process ahead of a May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country. (AP Photo/Hussein Sayed, File)

ISLAMABAD – Russia is to host on Thursday the first of three international conferences aimed at jump-starting a stalled Afghanistan peace process ahead of a May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country.

The withdrawal date was set under a year-old agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. President Joe Biden told ABC in an interview aired Wednesday that he is consulting with allies on the pace of the drawdown. Meeting the May 1 deadline “could happen, but it is tough," he said. If the deadline is extended, he added, it won’t be by “a lot longer.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has tried to convey a sense of urgency to Afghanistan's rival factions. After Thursday's meeting in Moscow, he wants the United Nations to convene a conference of foreign ministers from Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, China and the United States “to provide a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan." In a third step, he wants a peace deal signed at the third conference, to be held in Turkey by the time of the U.S. withdrawal.

But many seemingly unsolvable problems remain. Rival Afghan leaders have checkered and violent histories. Caught in the middle are ordinary Afghans, wary their uncertain future is to be determined by warlords, a corrupt administration, and the fundamentalist Taliban.

The Moscow conference is seen as a critical first step. Key players are attending, including U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who will lead a 10-member delegation. Representatives of Pakistan, Iran, India and China are also participating.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

America's main goal is an Afghanistan peace deal that guarantees its national security and that of its allies.

Washington has been at war in Afghanistan for 20 years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks masterminded by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden from his headquarters in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

After the U.S. spent nearly $1 trillion, militant groups remain powerful. Al-Qaida is still present in Afghanistan and an affiliate of the Islamic State group has taken root in the east of the country. Other groups include the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban, threatening Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a threat to Russia, and the Turkistan Islamic Movement founded by Uighur separatists, which threatens China.

The Trump administration agreement included a commitment from the Taliban to disavow terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan will not be used against the U.S or its allies. It's not clear how the insurgents plan to do that — or if they even can.

WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?

The Afghan government is corrupt and morale is low among Afghan troops. The National Afghan Security Forces are rife with so-called ghost soldiers, who exist only on paper, while enlisted men often don't get paid. Compensation to widows and veterans is stolen by crooked government officials. Such practices were detailed on Tuesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on National Security.

Sopko said the widespread corruption is strengthening the Taliban, has driven a deep wedge between Afghans and the government, and weakened the Afghan security forces, which Washington pays $4 billion a year to sustain.

Warlords with heavily armed militias, who were allies with the U.S. to oust the Taliban, are power brokers in today's Kabul. Yet, they have deep seated animosities that in the early 1990s resulted in four years of brutal fighting that destroyed much of Kabul and killed 50,000 Afghans, mostly civilians. Afghans fear the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops could result in a return to the fighting. Some members of the Senate subcommittee on Tuesday expressed fears that if chaos akin to those years followed a withdrawal of American soldiers, it would again make Afghanistan an attractive staging ground for terrorist groups to attack the U.S. and its allies.

Among the most powerful warlords in Kabul is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who when last in power between 1992-96 used Afghanistan's national Ariana airlines to bring bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan in May 1996, before the Taliban took power. Also in Kabul is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who was a U.S.-designated terrorist until 2017, when he struck a deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whom he loudly opposes today.

The Taliban — who during their rule imposed a harsh brand of Islam on Afghanistan that denied girls school and women the right to work and participate in public life — now control or hold sway in roughly 50% of the country. Blinken has warned that without U.S. and NATO troops, it is likely the Taliban would make quick territorial gains.

WHAT CHALLENGES LIE AHEAD?

Roughly 80% of the Afghan budget is financed by international donors, including a major chunk by the U.S. Without international financing the government would likely collapse.

The Taliban demanding that the Trump-era agreement be the basis for negotiations; they want more prisoners released from Afghan prisons and their leaders removed from the U.N.'s so-called black list.

Sopko on Tuesday stressed the need for accountability. At least one member of the Senate subcommittee pointed out that all sides in the Afghan imbroglio are vulnerable. America fears a chaos that would make Afghanistan a free-for-all once again for terrorists while the government in Kabul fears withdrawal of foreign money that sustains it. The Taliban fear losing diplomatic and political gains they made in the deal with the U.S. and also losing the international interaction and high-profile role they had during peace talks with major world powers.