Moscow: The Taliban hailed two days of unprecedented talks with Afghan politicians as "very successful", despite disagreements over women's rights and its demands for an Islamic constitution in the war-torn country.
The extraordinary gathering in Moscow was the Taliban's most significant with Afghan politicians in years, and concluded with both sides agreeing to future talks and ensuring a "durable and dignified peace" for the people of Afghanistan.
No government official was invited to the roundtable, which saw heavyweight leaders -- including former president Hamid Karzai -- and other sworn enemies of the Taliban praying with the militants.
It was the second time President Ashraf Ghani was frozen out of Taliban peace talks in recent weeks, after the United States held entirely separate discussions with the militants in Doha without Kabul.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, head of the Taliban delegation, made a rare appearance in front of international media alongside Karzai after the talks.
"This meeting was very successful," the black-turbaned Taliban official told reporters.
"We agreed on many points and I am hopeful that in future, we can succeed more further, and finally we can reach a solution. We can find a complete peace in Afghanistan."
A statement issued on behalf of all parties agreed to support peace talks in Doha with American negotiators, which President Donald Trump described on Tuesday as "constructive".
Participants also agreed on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
A timetable for that exit was "not fixed so far... but we are negotiating this", Stanikzai said.
Earlier Wednesday, a senior Taliban official told reporters the US had agreed to withdraw half its ground troops by the end of April -- a claim refuted by NATO and the US State Department.
- Kabul's involvement crucial -
Delegates at the Moscow meet also opened the door for the government to attend future dialogue -- despite the Taliban's steadfast refusal to talk with Kabul.
"The process should be all inclusive, which means the government can also be invited and would be part of this," said Mohammad Hanif Atmar, one of Ghani's chief rivals, who was present at Moscow.
The Taliban consider the Kabul administration a US puppet but Ghani's allies in Washington insist Afghans should lead the peace process.
Ostensibly, the months-long push by the US to engage the Taliban has been aimed at convincing them to negotiate with Kabul.
"Ultimately, we need to get to a Taliban-Afghanistan discussion," General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told US lawmakers.
"Only they will be able to resolve the key issues involved in the dispute."
Ghani said he had spoken late on Tuesday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had stressed the importance of "ensuring the centrality of the Afghan government in the peace process".
The Afghan president has vented frustration at being sidelined as his political enemies shared prayers and meals with the Taliban while discussing the future of his country.
- 'Nothing more than fantasy' -
"The Moscow meeting is nothing more than a fantasy. No one can decide without the consent of the Afghan people," Ghani told Afghan broadcaster TOLO news.
Karzai, the US-appointed president who ruled Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, declared agreements reached by the Moscow delegates as "very substantive".
"We are happy with the outcome of the meeting," he said.
He said the statement was "almost" issued in consensus -- but disagreements prevailed over the Taliban's demand for an Islamic constitution in Afghanistan, and the group's views on women.
Fawzia Koofi, one of two female delegates at the conference, disagreed with the militants' promise to uphold women's rights "in accordance with Islamic values".
"I... (lived) in Afghanistan during (the) Taliban time, and I know their interpretation of Islamic rights of (a) woman is different," Koofi, head of Afghanistan's parliamentary Committee on Women and Human Rights, told reporters.
She voted against the joint statement -- but said delegates had promised her concerns would be taken up at future negotiations.
Under their rule, the Taliban severely curtailed women's liberties, barring them from work and school, and confined women to their homes -- only allowing them outside with a male escort and hidden beneath a burqa.
In the Russian capital, the Taliban sat and listened as women defended their freedoms in a modern Afghanistan -- scenes unthinkable under their regime.
The Moscow conference was the Taliban's most significant engagement with Afghan leaders in recent memory.
The conference was also unique because the Taliban -- who banned television, cinemas and photography when they ruled Afghanistan -- are rarely so visible.
Their leadership is seldom seen in public and scenes of Taliban officials, some wearing black turbans with long beards, outlining their manifesto for live television is virtually unheard of.
Speaking to the Afghan envoys -- some of whom are female -- the Taliban promised to loosen some restrictions on women and not seek a monopoly on power.
They have proposed an "inclusive Islamic system" of governance but are demanding a new Islam-based constitution for Afghanistan.