By Karen DeYoung,
A high-level U.S. delegation, headed by the deputy director of the CIA, held the Biden administration’s first direct talks since the military withdrawal with senior Taliban officials Saturday in Doha, Qatar, according to United States and Taliban officials.
The talks, expected to continue Sunday, focused on safe passage out of Afghanistan forremaining American and other foreign nationals, along with at-risk Afghans; international demands that the Taliban form an inclusive government and respect the rights of women and minorities; and Afghanistan’s growing humanitarian crisis, according to a State Department official.
“This meeting is not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy. We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taliban’s own actions,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with State Department rules.
Placing Deputy CIA Director David Cohen at the head of the U.S. team, which also includes the State Department’s deputy Afghanistan envoy, Tom West, and a representative from the U.S. Agency for International Development, was intended to emphasize that point and to lead to discussions on terrorism.
The Taliban delegation, headed by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, includes acting intelligence director Abdul Haq Wasiq and Mawlawi Noor Jalal, the deputy interior minister. All are part of what the militants have said is an “interim” government that includes few non-Taliban members and no women.
Muttaqi, in a statement reported by Afghanistan’s state-run Bakhtar news agency, said that humanitarian discussions “highlighted that Afghanistan should be assisted” in a vaccination campaign against the coronavirus. The State Department declined to comment on separate reports that the administration had agreed to send coronavirus vaccine doses to Afghanistan.
“A number of political issues came up for discussion,” Muttaqi said. “We have made it clear to them that destabilizing Afghanistan and weakening of the Afghan government is in the interest of no one,” he added, saying that it was “agreed to continue such negotiations in the future.”
The United States, along with Western allies, relocated its diplomatic staff from Kabul to Doha, the Qatari capital following the Aug. 15 Taliban takeover and has refused, along with the rest of the world, to recognize the militant government..
But while diplomatic legitimacy continues to be withheld, a number of countries have established contacts with the Taliban amid growing humanitarian and security problems. Last Tuesday, Britain’s high representative for Afghanistan, Simon Gass, traveled to Kabul for meetings with Taliban leaders, and a meeting with the European Union is also planned.
The Group of 20 has called a special session on Afghanistan, to be held before the group holds its Rome summit at the end of the month. Russia, which, along with China, has kept its embassy open in Kabul, has invited the Taliban to attend an Oct. 20 meeting in Moscow of the “Moscow format,” group, a mechanism for consultations on Afghanistan that includes Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India.
In addition to the diplomatic breach of severing relations with Afghanistan, donors and lenders who supplied up to 80 percent of official Afghan income under the previous U.S.-backed government have cut off aid to the Taliban as a means of leverage over the militants.
The U.S. government has frozen nearly $10 billion in Afghan government assets held by the Federal Reserve, and both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where the United States and Western allies control the majority of voting shares, have stopped their aid and lending programs.
Nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, led by the United Nations, have pleaded for a loosening of the restrictions, arguing that Afghanistan’s 40 million people have been left without means of income and the country is on the verge of a massive humanitarian crisis.
At the same time, concerns about global terrorist groups in Afghanistan are growing. In a withdrawal deal signed by the Trump administration with the militants in 2020, the Taliban pledged to sever its ties with the relatively small al-Qaeda branch in the country, but according to U.S. intelligence has not yet done so.
The Islamic State, a sworn Taliban enemy, has also established a presence in Afghanistan and carried out multiple attacks recently, including an Aug. 26 suicide bombing during the American evacuation effort from Kabul airport that left 13 U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans dead.
On Friday, an Islamic State suicide bomber attacked a crowded mosque in northern Afghanistan, killing nearly 50 Shiite Muslim worshipers and wounding dozens more. It was the latest in a string of attacks on religious facilities and the deadliest since the U.S. exit that was completed on Aug. 31.
The United States has said it will continue counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan with “over the horizon” capabilities launched from outside the country.
A Taliban spokesman, in an interview with the Associated Press Saturday, said it was uninterested in working with the United States to contain the Islamic State. “We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Suhail Shaheen said, using the Arabic term for the terrorist group.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.