Islamabad: Senior Taliban officials and US representatives are set to hold talks today and tomorrow in Doha about containing extremist groups in Afghanistan and easing the evacuation of foreign citizens and Afghans from the country, officials from both sides said.
It's the first such meeting since U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan in late August, ending a 20-year military presence there, and the Taliban's rise to power in the nation.
"This meeting is a continuation of the pragmatic engagements with the Taliban on issues of US vital national interest," Xinhua news agency quoted a Department spokesperson. The spokesperson noted that it is "not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy".
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, who is based in Doha, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the talks will also revisit the peace agreement the Taliban signed with Washington in 2020 that paved the way for the final U..S. withdrawal.
"Yes there is a meeting . . . about bilateral relations and implementation of the Doha agreement," said Shaheen. "It covers various topics." Terrorism will also feature in the talks, said a second official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
According to media reports, the American delegation will include officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the US Agency for International Development.
But US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has for years spearheaded Washington's dialogue with the Taliban in the Qatari capital and been a key figure in peace talks, will not be part of the delegation, TOLO News reported.
Meanwhile, Acting Foreign Minister Amirkhan Motaqi, who is leading the Afghan Taliban delegation comprising cabinet officials, left for Doha on Friday night.
The key priorities of the meeting are "the continued safe passage out of Afghanistan of US and other foreign nationals and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment who seek to leave the country and holding the Taliban to its commitment not to allow terrorists to use Afghan soil to threaten the security of the US or its allies."
US officials in the meeting will also press the Taliban to respect the rights of women and girls, form an inclusive government, and allow humanitarian agencies free access to areas of need, the official added.
Since the Taliban took power, Islamic State extremists have ramped up attacks on the militant group, as well as ethnic and religious minorities. On Friday, an IS suicide bomber killed at least 46 minority Shiite Muslims and wounded dozens in the deadliest attack since the US departure.
IS has carried out relentless assaults on the country's Shiite Muslims since emerging in eastern Afghanistan in 2014. IS is also seen as the greatest threat to the United States.
The agreement that paved way for withdrawal
The US-Taliban agreement of 2020, which was negotiated by the Trump administration, demanded the Taliban break ties with terrorist groups and guarantee Afghanistan would not again harbor terrorists who could attack the United States and its allies.
It seems certain the two sides will discuss in the weekend talks how to tackle the growing threat. The Taliban have said they do not want U.S. anti-terrorism assistance and have warned Washington against any so-called "over-the -horizon" strikes on Afghan territory from outside the country's borders.
The United States, meanwhile, would seek to hold Taliban leaders to commitments that they would allow Americans and other foreign nationals to leave Afghanistan, along with Afghans who once worked for the U.S. military or government and other Afghan allies, a U.S. official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak by name about the meetings.
The Biden administration has fielded questions and complaints about the slow pace of U.S.-facilitated evacuations from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that 105 U.S. citizens and 95 green card holders had left since then on flights facilitated by the U.S. That number had not changed for more than a week.
Dozens of American citizens are still seeking to get out, according to the State Department, along with thousands of green-card holders and Afghans and family members believed eligible for U.S. visas. U.S. officials have cited the difficulty of verifying flight manifests without any American officials on the ground in Afghanistan to help, along with other hold-ups.
US officials will also encourage Taliban officials to give humanitarian agencies free access to areas in need amid the economic upheaval following the US departure and Taliban takeover.