United States representatives and senior Taliban officials are ‘opening a new page’ of the bilateral relationship between the countries as they initiated talks in Qatar, a top Afghan diplomat said.
The Doha’s meeting is the first since US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August after a 20-year military presence and the Taliban’s rise to power.
Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi said that the Afghan delegation’s primary focus was humanitarian aid as well as the implementation of the Washington-Taliban agreement last year which made the final US withdrawal possible.
The minister said that the Afghan delegation had asked the US to lift sanctions on Afghanistan’s reserves in the central bank adding that the US would offer Afghan people vaccines against COVID-19.
The Taliban senior official also said that the Taliban delegation would later meet representatives from the European Union.
A reporter in Doha reported, “The acting foreign minister says Afghanistan is looking to the international community to help solve its financial woes. You are looking at a country that is heavily dependent on international aid with an evolving humanitarian crisis on the ground.”
She added, “It is asking the US to lift economic restrictions, unfreeze its assets or lift restrictions at the Afghan national bank. It says it needs to be able to pay its employees and be able to provide services to the Afghan people.”
But she feared that the expectations of a breakthrough at the talks should be “tempered” because there is still quite a “chasm” between the wishes of both parties.
It was reported that Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been the US’s special envoy and the point person in talks with the Taliban for years was absent from the delegation and that there was no immediate comment from the US.
On Friday evening, a spokesperson of the US Department of State said that the talks were not about recognizing or legitimizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s leaders but are a continuation of pragmatic table talks on the core issues that interest the US state.
He said that the priority was the continued safe departure of Afghans, US citizens, and other foreign nationals from Afghanistan, adding that another goal was to urge the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans, including women and girls, and form an inclusive government with broad support.
While the Taliban have signaled flexibility on evacuations, they have said there would no cooperation with the US on containing armed groups in Afghanistan – an issue of interest for Washington.
The US-Taliban agreement of 2020, which was negotiated by the administration of former President Donald Trump, had demanded that the Taliban break ties with terrorist groups and guarantee Afghanistan’s land would not again be used as safe haven for terrorists who could attack Washington and its allies.
Since the Taliban took power, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), has ramped up terrorist attacks in the country on the group and as well as ethnic and religious minorities.
On Friday, an ISKP suicide bomber killed at least 50 minority Shia Muslims and wounded dozens in the deadliest attack since the withdrawal of the US.
Ahead of the talks, the Taliban ruled out cooperation with the US on tackling the threat from ISKP and warned Washington against any so-called “over-the-horizon” attacks on Afghan territory from outside the country’s borders.
Taliban’s Spokesperson Sohail Shaheen told a news channel, “We are able to tackle Daesh independently.”
ISKP claimed that the attacker was the Uighurs Muslim adding that the target of the attack was both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uighurs to meet demands from China.
The Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center Michael Kugelman said that the attack could be a harbinger of more such violence. He added that most of the Uighur fighters belong to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which has found a safe haven in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan for decades.
Kugelman added, “If the (ISKP) claim is true, China’s concerns about terrorism in (Afghanistan) – to which the Taliban claims to be receptive – will increase.”