US, Taliban hold first talks since Afghanistan withdrawal

Humanitarian situation and the implementation of the 2020 US-Taliban agreement on agenda in talks held in Doha.

Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghanistan's acting foreign minister, said the focus of the Afghan delegation was humanitarian aid, as well the implementation of the agreement [File: Karim Jaafar/AFP]

Senior Taliban officials and United States representatives have discussed “opening a new page” in their countries’ relationship as they kicked off talks in Qatar, according to a top Afghan diplomat.

The in-person meetings that began in Doha on Saturday are the first since US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August – ending a 20-year military presence – and the Taliban’s rise to power.

Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, said the focus of the Afghan delegation was humanitarian aid, as well the implementation of the agreement the Taliban signed with Washington last year which paved the way for the final US withdrawal.

The minister said the Afghan delegation had asked the US to lift its ban on the reserves of Afghanistan’s central bank. He added that the US would offer Afghan people vaccines against COVID-19.

The Taliban delegation will later meet representatives from the European Union, he added.

Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Doha, said that the Taliban delegation is in the Qatari capital with the hopes of dealing with the hardships of governing, mounting security issues and economic woes.

“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 said.

“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 said expectations of a breakthrough at the talks should be “tempered” because there is still quite a “chasm” between what the US wants and what the transitional government in Afghanistan wants.

Notably absent, Ghoneim added, is Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been the US’s point person in talks with the Taliban for years.

There was no immediate comment from the US.

A spokesperson of the Department of State said on Friday evening that the talks were not about recognising or legitimising the Taliban as Afghanistan’s leaders, but are a continuation of pragmatic talks on issues of national interest for the US.

He said 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 signalled 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 would not again harbour “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 attacks on the group, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

On Friday, an ISKP suicide bomber killed at least 46 minority Shia Muslims and wounded dozens in the deadliest attack since the US departure.

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.

“We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Suhail Shaheen a spokesman for the Taliban told the Associated Press news agency.

Following Friday’s attack, Afghanistan’s Shia leaders assailed the Taliban, demanding greater protection at their places of worship.

The ISKP identified the suicide bomber as a Uighur Muslim.

It said the attack targeted both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uighurs to meet demands from China.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center, said the attack could be a harbinger of more violence. 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.

“If the (ISKP) claim is true, China’s concerns about terrorism in (Afghanistan) – to which the Taliban claims to be receptive – will increase,” he tweeted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies