Top US officials hold first face-to-face meeting with Taliban since US killed al Qaeda leader in July



CNN

Top Biden administration officials met in person with the Taliban on Saturday for the first time since the US killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in his Kabul apartment in late July, two officials familiar with the talks said.

The administration sent the deputy director of the CIA and the top State Department official in charge of Afghanistan to the Qatari capital, Doha, for talks with the Taliban delegation, which included their chief of intelligence, Abdul Haq Wasiq.

After Zawahiri was killed in an attack, the US accused the Taliban of a “clear and flagrant violation” of the Doha agreement brokered by the Trump administration, which said the Taliban would not harbor terrorists if US forces withdrew from Afghanistan . did in August 2021.

After a US drone fired deadly Hellfire missiles at Zawahiri, US officials accused Taliban leaders from the Haqqani network of knowing about Zawahiri’s whereabouts, while the Taliban angrily condemned the operation.

Since then, the US has continued to work with the Taliban, including negotiating the release of American citizen Mark Frerichs. However, senior officials had not met face-to-face since days before Zawahiri was assassinated on July 31.

The presence of CIA Deputy Director David Cohen and the Taliban’s Wasiq at Saturday’s meeting suggests an emphasis on counterterrorism. The White House last month called cooperation with the Taliban on counterterrorism a “work in progress.”

Cohen was accompanied by the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tom West, who has often led the engagement with the Taliban since the US withdrawal last year.

Frerichs was freed almost three weeks ago after more than two years in captivity, with the help of Qatar. Administration officials said they spent months negotiating with the Taliban for his release and had warned the Taliban after the strike that they would harm Frerichs. The best way to rebuild trust, the Taliban were told, would be to release him.

At least one other American, a filmmaker named Ivor Shearer, is currently being held by the Taliban after being arrested along with his Afghan producer, Faizullah Faizbakhsh, while filming in the area where Zawahiri was killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Shearer was reportedly called in several times by the Taliban for questioning before his arrest.

The CIA and the State Department declined to comment.

While the Taliban maintain ties to al-Qaeda, they face an insurgency from the Islamic State offshoot known as ISIS-K. The group has systematically targeted the Hazara ethnic minority in Afghanistan. At least 25 people, mostly young women, were killed in a suicide attack last week at an educational center in a predominantly Hazara neighborhood in Kabul. No one immediately claimed responsibility.

“The Taliban are struggling to prevent ISIS-K attacks by making them look innocent, particularly in Kabul,” says Beth Sanner, a former deputy director of the National Intelligence Service who led the Afghanistan analysis at the CIA. Sanner is also a CNN contributor.

“[Cohen] it is likely to send a strong message that we will carry out more strikes as we did against Zawahiri if we find that members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan are supporting operations that threaten the US or its allies,” Saner said. “ISIS-K now poses an internal threat to Afghanistan, to the Taliban and to sectarian stability, given ISIS-K’s focus on killing Shiites, but there is some legitimate concern that ISIS-K could eventually turn its sights of external conspiracies if the Taliban are unable to contain them.”

Last month, the Biden administration announced it had created a $3.5 billion “Afghan Fund” of frozen Afghan money to promote economic stability. The funds have not yet been released because the US does not believe there is a credible institution to guarantee that the funds will benefit the Afghan people, two officials told CNN.

Instead, it will be run by an external body, independent of the Taliban and the country’s central bank.

Administration officials have also repeatedly raised the plight of women and girls in their talks with the Taliban. The United Nations human rights rapporteur in Afghanistan last month called the backsliding of women and girls in Afghan society “staggering”.

“In no other country have women and girls disappeared so quickly from all areas of public life,” Bennett said. “However, women and girls remain at the forefront of efforts to uphold human rights and continue to demand accountability.”

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