US holds first in-person talks with Taliban since Afghanistan withdrawal

Meetings on Saturday and Sunday in Doha will reportedly involve a request for the release of kidnapped American citizen Mark Frerichs

A Taliban fighter stands guard outside the US embassy in Afghanistan. AFP
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The US and the Taliban have held their first in-person talks since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The US delegation met senior Taliban representatives on Saturday and will meet again on Sunday in the Qatari capital Doha, a State Department spokesman told Agence France-Presse.

Talks included officials from the department, USAID and the US intelligence community, two senior administration officials told Reuters.

Taliban representatives asked the US to lift a ban on Afghan central bank reserves, Afghanistan's acting foreign minister said on Saturday.

The minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also reportedly said Washington would offer Afghans coronavirus vaccines, in the first senior face-to-face meeting between the two sides since the hardline group took over the country in August following the withdrawal of US troops.

Mr Muttaqi's statement on the supply of vaccines was not immediately confirmed by Washington.

The US has remained in contact with the Taliban since the extremist group seized Kabul in August and US troops were pulled out.

"We will press the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans, including women and girls, and to form an inclusive government with broad support," the US spokesman said on Friday.

"As Afghanistan faces the prospect of a severe economic contraction and possible humanitarian crisis, we will also press the Taliban to allow humanitarian agencies free access to areas of need," he said.

The State Department stressed that the meeting did not indicate that the US was recognising Taliban rule in Afghanistan, something that President Joe Biden has said is a long way off.

"We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taliban's own actions," the spokesman said.

Before the meeting, Reuters reported that the US team would include the State Department's Deputy Special Representative Tom West and USAID humanitarian official Sarah Charles.

US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has for years led US dialogue with the Taliban and been a key figure in peace talks with the group, was not part of the delegation, Reuters added.

Members of the team were expected to emphasise Mr Biden's key priority of letting US citizens and Afghan allies during the 20-year military operation leave the country. They were also due to request the release of kidnapped US citizen Mark Frerichs, the officials said.

The US says that the Taliban have largely co-operated on letting out US citizens. Around 100 remain, predominantly US citizens with roots in Afghanistan who are undecided on whether to leave, according to US officials.

But the US acknowledges that it was not able to rescue most Afghan allies who wanted to leave during a hasty airlift of thousands of people from Kabul before the withdrawal.

Another top priority was to hold the Taliban to its commitment that it will not allow Afghanistan to again become a hotbed for Al Qaeda or other extremists while pressing the group to improve access for humanitarian aid as the country faces the prospect of a "really severe and probably impossible-to-prevent" economic contraction, US officials said.

Senior US officials including Central Command chief General Frank McKenzie met the Taliban in Kabul in August as US troops took over the airport for the evacuation.

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Updated: October 09, 2021, 5:48 PM