Biden’s Afghanistan envoy details ‘honest and productive’ dialogue with Taliban

Thomas West says diplomacy with extremist group has yielded potential success on counterterrorism and girls' education

US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Thomas West speaks with Afghan Representative Shah Gul Rezai during a meeting at the Soria Moria hotel in Oslo, Norway. NTB/Stian Lysberg Solum via Reuters
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Thomas West, the US envoy for Afghanistan, has provided a public update on his continuing talks with the Taliban, characterising discussions as somewhat productive.

The US now has “a relatively honest and productive dialogue with the Taliban with leaders from across their organisation”, Mr West said, noting that conversations regarding counterterrorism and ISIS have “become more honest and more candid".

“I believe that the Taliban are sincere in their efforts to contain [ISIS-Khorasan Province],” Mr West said at the US Institute for Peace, a federally funded think tank in Washington.

President Joe Biden’s nominee to oversee US troops in the region, Lt Gen Erik Kurilla, floated the possibility of “pragmatic” co-operation with the Taliban against ISIS during his confirmation hearing before the Senate last week.

But Mr West also stated that “the Taliban has no interest in co-operating with the United States when it comes to fulfilment of their commitments to the Doha agreement”, which required the group to cut ties with Al Qaeda.

In addition, he acknowledged “positive statements from Taliban leaders about a readiness to see the enrolment of women and girls at all levels across large swaths of the country after [the holiday of] Nowruz” next month. However he cautioned that “statements are not enough".

Still, he said it is “encouraging that the Taliban have said they will support an independent verification mechanism” to ensure girls and women are actually enrolled in educational institutions in the country.

The Biden administration appointed Rina Amiri as the US special envoy for Afghan women and girls in December.

“The Taliban will make the decision to enrol women and girls at all levels not out of a response to international pressure at all,” said Mr West.

“This is a genuine domestic Afghan demand and a basic human right that we hear from across the country.”

The Taliban have also asked the US for help in reinstalling Afghan civil servants amid an economic and currency crisis.

Mr Biden struck a blow to Afghanistan last week with an executive order that would allow plaintiffs representing victims of the September 11 attacks to seize up to $3.5 billion of the $10bn in Afghan reserves the US froze in August after the Taliban took power.

The plaintiffs in those cases are suing for about $7bn in the frozen reserves, so the Biden administration has effectively opted to split the difference by making half the funds claimed in court available for Afghanistan in the future — a decision that has pleased neither the 9/11 victims nor the Taliban.

Mr West said he had discussed the issue of the reserves with several Afghan economists as well as officials who had served in the central bank and finance ministry under the defunct US-backed government.

“The consistent opinion that I hear is that it would be not a good use of these resources to channel them through the United Nations and for humanitarian assistance,” said Mr West.

“Rather, this $3.5bn represents the potential recapitalisation of a future central bank, and that is recognised, and the future recapitalisation of the financial system.”

He noted the Taliban will have no input in deciding how to use the money, but said “professional Afghans” would be involved in the decision-making process.

The freeze on federal reserves has prompted Afghan banks to limit withdrawals, further compounding the cash crisis and driving up the cost of food and consumer goods amid a drought.

A low or non-existent level of reserves also curtails the Taliban’s future options to address these issues by reducing its ability to withdraw loans from organisations such as the International Monetary Fund.

“The jury is out on what diplomacy with the Taliban produces,” said Mr West.

“When it comes to education, safe passage and terrorism, I’d say our diplomacy has clarified where we stand.

“When it comes to human rights, a political process and reprisal killings, I’ll say our diplomacy has not produced what we want.”

Updated: February 15, 2022, 7:45 PM