US, Taliban to hold first talks since Afghanistan withdrawal

The talks, to take place in Doha, will revisit the peace agreement the Taliban signed with the US last year.

Senior Taliban officials and United States representatives are set to hold talks in Qatar about containing hardline groups in Afghanistan and the evacuation of foreigners and Afghans from the country.

The meeting on Saturday and Sunday will be the first since US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August, ending a 20-year military presence, and the Taliban’s rise to power.

A spokesperson of the US State Department said on Friday evening that the talks are 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.

The State Department did not disclose who would travel to Qatar’s capital Doha from the US side.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen, who is based in Doha, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the talks will also revisit the peace agreement the Taliban signed with Washington last year which paved way for the final US withdrawal.

“Yes there is a meeting … about bilateral relations and implementation of the Doha agreement,” said Shaheen. “It covers various topics.”

Since the Taliban took power, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), have 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.

Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Doha, 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.

“The Taliban is describing its delegation as high level and is being led by its acting foreign minister,” she said. “On the US side, there will be diplomats from the state department, members of USAID and of the intelligence department.”

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

Terrorist threat

The US-Taliban agreement of 2020, which was negotiated by the Trump administration, demanded the Taliban break ties with “terrorist” groups and guarantee Afghanistan would not again harbour terrorists who could attack the US and its allies.

The Taliban has said it does not want US anti-terrorism assistance and warned Washington against any so-called “over-the-horizon” attacks on Afghan territory from outside the country’s borders.

The Biden administration has fielded questions and complaints about the slow pace of US-facilitated evacuations from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan since the US withdrawal.

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