U.S. and Taliban hold first talks since Afghanistan withdrawal

In the first known meeting since Kabul fell, a U.S. delegation led by CIA Deputy Director David Cohen sat down Saturday with the Taliban and will meet Sunday in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, CBS News has learned.

According to a U.S. official, the White House decided to position the CIA in a lead role in part to signal that the engagement is focused on terrorism. On Friday, a terror attack by ISIS-K in Kunduz killed dozens.

In September, Cohen said the CIA had seen “indications of some potential movement of al Qaeda to Afghanistan,” adding that the agency would “obviously keep a very close eye on that.” Defense and intelligence officials have said al Qaeda could reconstitute and regain a capability to attack the United States in as few as six months.

Another issue the parties are discussing is easing the evacuation of foreign citizens and Afghans from the country, officials from both sides said.

A State Department official described the engagement as pragmatic in nature and focused on “issues of U.S. vital national interest.” In response to a CBS News inquiry, a state department spokesman emailed comment that the meeting “is not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy.”

In August, CIA Director William Burns met secretly with Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, the highest-level encounter between the group and a Biden administration official at that point. Baradar was at the time seen as the likely head of a Taliban government; he is now the group’s deputy prime minister.

U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan in late August, ending a 20-year military presence there.

Taliban spokesman 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 in 2020. The agreement had paved the way for the final U.S. withdrawal.

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

Terrorism will be featured in the talks, said a second official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The State Department spokesperson said that the U.S.’ “key priorities are the continued safe passage out of Afghanistan of U.S. and other foreign nationals and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment who seek to leave the country and holding the Taliban to its commitment not to allow terrorists to use Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States or its allies.”

Since the Taliban took power, Islamic State extremists have ramped up attacks on the militant group, as well as ethnic and religious minorities. On Friday, an IS suicide bomber killed at least 46 minority Shiite Muslims and wounded dozens in the deadliest attack since the U.S. departure.

The parties will not be discussing U.S. recognition of the Taliban or conferring legitimacy on the group, the State Department official said, adding, “We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taliban’s own actions.”

IS has carried out relentless assaults on the country’s Shiite Muslims since emerging in eastern Afghanistan in 2014. IS is also seen as the greatest threat to the United States.

The U.S.-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 harbor terrorists who could attack the United States and its allies.

It seems certain the two sides will discuss in the weekend talks how to tackle the growing threat. The Taliban have said they do not want U.S. anti-terrorism assistance and have warned Washington against any so-called “over-the -horizon” strikes on Afghan territory from outside the country’s borders.

And, since Afghanistan may soon be reckoning with a severe economic contraction and even a humanitarian crisis, the U.S. will urge the Taliban “to allow humanitarian agencies free access to areas of need,” the State Department spokesperson said.

Margaret Brennan, Christina Ruffini and Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.

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