US officials to meet with Taliban’s senior leaders in Qatar

By Nick Wadhams

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials will meet Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, this weekend as the Biden administration tries to arrange delivery of humanitarian aid and presses for the insurgent group that seized power in Afghanistan to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said the meetings on Saturday and Sunday would be a continuation of what the department has called “pragmatic engagements” to protect U.S. national interests.

In a sign of political sensitivity over dealing with the Taliban, the official said the meetings don’t connote recognition or confer legitimacy on the group that in the past sheltered al-QaIda terrorists and now has resumed restricting the rights of Afghan women.

The meetings, reported earlier Friday by Reuters, constitute some of the first formal engagements between the State Department and the Taliban since the U.S. evacuated its diplomats and troops at the end of August in a chaotic withdrawal. The Biden administration has wrestled with how to deal with the Taliban, which have taken the mantle of Afghanistan’s government but are still officially labeled a terrorist organization and haven’t been given access to Afghanistan’s central bank reserves.

After sweeping to power in late August, the Taliban have seen their authority challenged by Islamic State fighters, prompting fears that the country could descend into civil war once again. Earlier Friday, more than 40 people were believed killed after a suspected Islamic State suicide bomber attacked a mosque in the northern city of Kunduz.

U.S. officials have said they’re still trying to help Afghans who want to flee the country, including vulnerable women and girls and some of the thousands of people who worked with the U.S. government over the course of a 20-year occupation. Several dozen American citizens — mostly of Afghan descent — are also estimated to remain in the country. And as Friday’s bombing underscored, other terrorists remain a grave concern, and the U.S. has suggested it would be willing to cooperate with the Taliban in some capacity to combat Islamic State.

The meetings are likely to expose the administration to attacks from Republican lawmakers, who have said the administration made a grave mistake by coordinating the evacuation with the Taliban and shouldn’t work with them any further. This week, a group of Republican lawmakers introduced a bill — expected to be ignored by Democrats — to create a committee to investigate the U.S. withdrawal.

“The Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal of Afghanistan is a strategic failure that left thousands of Afghan allies behind, caused the death of U.S. service members and damaged U.S. credibility on the world stage,” Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said in a statement earlier in the week. “The American people deserve answers.”

But the Taliban have slowly been pressing for ties with various nations. Earlier this week, British officials traveled to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban, as have representatives of other European governments.

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