According to the US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to deliberate on this sensitive diplomatic move, on Monday, CIA Director William J. Burns held a secret meeting in Kabul with the Taliban’s de facto leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in the wake of the militants seizure of the Afghan capital last week.
In his meeting with Burns on Monday, Baradar faced one of America’s most seasoned diplomats, a former deputy secretary of state who has also served as U.S. ambassador to Russia. The ironic overtones of this meeting, however remains unignored.
Meeting likely to discuss evacuation crisis and US Aug. 31 withdrawal
As CIA director, Burns oversees a spy agency that trained elite Afghan special forces units who had been viewed as a potent force in the country, but were also implicated in extrajudicial killings and human rights violations.
President Biden’s decision to deploy his top spy, a veteran foreign office personnel and a diplomat in his Cabinet, came amid the frantic efforts by the US to evacuate people from Kabul International airport. This evacuation which had touched the headlines for the past days is what the US president deems as “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”
Though the CIA refused to comment on their meeting with the Taliban co-founder, it is apparent that the focus of the discussions involved the impending August 31 deadline of the US withdrawal and the evacuations of US citizens and their Afghan allies.
Pressure on Biden and Taliban’s warning
Reports highlight that the US administration under Biden is facing pressure from the allies to remain in the country for a month to ensure safe and timely evacuation of the tens of thousands of citizens of the United States and Western countries as well as Afghan allies who are desperate to escape Taliban rule.
Britain, France and other U.S. allies have said more time is needed to evacuate their personnel, but a Taliban spokesman warned that the United States would be crossing a “red line” if it kept troops beyond the 31st, promising “consequences.”
Meeting with Baradar; Irony of Afghan war
Ironically the meeting of CIA director and Baradar challenges past when the CIA arrested in a joint CIA-Pakistani operation that put him in prison for 8 years.
So, the Taliban defacto leader is no stranger to the West. After his release in the wake of the initiation of peace talks in 2018 during US former President Donald Trump administration, he served as a chief negotiator from the Taliban side to strike the deal with the US in Qatar. In November 2020, he posed for a photo in front of gold-rimmed chairs with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Being a close comrade of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, Baradar has an unprecedented and significance clout over the Taliban rank and file. He had fought the Soviet forces during the period 1979-89 and had governed many provinces during the Taliban rule in the 1990s.
Baradar demonstrates a conciliatory stance after the Taliban takeover
Since the Taliban’s takeover of the country, he has struck a conciliatory tone, saying the militant group is seeking “an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination and live harmoniously with each other in an atmosphere of brotherhood.” His return to Kabul on Saturday and desire to formulate an “inclusive” government has generated a speculation of a “different” Taliban rule this time.
Burns testimony to the US Congress
Burns testified before Congress earlier this year that neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has the capability to mount attacks inside the United States but said “when the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish, that’s simply a fact.”
On Monday, before details of the secret meeting emerged, State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked about why senior U.S. officials hadn’t engaged with Baradar given the stakes in Afghanistan.
Price said “our discussions with the Taliban have been operational, tactical, they have been focused largely on our near-term operations and near-term goals … what is going on at the airport compound … that is what we’re focused on at the moment.”