By Ayaz Gul
Afghanistan’s Taliban urged the United States Saturday to unfreeze Afghanistan’s central bank reserves, during an ongoing meeting with an American delegation in Qatar — the first face-to-face dialogue at a senior level since the Islamist group took control of the country following the U.S. withdrawal in late August.
Taliban Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who is leading his side at the two-day talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, said U.S. interlocutors in the opening session promised they would sustain humanitarian assistance to his turmoil-hit nation and would offer coronavirus vaccines to Afghans.
In an audio message the Taliban shared with journalists, Muttaqi said they discussed “opening a new chapter” between the two sides, adversaries during the U.S.’s nearly 20-year occupation of Afghanistan.
“The need to establish good positive relations with each other on an equal basis is being emphasized in the discussions. We stressed the need for unfreezing of Afghan financial assets in the wake of difficult circumstances facing Afghanistan,” the foreign minister said.
Washington has frozen billions of dollars in Afghan assets, mainly deposited in the U.S. federal reserve, since the Taliban took control of the country. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also have blocked development assistance, citing human rights concerns under Taliban rule.
The departure of U.S.-led forces and many international donors cut Afghanistan off from grants that financed 75% of public spending, according to the World Bank. This has made it difficult for the Taliban to pay salaries to government employees.
The punitive international actions have raised concerns about an economic meltdown in Afghanistan that critics say could worsen the humanitarian crisis. “We clearly told [the Americans] that nobody benefits from an unstable Afghanistan, so no one should try to weaken the current government of Afghanistan or fuel problems for our Afghan people who already are struggling economically,” Muttaqi said. He reiterated that Afghan soil will not be allowed to threaten other countries.
U.S. officials have not offered any details of the ongoing discussions in Doha. State Department officials on Friday confirmed the U.S. delegation would hold two days of talks with the Taliban starting Saturday.
Representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. intelligence community reportedly are part of the delegation.
U.S. officials said their team would press the Taliban to ensure continued safe passage out of Afghanistan for U.S. citizens, as well as Afghan allies, after the nearly 20-year military conflict.
Additionally, the delegation would hold the Taliban accountable to their commitment that they will not allow Afghan soil to become a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other terrorists and improve access for relief aid as Afghanistan faces a growing humanitarian crisis and an economic meltdown, unnamed U.S. officials were quoted by Reuters as saying.
However, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told The Associated Press there would be no cooperation with Washington on containing the increasingly active Islamic State group in Afghanistan. IS has taken responsibility for a number of recent attacks, including a suicide bombing Friday that killed 46 minority Shiite Muslims and wounded dozens as they prayed in a mosque in the northern city of Kunduz.
“We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Shaheen said, when asked whether the Taliban would work with the U.S. to contain the Islamic State affiliate, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
U.S. officials on Saturday insisted the meeting does not mean Washington is moving to give recognition to the Taliban government. They said that would depend on whether the Taliban live up to their commitments to form an inclusive government, protect rights of women to work and allow girls to receive an education, among other issues.
Muttaqi said Saturday his delegation also plans to meet European Union representatives in Doha to discuss the latest Afghan political and humanitarian issues, though he didn’t say when the meeting will be held.
The United Nations has warned that about 1 million children in Afghanistan are at risk of starvation, more than 18 million need urgent humanitarian assistance, and deepening drought and the approaching harsh winter are only going to make matters worse.