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US and Taliban take major first step, quietly

The desire to do this without the glare of the media is understandable; the need to do it outside Afghanistan is less so.

Analysis | Middle East

On Sunday and Monday, a significant event took place outside the public eye: U.S. officials engaged in high-level talks with senior Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the future of Afghanistan. 

Some observers noted the lack of attention, but it might be a blessing in disguise. While the lack of media glare might raise concerns about Afghanistan slipping off the radar, conducting diplomacy without public scrutiny, media sensationalism, and political grandstanding could create the space for substantive and meaningful change in the war-ravaged country's future.

These talks represent the most substantial and public dialogue between the Taliban and the United States since Washington’s withdrawal almost two years ago. The State Department's statement on the meeting outlined the critical issues that were discussed, including human and women's rights, Afghanistan's foreign exchange reserves, terrorism, and the potential for “confidence building” between Washington and the Taliban.

The U.S. delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, along with Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights Rina Amiri, and Chief of the U.S. Mission to Afghanistan (based in Doha) Karen Decker, held talks with the Taliban’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. 

Interestingly, neither the State Department’s official statement nor West’s Twitter account mentioned Muttaqi by name, while Abdul Qahar Balhki, the spokesperson for the Taliban’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted about it. This could be coincidental, or it might be part of a broader pattern adopted by the Biden administration to amplify engagement with Afghan civil society figures and exiled politicians, while downplaying direct interactions with the Taliban, particularly its senior officials.

As I have previously argued, talking with senior Taliban officials remains important, even if they lack ultimate decision-making power. But it raises questions about why such conversations cannot take place within Afghanistan, as is the case for UK and EU officials. While there might be concerns about diplomatic security, there should be ways to address them, just as Washington’s European counterparts have managed to do. Concerns about legitimizing the Taliban by being seen to engage them publicly became moot the minute then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Mullah Baradar in 2020, and had a photo taken of the occasion.

There is an opportunity cost in not meeting with the Taliban inside Afghanistan. As outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman recently told the Washington Post, “[i]n negotiating, you have to understand the other side — their interests, as well as their culture, their history.” U.S. diplomacy often views sitting at the table with adversaries as a concession or a display of weakness. 

In reality, however, engaging with the Taliban within Afghanistan will prove an essential initial step for any chance for sustainable progress.

A high level delegation of the Taliban met with US officials in Doha, Qatar, on July 30-31. In this October 8, 2021 photo some of the same officials, including Maulvi Amir Khan Mottaki (center) landed in Doha to engage in talks after the US withdrawal. (Reuters)
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