The chief of US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) William J Burns held a secret meeting with Taliban leader and co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
This is the first face-to-face meeting between the two sides since the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan much before the August 31 deadline of the withdrawal of US forces.
“President Joe Biden’s decision to dispatch his top spy, a veteran of the foreign service comes amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul international airport in what the president has called ‘one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history’,” the daily said.
Although the CIA refused to comment on the meeting, sources said the discussions involved the impending August 31 deadline for the US military to conclude its airlift of US citizens and Afghan allies.
When AFP tried confirming the meeting with CIA, a spokesperson said the agency “never discusses the director’s travels”.
The Biden administration is under pressure from some allies to keep US forces in the country beyond August 31 deadline to complete the evacuation of tens of thousands of citizens of the US and western countries as well as Afghans who fear retribution from the Taliban for assisting the western forces.
However, a Taliban spokesman on Monday warned that there will be “consequences” if the US and UK sought an extension to the August 31 deadline for the US-led troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.
While Burns is one of the most-experienced diplomats of the Biden government, Baradar who headed the Taliban’s political office in Qatar is one of the founders of the militant outfits in Afghanistan and has been at the forefront since the occupation of Kabul.
Baradar, who spent eight years in Pakistani prison before his release in 2018, has served as the Taliban’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the US in Qatar that resulted in an agreement with the Trump administration on the withdrawal of US forces. In November 2020, he posed for a photo in front of gold-rimmed chairs with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A close friend of the Taliban’s founding supreme leader Muhammad Omar, Baradar is believed to hold significant influence over the Taliban rank-and-file, the Washington Post said. He fought Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan and was the governor of several provinces in the 1990s when the Taliban last ruled the country. 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.”
Burns is a former deputy secretary of state who has also served as US ambassador to Russia. Washington Post said Burns had visited Afghanistan in April amid concerns over the government’s ability to handle the Taliban after the US withdrawal. As 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.
On Monday, before details of the secret meeting emerged, State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked about why senior US 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 were focused on at the moment.”
(With inputs from agencies)