CIA Chief And Taliban Leader Meet As Taliban Demand Aug. 31 U.S. Withdrawal

Aug 24, 2021
Originally published on August 24, 2021 2:15 pm

Updated August 24, 2021 at 10:09 AM ET

CIA Director William Burns met Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The meeting between Burns and Baradar marks the highest level meeting so far between the Biden administration and the Taliban since the group took over in Afghanistan on Aug. 15.

The CIA declined to comment, and there was no word on where in Kabul they met or what they discussed. But the most pressing issue is whether the U.S. airlift operation at the Kabul airport will continue beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.

President Biden says that date is still the target. But he's left open the possibility of extending it, saying he wants to evacuate all U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans who want to leave the country. Biden also wants all U.S. forces out by the end of the month. Close to 6,000 American troops are at the airport as part of the airlift.

The Taliban are eager to formally establish a government in Afghanistan. They say a continued U.S. presence beyond Aug. 31 would cross a "red line," and there would be unspecified consequences.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday that his group will accept "no extensions" to an Aug. 31 deadline, The Associated Press reported.

A range of issues to resolve

While news of the Burns-Baradar meeting came as a surprise, the U.S. and the Taliban are in regular contact and have a number of issues to work out.

The Pentagon says it is in daily contact with the Taliban at the Kabul airport, where armed Taliban members are effectively performing crowd control outside the wall of the airport. The U.S. says the Taliban has been cooperative on issues regarding the airport. Still, U.S. forces are concerned about the possibility of an attack by other extremist groups, including the Islamic State and its affiliates.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's negotiation team, in talks on Nov. 21, 2020, in Doha, Qatar.
Patrick Semansky / AP

In turn, the Taliban were shunned by the international community during their harsh rule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001. They are seeking international legitimacy this time around, and have encouraged foreign governments to keep their embassies open in Afghanistan. While the Taliban are striking a different tone, the U.S. and its allies are deeply skeptical that the group has changed its fundamental principles.

Also, Afghanistan's weak economy has been heavily dependent on assistance from the U.S. and other Western countries. An aid cutoff could send Afghanistan into a downward economic spiral. Aid groups also say they are concerned about the possibility of a mass exodus of Afghans to neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Baradar have a tangled history.

A joint CIA-Pakistan operation resulted in Baradar's capture in Pakistan in 2010. After eight years in a Pakistani prison, he was released in 2018 and then led the Taliban delegation in negotiations with the U.S. in Doha, Qatar.

In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban signed an agreement that called for all U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan by May of this year. The agreement also states that the Taliban will not allow terrorist attacks to be carried out from its territory.

In followup talks, Baradar met last November with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Qatar.

On Monday, Baradar met the CIA director, this time under very different circumstances than his first encounter with the spy agency.

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

CIA Director William Burns met Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter. This marks the highest-level meeting between the Biden administration and the Taliban since the group took over in Afghanistan on August 15. For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what do we know about this meeting?

MYRE: Well, it took place in the Afghan capital on Monday - not a whole lot more beyond that. The immediate question that leaped to my mind was where did they meet? CIA Director Burns could go to the airport or perhaps the U.S. embassy, but it seems highly unlikely Baradar would go there, so maybe the presidential palace in Kabul. We just don't know. That's one of many unknowns at this moment.

FADEL: So the meeting was a surprise. But with the chaotic situation in Kabul around the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, it seems like the two sides have a lot to talk about, right?

MYRE: Oh, absolutely. And of course, the big question is this August 31 deadline. President Biden imposed this on himself for rounding up the airlift and the removal of all the U.S. forces. Now he's talking with other G-7 leaders today to - about the possibility of extending it. The Taliban have reiterated again today, saying there can be no extension. Now, the Pentagon has said repeatedly that they're in daily contact with the Taliban at the Kabul airport. Armed Taliban members are just outside the airport, effectively performing crowd control. The U.S. military keeps talking about expanding the perimeter, and they won't discuss the details. But it seems that the Taliban are cooperating and have pushed the crowd back a bit there at the airport. And of course, there are ongoing concerns about attacks at the airport. It seems the U.S. military and the Taliban are also in touch about this as well.

FADEL: So then should we expect regular contact between the U.S. government and the Taliban?

MYRE: It's certainly shaping up that way. The U.S. will have lots of leftover business in Afghanistan, even after the airlift and the troop pullout takes place. There's the question of whether the U.S. will recognize a Taliban government. Will the U.S. want or try to reopen its huge embassy in Kabul? The Taliban were shunned by the international community during their very harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. So they're seeking international legitimacy this time. They seem to know they can't rule alone. They're calling for embassies to remain open - not quite clear if that includes the U.S. embassy. But nonetheless, there's also the issue of Afghanistan's very weak economy, very heavily dependent on assistance from U.S. and other Western countries - a real risk of economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis, refugees flooding across the borders. The Taliban doesn't want this. The U.S. doesn't want this. So they have a lot they'll still want to talk about.

FADEL: And one thing that makes this high-level meeting particularly unusual, shall we say, is the history between the CIA and the Taliban leader. Can you tell us about that?

MYRE: Yes. Well, Mullah Baradar's first contact with the CIA, as far as we know, was when they captured him in a joint CIA-Pakistan operation in Pakistan in 2010. He spent eight years in a Pakistani prison. He was released in 2018. And then shortly thereafter, he started taking part in these U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha, Qatar. And in February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban, specifically Baradar, signed an agreement that called for all the U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan in May of this year. No one really expected him to be back in Kabul and, in fact, in the presidential palace by this time, but here we are. And so the U.S. and Mullah Baradar are again in contact, but under very different circumstances.

FADEL: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.