A US delegation will meet with senior Taliban representatives in Doha on Saturday and Sunday in their first face-to-face meeting at a senior level since Washington pulled its troops from Afghanistan and the hardline group took over the country, two senior administration officials told Reuters.
The high-level US delegation will include officials from the State Department, USAID and the US intelligence community, will press the Taliban to ensure continued safe passage for US citizens and others out of Afghanistan and to release kidnapped US citizen Mark Frerichs, the officials said.
Another top priority will be to hold the Taliban to its commitment that it will not allow Afghanistan to again become a hotbed for al Qaeda or other extremists while pressing the group to improve access for humanitarian aid as the country faces the prospect of a "really severe and probably impossible to prevent" economic contraction, US officials said.
US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has for years spearheaded US dialogue with the Taliban and been a key figure in peace talks with the group, will not be part of the delegation.
The US team will include the State Department's Deputy Special Representative Tom West as well as top USAID humanitarian official Sarah Charles. On The Taliban side, cabinet officials will be attending, officials said.
"This meeting is a continuation of the pragmatic engagements with the Taliban that we've had ongoing on matters of vital national interest," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"This meeting is not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy. We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taliban's own actions. They need to establish a sustained track record," the official said.
The United States' two decades-long occupation of Afghanistan culminated in a hastily organized airlift in August which saw more than 124,000 civilians including Americans, Afghans and others being evacuated as the Taliban took over. But thousands of other US-allied Afghans at risk of Taliban persecution were left behind.
Washington and other Western countries are grappling with difficult choices as a severe humanitarian crisis looms large over Afghanistan. They are trying to formulate how to engage with the Taliban without granting it the legitimacy it seeks while ensuring humanitarian aid flows into the country.
Many Afghans have started selling their possessions to pay for ever-scarcer food.
The departure of US-led forces and many international donors robbed the country of grants that financed 75% of public spending, according to the World Bank.
While there was an improvement for humanitarian actors get access to some areas that they haven't been in a decade, problems still persisted, the US official said, adding that the US delegation would press Taliban to improve.
"Right now, we are facing some real access issues....There are a lot of challenges in ensuring that female aid workers are provided unimpeded access to all areas," the official said and added that Washington needed to see an improvement by the Taliban on this front "if we are to contemplate even more robust humanitarian assistance."
Pressure on women's rights
While the Taliban has promised to be more inclusive than when it led the country from 1996 to 2001, the United States has repeatedly said it will judge the new Taliban government based on its deeds not its words.
The Taliban drew from its inner high echelons to fill top posts in Afghanistan's new provisional government announced last month, including an associate of the Islamist militant group's founder as premier and a wanted man on a US terrorism list as interior minister. There were no outsiders and no women in the cabinet.
The European Union foreign policy chief said on Sunday its behavior up to now was "not very encouraging."
"We will certainly press the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans including women and girls and to form an inclusive government with broad support," the US official said.
He added that there were discrepancies between the Taliban's promises of continued safe passage and implementation.
"As a practical matter, their implementation of their commitments have been uneven. It is true that sometimes we receive assurances from certain levels but then follow through on those assurances has truly been uneven," the official said.
The United States has directly facilitated the departure of 105 US citizens and 95 lawful permanent residents out of Afghanistan since Aug 31, when US withdrawal was completed, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Thursday.
He declined to provide a precise figure for those remaining, but said the agency was in contact with "dozens of Americans in Afghanistan who wish to leave" but that the number was dynamic and constantly changing.