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Frustrated with the Taliban, US Officials Meet Anti-Taliban Figures

FILE - Ahmad Massoud, left, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, and Aliya Yilmaz, Afghan women's rights activist, speak to journalists at Concordia Press Club on the occasion of the intra-Afghanistan conference in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 16, 2022.
FILE - Ahmad Massoud, left, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, and Aliya Yilmaz, Afghan women's rights activist, speak to journalists at Concordia Press Club on the occasion of the intra-Afghanistan conference in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 16, 2022.

When U.S. and Taliban representatives signed an agreement for peace in Afghanistan in February 2020, they agreed to “seek positive relations with each other.” But over the past year, their differences have only widened.

“We are not prepared to improve our relationship with the Taliban until and unless they actually start to uphold the commitments they’ve made to the Afghan people,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at Monday’s briefing.

In August 2021, when the Taliban took control of the country, it had made commitments to the U.S. primarily on countering terrorism threats, forming an “inclusive Islamic” government and respecting and upholding human rights, especially those of women, in Afghanistan.

However, despite controlling Afghanistan for more than a year, the Taliban have failed to gain recognition from any country for their so-called Islamic Emirate. The United States and the global community in general have vowed not to recognize any government in Kabul imposed by force, fearing Taliban-led rule would prolong the Afghan civil war and threaten human rights in the country.

In June, when asked to explain whether his group’s policies or any country was responsible for the delay in winning the legitimacy, chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, "As far as recognition by foreign countries is concerned, I think the United States is the biggest obstacle."

Mujahid claimed the Taliban had met “all the requirements” for their government to be given diplomatic recognition.

The U.S. has three senior diplomats assigned for Afghanistan — a charge d’affaires, a special representative and a special envoy for Afghan women — but no regular diplomatic engagement with the Taliban.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul, once one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions, remains closed, and no U.S. diplomat has traveled to Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power.

In May, the State Department took charge of Afghanistan’s embassy and consulates in the U.S. while allowing former Afghan diplomats to seek asylum.

In July, Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, opted not to sit in a meeting with the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, saying she was “gravely concerned by the Taliban’s actions and current stance on the areas my office oversees.”

Meeting anti-Taliban

U.S. officials have said that diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, absent a formal recognition, is necessary.

When negotiating the agreement with the Taliban in 2019-2020, senior U.S. officials regularly met Taliban representatives in Qatar. In March 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held several meetings with Taliban officials, and President Donald Trump directly spoke with a Taliban leader over the phone.

However, with most Taliban leaders, including Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi unable to travel outside Afghanistan because of U.N. sanctions, the link between U.S. and Taliban diplomats appears broken.

Since August, there had been no official confirmation of a meeting between Taliban and U.S. diplomats.

But earlier this month, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West traveled to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with the Taliban’s acting defense minister as well as prominent anti-Taliban commander Ata Mohammad Noor.

Noor and several other former Afghan officials and politicians have formed a so-called National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) that opposes the Taliban politically and militarily.

Karen Decker, charge d’affaires of the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, traveled to Tajikistan to attend a meeting November 30-December 1 of mostly anti-Taliban figures. No Taliban representatives were invited.

Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, has sheltered anti-Taliban fighters and has called for the formation of an inclusive government in Kabul, including a fair share for ethnic Tajiks.

The U.S. also has called on the Taliban to form an inclusive government, “including meaningful representation of women and minority communities,” the State Department said in August.

The Taliban, however, contend that their de facto government is representative of all Afghans and the U.S. should not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

“It's unclear what inclusivity means in practice, but exploring that idea appears to be the reason why we are seeing U.S. officials traveling in the region and meeting with some anti-Taliban politicians,” Graeme Smith, a senior consultant with International Crisis Group, told VOA.

U.S. officials say they meet with Afghans from a broad range of the political spectrum and that is in line with Washington’s support for the people of Afghanistan, not political parties.

No support for violence

Having collaborated with the U.S. against the Taliban for over two decades, some anti-Taliban leaders have demanded U.S. support for their campaign to topple the Taliban government.

“A clear request by NRF would be that the United States and Washington should feel responsibility towards the situation in Afghanistan,” NRF leader Ahmad Massoud told an online Hudson Institute event on December 7.

The NRF has executed hit-and-run attacks against the Taliban in some parts of Afghanistan but has not been able to hold territory.

Last year, the NRF registered for political lobbying in the U.S. and at least two U.S. lawmakers, Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Michael Waltz, have called for support for the anti-Taliban group.

“The United States does not support violent opposition in Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA. “As we have said, we call on all sides to exercise restraint and to engage in dialogue. This is the only way that Afghanistan can confront its many challenges.”

Unlike the sanctioned Taliban officials, the NRF leaders have been able to travel and participate in political events outside Afghanistan. In September, Massoud traveled to Austria from his base in Tajikistan to attend a political gathering. He has indicated interest to travel to the U.S.

“I’d love to be there [in the U.S.], and the people of America are [a] great nation with great values, and there is a huge history between us,” Massoud told the event at the Hudson Institute.

While not offering material support for anti-Taliban forces, the U.S. has maintained its own capabilities to strike targets in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In August, a U.S. drone bombing killed al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri at a house in Kabul.

The 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement had envisioned the formation of an Islamic government of Afghanistan through intra-Afghan talks. The talks did not happen.

Instead, the Taliban have forcefully silenced domestic opposition while defying international calls for reforms and inclusivity.

“We remain at something of an impasse,” U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan Roza Otunbayeva told the Security Council on Tuesday as she described the growing differences between the Taliban regime and the international community.