Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban said Sunday that two days of “candid” discussions with the United States “went well” in Qatar, the first direct meeting at a senior level since the Islamist group took control of the country following the American withdrawal in late August.
“Detailed discussions were held during the meeting about all relevant issues, and efforts will be made to improve diplomatic relations,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a post-meeting statement.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price agreed in a statement released late Sunday that the talks with the Taliban were “candid and professional,” adding that the “Taliban will be judged on its actions, not only its words.”
Other issues that were discussed included “security and terrorism concerns and safe passage for U.S. citizens, other foreign nationals and our Afghan partners, as well as on human rights, including the meaningful participation of women and girls in all aspects of Afghan society,” the statement said.
The meeting started Saturday in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Price’s statement said the U.S. and Taliban “discussed the United States’ provision of robust humanitarian assistance, directly to the Afghan people.”
Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman who is based in Doha and the group's representative-designate to the United Nations, said, “U.S. representatives stated that they will give humanitarian assistance to Afghans, will provide facilities for other humanitarian organizations to deliver aid.”
He added that Taliban leaders hailed the U.S. decision and promised they would cooperate with charitable groups in “transparently” delivering the humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need. He said the Taliban team, led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, stressed that the humanitarian assistance “should not be linked to political issues.”
The United Nations has warned that about 1 million children in Afghanistan are at risk of starvation, more than 18 million need urgent humanitarian assistance, and deepening drought and the approaching harsh winter are only going to make matters worse.
In the run-up to the meeting, officials in Washington said the high-level U.S. delegation would press the Taliban to ensure continued safe passage out of Afghanistan for American and other foreign nationals as well as Afghan allies. They also would urge the Islamist group to uphold commitments to form an inclusive government, respect the rights of Afghan women and minorities, fight terrorism and facilitate access for humanitarian aid to Afghans.
Shaheen said the Taliban assured U.S. interlocutors that Kabul “will facilitate principled movement of foreign nationals.” He concluded the two sides “agreed that such meetings will continue to be held in the future if required.”
U.S. officials had also made clear that the Doha meeting was not about granting diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. They said that action would depend on whether the group delivers on its public commitments.
The American delegation included representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department and the intelligence community.
American and allied troops pulled out of Afghanistan on August 30, ending their 20-year military occupation.
Speaking after the opening session of the dialogue on Saturday, Muttaqi said that he had urged the U.S. to unfreeze Afghanistan’s central bank reserves.
Washington has frozen nearly $10 billion in Afghan assets, mainly deposited in the U.S. federal reserve since the Taliban took over the country. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also have halted financial assistance and lending programs for Kabul, citing human rights concerns under the Taliban rule.
The departure of U.S.-led forces and many international donors deprived Afghanistan of grants that financed 75% of public spending, according to the World Bank. This has left millions of Afghans without means of income and made it difficult for the Taliban to pay salaries to government employees, as well as fund development activities.
The financial restrictions have raised concerns about an economic meltdown in Afghanistan that critics say could worsen the humanitarian crisis.
“We clearly told them [Americans] that nobody benefits from an unstable Afghanistan, so no one should try to weaken the current government of Afghanistan or fuel problems for our Afghan people who already are struggling economically,” Muttaqi said.
The Taliban team, he added, reassured U.S. officials that Afghan soil will not be allowed to be used to threaten other countries. Senior security officials, including Taliban acting intelligence director Abdul Haq Wasiq, also accompanied Muttaqi at the meeting.
The United States remains concerned about what it sees as a growing threat of terrorism in Afghanistan in the wake of increased attacks by Islamic State’s regional offshoot, known as Islamic State Khorasan or IS Khorasan. The terror group has carried out nearly 40 bombings and other attacks across several provinces since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in mid-August, killing and injuring hundreds of people.
The deadliest of the strikes took place on Friday in northeastern Kunduz province, where an Islamic State suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a packed Shiite Muslim mosque, killing more than 50 worshippers and wounding 150 others, though local media put the death toll at 150.
Washington has vowed to watch and use “over-the-horizon” capabilities from outside Afghanistan to conduct future counterterrorism operations in the country. The Taliban, however, have ruled out the possibility of working with the U.S. to fight IS Khorasan, saying their forces are capable of suppressing the threat and have already taken out some of the group’s bases and fighters in recent operations.
Cindy Saine at the U.S. State Department contributed to this report.