WASHINGTON: The Qatari prime minister held secret talks with the supreme leader of the Taliban this month on resolving tension with the international community, a source briefed on the meeting said, signaling a new willingness by Afghanistan’s rulers to discuss ways to end their isolation.
The May 12 meeting in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar between Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Haibatullah Akhunzada is the first the reclusive Taliban chief is known to have held with a foreign leader.
US President Joe Biden’s administration was briefed on the talks and is “coordinating on all issues discussed” by the pair, including furthering dialogue with the Taliban, said the source.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said other issues Sheikh Mohammed raised with Haibatullah included the need to end a Taliban bans on girls’ education and women’s employment.
The meeting represents a diplomatic success for Qatar, which has criticized Taliban restrictions on women while using long-standing ties with the Islamist movement to push for deeper engagement with Kabul by the international community.
The United States has led demands for the Taliban to end the bans on girls’ schooling and women working, including for UN agencies and humanitarian groups, to restore their freedom of movement and bring Afghans from outside Taliban ranks into government.
The source’s comments suggested that Washington supported elevating what have been unproductive lower-level talks in the hope of a breakthrough that could end the world’s only bans of their kind and ease dire humanitarian and financial crises that have left tens of millions of Afghans hungry and jobless.
The White House declined to comment on the talks. The State Department and the Qatar embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, said he does not believe Haibatullah will engage in serious dialogue with the United States and other powers until he eliminates factional rivalries and differences over Afghanistan’s ban on girls’ education.
Haibatullah “is going to hold his cards and until he consolidates his power,” said Jalali, a professor at the US National Defense University.