CIA Director William J. Burns held a secret meeting in Kabul on Monday with Taliban de facto leader Abdul Ghani Baradar to discuss the delicate situation in the Afghan capital, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
It is the highest-level face-to-face meeting between the Taliban and the administration of Democrat Joe Biden since the Islamic radicals seized the Afghan capital, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter, who spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity.
The president dispatched the CIA chief, a Foreign Service veteran and the most decorated diplomat in his Cabinet, amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul’s international airport in what Biden has called “one of the largest and most difficult airlifts in history.”
The CIA declined to comment on the details of this meeting with the Taliban, but the discussions likely dealt with the looming Aug. 31 deadline by which Biden intends for the U.S. military to conclude its airlift of American citizens and Afghan allies.
This is the second visit to Afghanistan this year by Burns, a veteran diplomat specializing in secretive and sensitive negotiations who led, for example, the U.S. dialogue last decade with Iran before shaping the 2015 nuclear deal.
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Burns traveled to Afghanistan last April, when he met with then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to prepare for the start of the American military withdrawal.
The meeting came on the same day that the Taliban warned that the Aug. 31 date must be met, as they see it as “a red line” on the limits that have been allowed for withdrawal.
In an interview with Sky News on Monday, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen warned that a prolongation of the evacuations would create mistrust: “If there is an intention to continue the occupation, it will provoke a reaction.”
At the same time, Biden faces pressure from the UK and other countries to extend that deadline for evacuations, an issue at the center of some of the discussion on Tuesday at a virtual G7 meeting on the crisis in Afghanistan.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Monday that the United States is making “tremendous progress” on the speed of its evacuations, and therefore expects to be able to evacuate all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
According to the White House, its aircraft and those of the NATO coalition flew some 21,600 people out of Afghanistan on Monday, of whom 12,700 traveled aboard U.S. aircraft, the highest number of evacuees in a single day by the U.S. so far.
The U.S. is also concerned about security around the Kabul airport, and Sullivan on Monday acknowledged concerns about the possibility of the Islamic State (IS) group’s branch in Afghanistan targeting civilians massing in the area.