US, Taliban Agree to Continue Talks

The United States and Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban concluded a two-day meeting in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, the first in-person talks between the two sides in more than three months.

Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West and Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi led their respective delegations at the negotiating table.

The U.S. halted the dialogue in March when the hard-line Islamist group abruptly decided against allowing all teenage Afghan girls to resume secondary school education.

Muttaqi’s spokesman, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, wrote on Twitter after the Doha meeting that West was accompanied by senior U.S. Treasury Department and White House representatives.

The U.S. side discussed, among other issues, the status of frozen Afghan reserves with the Taliban team, which included Finance Ministry and officials from the central bank of Afghanistan.

“FM Muttaqi expressed gratitude to the U.S. for announcing $55 million in humanitarian aid to earthquake victims, reiterating release of Afghan assets & lifting of sanctions,” Balkhi’s tweet said.

Balkhi said the foreign minister stressed that engagement with his government “should be cooperative and positive instead of pressure tactics to achieve progress.”

The Taliban statement quoted West as saying Washington “preferred engagement and sought a stable Afghanistan.” The U.S. envoy said his country “did not support any armed opposition in Afghanistan” and called such actions “detrimental” to that country.

Balkhi said the two sides “expressed satisfaction” with the talks and agreed to continue such meetings. He added that Muttaqi renewed his government’s commitment that it would not allow anyone to use Afghan territory to harm neighboring and world countries.

There were no immediate comments from the U.S. administration.

Earlier, a State Department spokesperson defended the revival of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, saying “pure isolation” cannot help Washington achieve its objectives there.

The spokesperson told VOA the Biden administration was “focused on advancing U.S. interests” in Afghanistan such as human rights, counterterrorism, economic stabilization, the reopening of all schools and safe passage for Afghans who worked with U.S.-led international forces before the August Taliban takeover.

“We are advancing these interests through engagement. We cannot achieve our objectives with a policy of pure isolation,” the spokesperson said. “None of these engagements should be seen as ‘legitimizing’ the Taliban or its so-called government but are a mere reflection of the reality that we need to have such discussions in order to advance U.S. interests.”

$7 Billion still frozen in US

The Doha meeting took place amid reports American officials are working with the Taliban on a mechanism to allow the Afghan central bank to use $7 billion in frozen funds held in the United States to deal with a hunger crisis stemming from years of war and persistent drought in the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order in February aimed at freeing half the $7 billion, to be used to benefit the Afghan people. The rest would be held for ongoing terrorism-related lawsuits in U.S. courts against the Taliban.

The State Department spokesperson confirmed to VOA that the Biden administration is “working to help find an appropriate mechanism that can serve as a steward of the $3.5 billion that President Biden set aside.”

The spokesperson added that Washington is “urgently working to address complicated questions about the use of these funds to ensure they benefit the people of Afghanistan and not the Taliban.”

The Taliban takeover prompted foreign governments, led by the United States, to suspend development and security aid to the country. The strict enforcement of long-running sanctions on Taliban leaders has debilitated the Afghan banking sector and fueled economic troubles.

The United Nations warns that more than half of the country’s estimated 40 million people need emergency humanitarian assistance.

During talks in Doha, officials said, the U.S. delegation also discussed with the Taliban ways to help people in Afghanistan in the aftermath of last week’s earthquake.

The powerful June 22 quake killed at least 1,150 Afghans, including at least 155 children, and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in hardest-hit southeastern Paktika and Khost provinces, according to Taliban officials and global aid agencies.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday it will give nearly $55 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to people in Afghanistan affected by the calamity, including essential food items, clothing, cooking utensils, blankets, jerry cans, and sanitation supplies to prevent waterborne diseases in the disaster-hit areas.

The United States has been the largest humanitarian donor to the conflict-torn country and has committed more than $774 million in relief assistance over the past year.

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last August as American and NATO troops withdrew from the country and subsequently installed an all-male government. No foreign government has yet recognized the Taliban rule, citing its lack of inclusivity and concerns about terrorism and human rights, particularly restrictions on women’s rights to education and work.

In addition to suspending secondary education for most teenage girls, the Taliban have ordered women to wear face coverings in public and barred them from traveling beyond 70 kilometers without a close male relative.

Taliban leaders have rejected calls for removing the restrictions on women, insisting they are in accordance with Afghan culture and Islamic Shariah law.