(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Amit Chaturvedi)
The chief of American spy agency CIA William J Burns held a secret meeting with the Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday, according to the Washington Post which quoted unnamed US officials. this was the highest-level face-to-face encounter between the two sides and comes more than a week after the insurgent group seized power in Afghanistan, the Post report said. US President Joe Biden’s decision to dispatch his top spy, a veteran of the foreign service, comes amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul international airport in what the president has called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” the paper said.
Though the CIA has not officially commented on the meeting, the Post quoted officials to report that the discussions likely involved the impending August 31 deadline for the US military to conclude its airlift of US citizens and Afghan allies. The Biden administration is under pressure from some allies to keep US forces in the country beyond August 31 deadline in order to assist the evacuation of tens of thousands of citizens of the US and Western countries as well as Afghan allies desperate to escape Taliban rule. A meeting of G7 countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – will take place virtually on Tuesday, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to push for a deadline extension.
However, a Taliban spokesman on Monday warned that there will be “consequences” if the US and UK sought an extension to the August 31 deadline for the US-led troop withdrawal from the war-torn country. Baradar, who spent eight years in Pakistani prison before his release in 2018, has served as the Taliban’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the US in Qatar that resulted in an agreement with the Trump administration on the withdrawal of US forces.
A close friend of the Taliban’s founding supreme leader Muhammad Omar, Baradar is believed to hold significant influence over the Taliban rank-and-file, according to Washington Post. It added that Burns made a similar unannounced trip to Afghanistan in April this year amid concerns over the ability to stop the Taliban offensive. As director, Burns oversees a spy agency that trained elite Afghan special forces units who had been viewed as a potent force in the country.