The top US spy, the CIA director William Burns, reportedly met secretly with the head of the Taliban on Monday in Kabul, in the highest-level diplomatic encounter since the militant group took over.
According to a report in the Washington Post, unnamed US officials said Burns met the Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, as the Biden administration continued efforts to evacuate US citizens and other allies amid chaos at the airport in Kabul.
While the CIA declined to comment on the Taliban meeting, the report speculated that a likely subject of discussion was the impending 31 August deadline for the US military to conclude its airlift.
The meeting took place as the UN’s top human rights official described credible reports of serious human rights violations committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including summary executions of civilians, restrictions on women and limitations on protests against their rule.
At an emergency session of the UN human rights council, called at the request of Pakistan and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, its head, Michelle Bachelet, called for a mechanism to monitor Taliban actions, describing the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls as a “fundamental red line”.
Warning that “significant numbers of people will seek refuge in neighbouring countries or outside the region”, Bachelet made her comments ahead of a virtual meeting of G7 leaders on Tuesday to discuss the crisis and the evacuation from Kabul’s airport of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans.
Describing the air bridge from Afghanistan, one Nato country diplomat said western nations were working at a “war-footing pace” on Tuesday to get people out of the country as the US president, Joe Biden, looked set to come under pressure from other G7 leaders to seek more time to complete the airlift.
The G7 leaders could discuss taking a united stand on the question of whether to recognise a Taliban government, or alternatively, renew sanctions to pressure the Islamist militant movement to comply with pledges to respect women’s rights and international relations.
“The G7 leaders will agree to coordinate on if, or when to recognise the Taliban,” said one European diplomat.
“And they will commit to continue to work closely together.”
Widespread chaos punctuated by sporadic violence has gripped Kabul’s airport, with western troops and Afghan security guards driving back crowds desperate to flee after the Taliban’s take over of the Afghan capital on 15 August.
Countries conducting the evacuations are trying to meet a 31 August deadline agreed earlier with the Taliban for the withdrawal of foreign forces, a Nato diplomat told Reuters.
Biden, who has left open the prospect that US troops might stay beyond the deadline, has warned that the evacuation was going to be “hard and painful” and much could still go wrong. A number of countries including Spain and the UK have issued sombre warnings that not all Afghans who worked for foreign missions would be evacuated.
However, the Taliban has described the presence of foreign troops beyond the end of August as a “red line” that would have “consequences”, diminishing hopes of an extension to the airlift effort.
While the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said efforts to win an extension would continue, he was doubtful it would happen.
Despite international calls for an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, the Taliban on Tuesday continued to consolidate its power, appointing a new finance minister, an intelligence chief, and an acting interior minister.
According to the Pajhwok news agency, Gul Agha would be the finance minister and Sadr Ibrahim would be the acting interior minister. Najibullah would be the intelligence chief, while Mullah Shirin would be Kabul governor and Hamdullah Nomani the mayor of the capital.
Many Afghans fear a repeat of the brutal interpretation of sharia law that the Taliban implemented when first in power from 1996-2001, or retribution for those who worked with the US-backed government over the past two decades.
“The Taliban are the same as they were 20 years ago,” said Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and former captain of Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball team, after arriving in Spain.
“If you see Afghanistan now, it’s all men, there are no women because they don’t accept women as part of society.”