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US, Taliban hold first talks since Afghanistan withdrawal

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Senior Taliban officials and United States representatives have discussed “opening a new page” in their countries’ relationship as they kicked off talks in Qatar, according to Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister.

The in-person meetings that began in Doha on Saturday are the first since US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August – ending a 20-year military presence – and the Taliban’s rise to power.

Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, said the focus of the Afghan delegation was humanitarian aid, as well the implementation of the agreement the Taliban signed with Washington last year which paved the way for the final US withdrawal.

The minister said the Afghan delegation had asked the US to lift its ban on the reserves of Afghanistan’s central bank. He added that the US would offer Afghan people vaccines against COVID-19.

The Taliban delegation will later meet representatives from the European Union.

A spokesperson of the US State Department said on Friday evening that the talks were not about recognising or legitimising the Taliban as Afghanistan’s leaders, but are a continuation of pragmatic talks on issues of national interest for the US.

He said the priority was the continued safe departure of Afghans, US citizens and other foreign nationals from Afghanistan, adding that another goal was to urge the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans, including women and girls, and form an inclusive government with broad support.

The State Department did not disclose who would travel to the Qatari capital from the US side.

Since the Taliban took power, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), has ramped up attacks on the group, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

On Friday, an ISKP suicide bomber killed at least 46 minority Shia Muslims and wounded dozens in the deadliest attack since the US departure.

Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim said that the Taliban delegation is in Doha with the hopes of dealing with the hardships of governing, mounting security issues and economic woes.

“It appears that the one of the primary topics of discussion today was the distribution of humanitarian assistance,” she said.

Reporting from Doha, she said expectations of a breakthrough at the talks should be “tempered” because there is still quite a “chasm” between what the US wants and what the transitional government in Afghanistan wants.

Notably absent, Ghoneim added, is Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been the US’s point person in talks with the Taliban for years.

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