ISLAMABAD – The Taliban on Saturday ruled out cooperating with the United States to contain extremist groups in Afghanistan and stated an uncompromising stance on a key issue ahead of the first direct talks between former enemies since the United States withdrew from the country in August.
Senior Taliban officials and US officials are meeting this weekend in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Officials from both sides have said the issues include rein in extremist groups and the evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghans from the country. The Taliban have signaled flexibility in evacuations.
However, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Associated Press that there would be no cooperation with Washington to include the increasingly active Islamic State group in Afghanistan. IS has claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks, including a suicide bombing on Friday that killed 46 Shiite Muslim minorities and injured dozens as they prayed in a mosque in the northern city of Kunduz.
“We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Shaheen said when asked if the Taliban would work with the United States to contain Islamic State. He used an Arabic acronym for IS.
IS has carried out relentless attacks on the country’s Shiites since its inception in eastern Afghanistan in 2014. It is also seen as the terrorist group that poses the greatest threat to the United States for its potential to stage attacks on US targets.
The weekend rallies in Doha are the first since U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan in late August, ending a 20-year military presence when the Taliban invaded the country. The United States has made it clear that the negotiations are not a preamble to recognition.
The talks also come on the heels of two days of difficult discussions between Pakistani officials and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Islamabad, which focused on Afghanistan. Pakistani officials called on the United States to engage with Afghanistan’s new rulers and release billions of dollars in international funds to stave off an economic meltdown.
Pakistan also had a message for the Taliban urging them to become more inclusive and aware of human rights and ethnic and religious minority groups.
Later on Saturday, Doha-based Al-Jazeera English reported that talks had begun. The news media quoted Ameer Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban-appointed foreign minister for Afghanistan, who said the Taliban had asked the United States to lift its ban on reserves in the Afghan central bank.
There was not immediately a word from Washington about the negotiations.
Following Friday’s attack, Afghanistan’s Shiite clerical Taliban attacked and demanded greater protection at their places of worship. The IS partner took responsibility and identified the bomber as a Uighur Muslim. The allegation said the attack was aimed at both Shiites and the Taliban for their alleged willingness to expel Uighurs in order to meet demands from China. It was the deadliest attack since US and NATO troops left Afghanistan on 30 August.
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Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, said Friday’s attack could be a harbinger of more violence. Most of the Uyghur militants belong to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has found a safe haven in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan for decades.
“If the (IS) claim is true, China’s concerns about terrorism in (Afghanistan) – which the Taliban claims to be receptive – will increase,” he tweeted after the attack.
Meanwhile, the Taliban on Saturday began busing Afghans who had fled the rebels’ blitz takeover in August and lived in tents in a park in Kabul back to their homes in the north of the country, where threats from IS are rising after the Kunduz attack.
A Taliban refugee official, Mohammed Arsa Kharoti, said up to 1.3 million Afghans had been displaced from previous wars and that the Taliban lacked the means to organize the return of all. He said the Taliban has so far organized the return of 1,005 displaced families to their homes.
Shokria Khanm, who had spent several weeks in one of the tents in the park and was waiting on Saturday to board the Taliban-organized bus home to Kunduz, said she was not worried about the growing IS threat in the northern province.
“There we have at least four walls,” she said, but added that she was nervous about the future after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces destroyed her house.
“Winter is on its way. There is no firewood. We need water and food,” she said.
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During the Doha negotiations, US officials will also seek to hold on to the Taliban in their commitment to allow Americans and other foreign nationals to leave Afghanistan along with Afghans who once worked for the US military or government and other Afghan allies, a US official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not allowed to speak on the record about the meetings.
The Biden administration has questioned and complained about the slow pace of U.S.-facilitated evacuations from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal.
Associated Press authors Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington and Samya Kullab in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.