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CIA Chief And Taliban Leader Meet As Taliban Demand Aug. 31 U.S. Withdrawal

CIA Director William J. Burns in his office in Langley, Va.
Ian Morton
CIA Director William J. Burns in his office in Langley, Va.

Updated August 24, 2021 at 10:09 AM ET

CIA Director William Burns met Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The meeting between Burns and Baradar marks the highest level meeting so far between the Biden administration and the Taliban since the group took over in Afghanistan on Aug. 15.

The CIA declined to comment, and there was no word on where in Kabul they met or what they discussed. But the most pressing issue is whether the U.S. airlift operation at the Kabul airport will continue beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.

President Biden says that date is still the target. But he's left open the possibility of extending it, saying he wants to evacuate all U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans who want to leave the country. Biden also wants all U.S. forces out by the end of the month. Close to 6,000 American troops are at the airport as part of the airlift.

The Taliban are eager to formally establish a government in Afghanistan. They say a continued U.S. presence beyond Aug. 31 would cross a "red line," and there would be unspecified consequences.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday that his group will accept "no extensions" to an Aug. 31 deadline, The Associated Press reported.

A range of issues to resolve

While news of the Burns-Baradar meeting came as a surprise, the U.S. and the Taliban are in regular contact and have a number of issues to work out.

The Pentagon says it is in daily contact with the Taliban at the Kabul airport, where armed Taliban members are effectively performing crowd control outside the wall of the airport. The U.S. says the Taliban has been cooperative on issues regarding the airport. Still, U.S. forces are concerned about the possibility of an attack by other extremist groups, including the Islamic State and its affiliates.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's negotiation team, in talks on Nov. 21, 2020, in Doha, Qatar.
Patrick Semansky / AP
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's negotiation team, in talks on Nov. 21, 2020, in Doha, Qatar.

In turn, the Taliban were shunned by the international community during their harsh rule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001. They are seeking international legitimacy this time around, and have encouraged foreign governments to keep their embassies open in Afghanistan. While the Taliban are striking a different tone, the U.S. and its allies are deeply skeptical that the group has changed its fundamental principles.

Also, Afghanistan's weak economy has been heavily dependent on assistance from the U.S. and other Western countries. An aid cutoff could send Afghanistan into a downward economic spiral. Aid groups also say they are concerned about the possibility of a mass exodus of Afghans to neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Baradar have a tangled history.

A joint CIA-Pakistan operation resulted in Baradar's capture in Pakistan in 2010. After eight years in a Pakistani prison, he was released in 2018 and then led the Taliban delegation in negotiations with the U.S. in Doha, Qatar.

In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban signed an agreement that called for all U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan by May of this year. The agreement also states that the Taliban will not allow terrorist attacks to be carried out from its territory.

In followup talks, Baradar met last November with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Qatar.

On Monday, Baradar met the CIA director, this time under very different circumstances than his first encounter with the spy agency.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.