U.S. dilemma: How do you deal with a problem like the Taliban?

DOHA, Qatar —

As the newly-in-power Taliban prepares to announce a government in Afghanistan, the Biden administration is being forced to abruptly recalibrate its approach to a group long viewed in the U.S. as terrorists.

Saying they now want to “lead with diplomacy” after ending two decades of military warfare against the Taliban, U.S. officials face tricky choices.

To whom do they speak? They can avoid Taliban leaders on “specially designated terrorist list”? Officials want to capitalize on the Taliban’s financial need, but how will that work? It will all be complicated and fraught.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who arrived here in Doha on Monday night, has described in broad strokes the kind of Taliban-led government the U.S. is prepared to work with.

Speaking ahead of the trip, he defined that as a government that is inclusive of minorities and other factions; prevents Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists; guarantees freedom of travel, especially for Afghans seeking to leave; shuns reprisals; and respects basic civil rights.

Blinken says the Taliban leadership has committed itself to these goals, which are also endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and a group of 100 countries.

In practice, however, Taliban leaders seem to be reversing their promises and saying that women will not be granted leadership positions in government. Neither has the Taliban broken ties to Al Qaeda .. Although there are occasional reports of the Taliban killing opponents to its rule, there are also reports of other murders.

Blinken stated that he will wait to see how the government looks before passing judgment and that he hasn’t indicated what would make the administration a deal-breaker. Blinken declined to answer a question about whether he would work with the Taliban government headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani, the founder of the movement.

“We’ve seen different reports about a government being formed. I haven’t seen any definitive or dispositive information about the government’s appearance, its composition, and who is in it. So I’m going to reserve comment and judgment until we see that.”

The black-turbaned, bearded Baradar is the most public face of the Taliban and led negotiations over a U.S. withdrawal that started here last year, so American diplomats are somewhat familiar with him. After the two had agreed to withdraw American troops, he took a photo with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

But, there is growing consensus that Taliban officials took U.S diplomats along for the ride during those talks. Because even though one group sat down at the negotiating table to talk about ending violence, the Taliban’s army was still marching across Afghanistan provinces. Trust is very scarce.

Recent reports also suggest Anas Haqqani, brother of the head of the Haqqani network, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization, may serve as deputy to Baradar in the eventual government.

” I have to say that, as important as the government’s appearance is, it is just as important what any government does,” Blinken stated. That’s what we are really looking at. We are examining what actions and policies any new Afghan government takes. That’s what matters the most.”

He added the U.S. and other countries were attempting to apply pressure to influence Taliban behavior. Leverage refers to Afghanistan’s urgent need for financial assistance and the desire of many Taliban leaders that U.S. and U.N. sanctions be lifted so they can travel freely to access their assets abroad.

The U.S. has frozen more than $9 billion in Afghan assets and is debating whether to release any of it. Officials must balance the optics of seeming to fund what may be a ruthless government against the deepening humanitarian crisis in a country where drought, COVID-19 and the war have pushed many Afghans to the brink of starvation.

Unfreezing Afghan assets would likely cause political trouble for President Biden, arming Republicans much the way unfreezing Iran’s assets in 2015 shaped an anti-Obama narrative

The Taliban won qualified praise from some members of the administration for allowing safe passage out of Afghanistan to many U.S. citizens. A senior State Department official stated Monday that the U.S. had been able to “facilitate the departure” of four U.S. citizens by air. This was the first time that the department had done so. The official also stated that the Taliban knew of the movement but did not interfere.

Here in Qatar, Blinken will meet with senior Qatari leaders to thank them for their help in what the U.S. calls the largest airlift in history, which transported 124,000 people out of Afghanistan. Qatar was the largest transit point.

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There was no indication that Blinken would meet with the Taliban at Doha. Officials from the State Department said that it was too early to contemplate high-level bilateral negotiations. This is also true for the distant idea of diplomatic recognization, which could take many months or even years.

Some members of the political leadership are still in Doha, U.S. officials stated. After closing the U.S. Embassy at Kabul, the U.S. established a Doha section to deal with Afghanistan issues.

Many Kabul embassy staff now work in Doha. They will be interacting with the Taliban to “ensure our messaging is clear,” Dean Thompson, acting assistant Secretary of State for South- and Central Asia, said.

One little-known way in which the U.S. is already working with the Taliban, albeit largely through Turkey and Qatar, is in operations to repair the trashed Kabul airport so that it is up and running again.

Blinken said the U.S. has shared “a tremendous amount of very detailed information,” presumably with Turkey and Qatar, and even brought back to the region U.S. contractors who ran the airport for most of the 20 years the U.S. was in Afghanistan.

U.S. Officials also anticipate working with the Taliban in combating terrorism. Both want to eliminate ISIS-K, an Islamic State offshoot operating in Afghanistan. The group is believed responsible for the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport last month that killed 13 U.S. service men and women and nearly 200 Afghans.

Although the U.S. and its allies insist that a Taliban-led government cannot be recognized by the United States, Russia and China have made progress based on business deals. Moscow and Beijing are both hoping to collaborate with the Taliban in order to fight terrorism.

“We’ve had a lot more Russian and Chinese activity because they are providing insights and dialogue and diplomatic intelligence and military support to the Taliban right now,” Seth Jones, a former defense official, said in a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

From Doha, Blinken travels Wednesday to the Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. military operation in Germany, where some 13,000 Afghan evacuees are being sheltered in tents on the tarmacs. Blinken will be meeting with his European counterparts to discuss Afghanistan policy.

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