CAIRO – Afghanistan's Taliban leaders met Tuesday with U.K. officials for the first time since taking power, a move the group hopes will pave the way for the country to refill cash-starved coffers as it teeters on the brink of economic collapse.
The Taliban said meanwhile they arrested 11 members of the rival Islamic State group.
The Taliban's meeting with British diplomats in the capital Kabul came a day after they met with an Iranian delegation — another first since assuming the helm — to discuss trade relations, a key driver of Afghanistan's economy.
The Taliban met with Sir Simon Gass, the British prime minister’s high representative for Afghan transition, and Martin Longden, the chargé d’affaires of the U.K. mission to Afghanistan in Doha.
The meeting marked Britain's first diplomatic visit to the country since the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15, and took control of Afghanistan following the U.S. exit.
After the meeting, Longden tweeted that “substantial discussions” were held with the Taliban leadership covering a wide range of topics, including the humanitarian crisis, terrorism and the importance for safe passage for U.K. and Afghan nationals, and the rights of women and girls.
He fell short of recognizing their government officially, a Taliban wish, and described the meeting as a “test."
“It's early days and unsurprisingly, there are points of difference between us. But such difficult challenges lie ahead for Afghanistan (and beyond),” he tweeted. “It's right to test if we can engage pragmatically and find common ground — in the interests of both the UK and Afghan peoples.”
In a statement, the Taliban said it was committed to good relations with all countries. “In return, we want the international community to return the cash capital of the Afghan nation to our nation,” it said, referring to billions in Afghan assets frozen in U.S. accounts.
The Taliban met Monday with a delegation from neighboring Iran to regulate trade between the countries, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said. They agreed to increase trading hours at the Islam Qala border crossing from eight hours per day to 24 and to better regulate the collection of tariffs and improve roadworks. Customs are a key source of domestic revenue for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, an aid-dependent country, is grappling with a liquidity crisis as assets remain frozen in the U.S. and disbursements from international organizations that once accounted for 75% of state spending have been paused.
Meanwhile, Taliban officials said Tuesday they arrested 11 members of the Islamic State group, a rival and bitter enemy of the insurgents, in Kabul. The IS affiliate — based in eastern Nangarhar province — has claimed responsibility for a spate of recent attacks targeting Taliban forces in eastern Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Karimi posted on Twitter that the raid was carried out Sunday night in the Afghan capital's Fifth Police District. He provided no further details. The raid came just hours after a bombing that targeted the Eid Gah Mosque in Kabul, killing at least five people.
IS claimed responsibility for the mosque attack late Monday, saying in a posting by its Amaq news agency that one of its suicide bombers targeted senior Taliban figures following a mourning service.
Sunday’s bombing was the deadliest attack in Kabul since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan with the chaotic departure of the last U.S. troops on Aug. 31. IS had also claimed responsibility for the horrific bombing on Aug. 26 that killed more than 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. military personnel outside the Kabul airport, where thousands of people were trying to reach the airport to escape Taliban rule.
The world has been watching whether the Taliban will live up to their initial promises of tolerance and inclusiveness toward women and ethnic minorities. However, Taliban actions so far, such as renewed restrictions on women and the appointment of an all-male government, have been met with dismay by the international community.
Protests against the Taliban’s policies toward women continued Tuesday, with a demonstration in a Kabul private school by female teachers and students who held up signs saying “Education is a right.” The protest was held indoors to avoid backlash from the Taliban, who have recently outlawed demonstrations held without permission from the government.
The U.N. continued to sound the alarm about the country's dire economic situation, saying a humanitarian crisis is imminent. The world body's children's agency warned that half of Afghanistan’s children under age 5 are expected to suffer from severe malnutrition as hunger takes root amid serious food shortages.
“There are millions of people who are going to starve and there is winter coming, COVID raging, and the whole social system collapsed,” said Omar Adbi, UNICEF’s deputy executive director for programs, during a visit to a Kabul children’s hospital.
At the hospital, a woman named Nargis sat with her 3-year-old child, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. She had come from Kunar province in the northeast, where fighting between the Taliban and the Islamic State group has deprived communities of accessing basic needs, including food. Nargis declined to give her full name.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Istanbul and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.