British officials have gone to Afghanistan for the first time since the country fell to the Taliban, meeting the group’s senior leaders in Kabul to discuss the humanitarian crisis and safe return of British citizens.
It marked the first open contact between the Taliban and western officials since the capture of the country in August.
Downing Street had said, at the end of August, that the prime minister’s special representative for Afghan transition, Sir Simon Gass, had travelled to Doha to meet senior Taliban representatives “to underline the importance of safe passage out of Afghanistan for British nationals, and those Afghans who have worked with us over the past 20 years”.
The UK does not recognise the Taliban government and no longer has an embassy in the country since the evacuation in August, but is operating from Doha, Qatar.
The UK delegation this week was led by Gass, and the chargé d’affaires of the UK mission to Afghanistan in Doha, Martin Longden.
A government official said: “They met senior members of the Taliban, including Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund, and Mawlawi Abdul-Salam Hanafi. [The pair] discussed how the UK could help Afghanistan address the humanitarian crisis, the importance of preventing the country from becoming an incubator for terrorism, and the need for continued safe passage for those who want to leave the country.”
They also raised the treatment of minorities and the role of women, the official said.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has said the G7 countries should not recognise the Taliban unless and until there are guarantees about the treatment of women and girls, as well as assurances from the Taliban on not letting the country become a base for terrorists.
In a sign of the continued pressure on women, it was reported that Taliban members had arrested Dr Malalai, formerly the head of women’s affairs for Red Crescent and an anchor for a local TV station, in a raid on her house in Khost province.
The Taliban are maintaining their ban, now in its 17th day, on girls of secondary school age attending education classes.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesman, said the meeting with British officials “focused on detailed discussions about reviving diplomatic relations between both countries”. He said the Taliban’s foreign minister wanted Britain to “begin a new chapter of constructive relations”.
British officials pushed back against the notion that the UK was going to recognise the Taliban, and said the focus of the discussion was on how humanitarian aid could be sent to the country, and on assurances required from the Taliban that the aid would be used for the purposes set by the UN.
The Taliban have started a PR campaign to get humanitarian aid restored, claiming ordinary Afghans are suffering a form of collective punishment by the west.
Abdullah Azzam, a member of the Taliban political office in Doha, warned: “Political differences must not define humanitarian exchange, and civilians should not be punished because of their governments. This would be in flagrant contradiction of the humanitarian ideals internationally by those now driving Afghans to starvations.”
He added: “Large building projects have been suspended. In the process, thousands of labourers have been deprived of their livelihoods, whilst others are now unable to get themselves hired. Construction workers, tools in hand, spend increasingly shorter days at home without having earned a single Afghani, as the bitterly cold Afghan winter draws closer and threatens to exact a greater toll on the country.
“In recent weeks, a growing and common sight has been that of urban residents carrying their household equipment to local markets, ranging from handwoven rugs to sofas and even their cutlery, in a desperate attempt at selling these, sometimes at even half the real value.”
The meeting came as the Afghan passport department resumed operations for the first time since the fall of Kabul, on 15 August, according to a Taliban press conference. It said as many as 25,000 passports were ready for issue.