William Burns CIA chief US
CIA chief William Burns Image Credit: AFP

Washington: CIA Director William J. Burns held a secret meeting in Kabul on Monday with the Taliban’s de facto leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in the highest-level face-to-face encounter between the Taliban and the Biden administration since the militants seized the Afghan capital, the Washington Post reported, quoting US officials familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

President Biden’s decision to dispatch his top spy, a veteran of the foreign service and the most decorated diplomat in his Cabinet, comes amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul international airport in what the president has called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”

Biden faces pressure to extend Afghanistan evacuation mission as Taliban warns against doing so

The CIA declined to comment on the Taliban meeting but the discussions likely involved the impending August 31 deadline for the US military to conclude its airlift of US citizens and Afghan allies.

The Biden administration is under pressure from some allies to keep US forces in the country beyond the end of the month in order to assist the evacuation of tens of thousands of citizens of the United States and Western countries as well as Afghan allies desperate to escape Taliban rule.

Britain, France and other US allies have said more time is needed to evacuate their personnel, but a Taliban spokesman warned that the United States would be crossing a “red line” if it kept troops beyond the 31st, promising “consequences.”

For Baradar, playing the role of counterpart to a CIA director comes with a tinge of irony 11 years after the spy agency arrested him in a joint CIA-Pakistani operation that put him in prison for 8 years.

The Taliban leader, however, is no stranger to Westerners.

After his release from prison in 2018, he served as the Taliban’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the United States in Qatar that resulted in an agreement with the Trump administration on the withdrawal of U.S. forces. In November 2020, he posed for a photo in front of gold-rimmed chairs with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

A close friend of the Taliban’s founding supreme leader Muhammad Omar, Baradar is believed to hold significant influence over the Taliban rank-and-file. He fought Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan and was the governor of several provinces in the 1990s when the Taliban last ruled the country.