CIA Director William Burns met secretly with the Taliban’s top figure in Kabul on Monday amid a chaotic U.S. effort to evacuate American citizens and Afghans allied with the U.S. in advance of an Aug. 31 deadline, U.S. officials said.
Details of the meeting weren’t immediately available, but the CIA chief’s crisis diplomacy comes as the Biden administration is considering whether to extend the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Kabul airport beyond the deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban on Monday rejected any extension.
The Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on Mr. Burns’s meeting with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, which was earlier reported by the Washington Post.
Concern is rising among officials in the U.S. and other nations about security conditions around the Kabul airport.
Senior U.S. officials have warned that terrorists from Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate could attack the crowds massed outside the airport. Officials also fear the Taliban and its allies, who have not attacked U.S. military personnel during the evacuation, could change their posture after Aug. 31.
“The threat to the airport is very real and very substantial,” said House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), after the committee received a classified briefing Monday evening from U.S. spy agencies. Mr. Schiff specifically cited the Islamic State affiliate, known as ISIS-K.
“It’s a very real risk to our aircraft and to our personnel—to people who have congregated around the airport,” Mr. Schiff said.
The meeting between Mr. Burns, a seasoned diplomat and former deputy secretary of state, with Mr. Baradar appears to be the highest-level engagement between the Biden administration and the Taliban to date.
It was the CIA chief’s second visit to Afghanistan. Weeks after taking office in March, he traveled to Kabul for talks with the now-defunct government of President Ashraf Ghani in the wake of President Biden’s announcement that he would withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have warned that without the support of U.S. military bases and logistics, it will be significantly more difficult for the CIA and its sister spy agencies to detect and deter mounting terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.
Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year that there was a significant risk that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan would seek to rebuild after U.S. and coalition militaries departed. Mr. Burns said the CIA would retain “a suite of capabilities,” some already in the region, some that need to be developed, to protect U.S. interests.
The CIA chief has prior experience in covert diplomacy with U.S. adversaries. During the Obama administration, he helped lead secret talks with Iran that led to a multination accord in 2015 to limit Tehran’s nuclear development in exchange for relief from bruising economic sanctions. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from that pact in 2018.
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