Taliban's former envoy to Saudi Arabia Shahabuddin Delawar arrives for a meeting with foreign diplomats in Qatar's capital Doha, on October 12. Photo: AFP / Karim Jaafar

The Taliban held their first face-to-face talks with a joint US-EU delegation Tuesday in Qatar as Brussels pledged one billion euros ($1.2 billion) in aid for Afghanistan.

The hardline Islamists are seeking recognition, as well as assistance to avoid a humanitarian disaster, after they returned to power in August following the withdrawal of US troops after 20 years of war.

UN chief Antonio Guterres earlier urged the world to donate to drought-hit and impoverished Afghanistan to head off economic collapse, but also slammed the Taliban’s “broken” promises to Afghan women and girls.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU aid package, meant “to avert a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse”, at a virtual G20 summit hosted by Italy on Tuesday.

She stressed the funds are “direct support” for Afghans and would be channelled to international organizations working on the ground, not to the Taliban’s interim government which Brussels does not recognise. 

“We have been clear about our conditions for any engagement with the Afghan authorities, including on the respect of human rights,” she said. 

“So far, the reports speak for themselves. But the Afghan people should not pay the price of the Taliban’s actions.”

The Taliban badly need assistance as Afghanistan’s economy is in a parlous state with most aid cut off even as winter nears, food prices rising and unemployment spiking.

Foreign diplomats meet the Taliban delegation in Doha. Photo: AFP / Karim Jaafar

EU countries are wary at the prospect of a surge of Afghan asylum-seekers trying to enter the bloc, as happened in 2015 with Syrians fleeing their war. 

Brussels’ calculation is that donating money to help stabilize Afghanistan and assist countries between it and Europe could stem any flow. 

Positive relationships

The direct talks held in Doha on Tuesday were facilitated by Qatar, which has long hosted a Taliban political office. 

“I think engaging with them is the most important now,” said Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, a special envoy to Qatar’s foreign minister, who brushed aside the question of whether to recognise a Taliban government.

“A priority as we speak now is the humanitarian situation, is education, is free passage” of people wishing to leave, he told the Global Security Forum conference in Doha.

EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said the meeting with the Taliban would “allow the US and European side to address issues” including respect for women’s rights and preventing Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorist groups.

“This is an informal exchange at technical level. It does not constitute recognition of the interim government,” she said. 

The Taliban regime, still yet to be recognized as a legitimate government by any other country, is also facing a security threat from the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group, who have launched a series of deadly attacks.

Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi says balanced international relations can save the country from instability. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

“We want positive relationships with the whole world,” the Taliban’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said at an earlier event in Qatar. 

“We believe in balanced international relations. We believe such a balanced relationship can save Afghanistan from instability,” said Muttaqi, who led the Taliban delegation Saturday for the first in-person talks with US officials since the American pullout.

Broken promises

Guterres earlier underscored discontent with the Taliban over its treatment of women despite vows it would not repeat its earlier hardline rule.

“I am particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban being broken,” he told reporters Monday. 

Afghanistan’s boys were allowed to return to secondary schools three weeks ago, but girls have been told to stay at home along with women teachers in much of the country, though they can attend primary school.

Asked about the exclusion of girls, Muttaqi claimed their schools had been closed because of Covid-19 – a public health threat he said had lessened – but didn’t explain why boys’ schools had opened. 

Muttaqi also insisted there was no discrimination against the Shiite community and claimed that IS-K was being tamed.

“Whatever preparations they had made have been neutralized 98 percent,” he said without providing details.

IS-K claimed a bombing of a Shiite mosque that killed more than 60 people on Friday, the deadliest attack since the US pullout.

Underlining the shaky security situation, the US and Britain warned their citizens on Monday to avoid certain hotels in Kabul.