The Taliban on Saturday ruled out cooperation with the U.S. to contain extremist groups in Afghanistan, staking out an uncompromising position on a key issue ahead of the first direct talks between the former foes since America withdrew from the country in August.
Senior Taliban officials and U.S. representatives are to meet Saturday and Sunday in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Officials from both sides have said issues include reining in extremist groups and the evacuation of foreign citizens and Afghans from the country. The Taliban have signaled flexibility on evacuations.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told The Associated Press there would be no cooperation with Washington on going after the increasingly active Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan. IS has taken responsibility for a number of attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed 46 minority Shiite Muslims and wounded dozens as they prayed in a mosque.
“We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Shaheen said, when asked whether the Taliban would work with the U.S. to contain the Islamic State affiliate. He used an Arabic acronym for IS.
IS has carried out relentless assaults on the country’s Shiite Muslims since emerging in eastern Afghanistan in 2014. IS is also seen as the greatest threat to the United States.
The weekend meetings in Doha are the first since U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan in late August, ending a 20-year military presence, and the Taliban rose to power in the nation. The U.S. has made it clear the talks are not a preamble to recognition.
The talks also come on the heels of two days of difficult discussions between Pakistani officials and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Islamabad. The focus of those talks was also Afghanistan. Pakistani officials urged the U.S. to engage with Afghanistan's new rulers and release billions of dollars in international funds to stave off an economic meltdown.
Pakistan also had a message for the Taliban, urging them to become more inclusive and pay attention to human rights and its minority ethnic and religious groups.
Afghanistan's Shiite clerics assailed the Taliban rulers following Friday's attack demanding greater protection at their places of worship. The IS affiliate claimed responsibility and identified the bomber as a Uygher Muslim. The claim said the attack targeted both Shiites and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghers to meet demands from China. It was the deadliest attack since foreign troops left Afghanistan at the end of August.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, said Friday's attack could be a harbinger of more violence. Most of the Uyghur militants belong to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has found a safe haven in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan for decades.
“If the (IS) claim is true, China’s concerns about terrorism in (Afghanistan)—to which the Taliban claims to be receptive—will increase,” he tweeted following the attack
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan want the anticipated economic benefits from China's multi-billion Belt and Road initiative project linking Beijing to Central and South Asia. They have been willing to ignore China's persecution of its Muslim Uyghur population. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid last month called the Chinese project the region's most important economic venture.
During the Doha talks, U.S. officials will also seek to hold Taliban leaders to commitments that they would allow Americans and other foreign nationals to leave Afghanistan, along with Afghans who once worked for the U.S. military or government and other Afghan allies, a U.S. official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the meetings.
The Biden administration has fielded questions and complaints about the slow pace of U.S.-facilitated evacuations from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal.
Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.