The director of the CIA met with the Taliban's top political leader in Kabul, an official said Tuesday, as more reports emerged of abuses in areas held by the fighters, fueling concerns about Afghanistan's future and the fate of those racing to leave the country before the looming U.S. withdrawal.
Recent days have seen a flurry of efforts to speed a chaotic evacuation of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul's airport, where scenes of desperation have highlighted both the disarray of the American pullout and fears that the Taliban will again impose a brutal rule. Leaders of the Group of Seven nations plan to meet later in the day to discuss possibly extending the airlift past the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. pullout despite a Taliban warning that would be a "red line."
While details of William Burns' discussion with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on Monday were not released, the meeting represents an extraordinary moment for a CIA that for two decades targeted the Taliban in paramilitary operations. And it gives a sense of the extent of the wrangling happening ahead of the end of America's two-decade war in the country.
The CIA partnered with Pakistani forces to arrest Baradar in 2010. He spent eight years in a Pakistani prison before the Trump administration persuaded Pakistan to release him in 2018 ahead of peace talks.
The Washington Post first reported Burns' meeting with Baradar. A U.S. official confirmed the report on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In the wake of their stunning takeover of Afghanistan, Taliban leaders have promised to restore security and tried to project an image of moderation, but many Afghans are skeptical. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet added to those concerns Tuesday, warning she had credible reports of "summary executions" and restrictions on women in areas under Taliban control. She urged the Human Rights Council to take "bold and vigorous action" to monitor the rights situation.
Bachelet did not specify what time timeframe she was referring to or the source of her reports. It has been difficult to determine how widespread abuses might be and whether they reflect that Taliban leaders are saying one thing and doing another, or if fighters on the ground are taking matters into their own hands.
When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the group largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, chopped off the hands of suspected thieves and held public executions.
Later Tuesday, G-7 leaders plan to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan, as European leaders press the U.S. to consider delaying its withdrawal to allow more time to evacuate those desperate to leave.
U.S. administration officials have refused to be pinned down about whether an extension is likely or even possible given that a Taliban spokesman has warned that Aug. 31 is a "red line" and that extending the American presence would "provoke a reaction."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the majority of local staff who worked for his country in Afghanistan haven't yet gotten out and called Tuesday's meeting "very important" for discussing international access to the Kabul airport beyond the end of August. Britain's defense minister separately has called the deadline a "mistake."
Tragic scenes at the airport have transfixed the world. Afghans poured onto the tarmac last week and some clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it took off, later plunging to their deaths. At least seven people died that day, and another seven died Sunday in a panicked stampede. An Afghan solider was killed Monday in a gunfight.
Underscoring the fears of those seeking to flee, Bachelet cited reports Tuesday of "summary executions" of civilians and former security forces who were no longer fighting, the recruitment of child soldiers, and restrictions on the rights of women to move around freely and of girls to go to school. She cited repression of peaceful protests and expressions of dissent.
She called for strong action to investigate reports of rights abuses.
"At this critical moment, the people of Afghanistan look to the Human Rights Council to defend and protect their rights," she said. "I urge this council to take bold and vigorous action, commensurate with the gravity of this crisis, by establishing a dedicated mechanism to closely monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan."
By "mechanism," Bachelet was referring to the possibility that the council might appoint a commission of inquiry, special rapporteur or fact-finding mission on the situation in Afghanistan.
While advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch echoed such calls, a draft resolution at the council stopped far short of intensified scrutiny — and appeared to push back any deeper look at the rights situation until next year.