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Sunday October 24th, 2021 11:34AM

Amid flurry of Taliban diplomacy, Qatar stresses engagement

By The Associated Press
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Qatar's foreign minister said isolating Afghanistan and its new Taliban rulers “will never be an answer” and argued Wednesday that engaging with the former insurgents could empower the more moderate voices among them.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani spoke amid a flurry of diplomatic meetings taking place in Qatar, where the Taliban have maintained a political office for years in the lead-up to their takeover of Afghanistan in August.

The world has been looking to see how the Taliban transition from two decades of insurgency and war to governance after they seized control of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from the country.

This week, the United States, 10 European nations and European Union representatives held face-to-face talks with Taliban leaders in Doha, the Qatari capital — the first such meetings since the Taliban blitz.

Al Thani told an audience of counterterrorism specialists in Doha that Qatar believes the international community should urge the Taliban “to take the right steps and to incentivize" that — rather than talking only of penalizing them for “negative steps."

“We see that it’s very important to provide guidance for them," he said. “This will create an incentive for progress and for the way forward."

“This will help the moderate power (voices) to also provide an incentive to be more influential and more effective in their government,” Al Thani added.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington has made it clear in talks with the Taliban this week that the group will be judged by their actions on issues related to combating terrorism and protecting human rights.

He declined to discuss “various carrots and sticks” approaches related to Afghanistan’s central bank reserves, currently frozen abroad and inaccessible to the Taliban leadership.

“We engaged on a practical and pragmatic basis with the Taliban, as we have done in recent weeks, focusing on security and terrorism concerns,” Price told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. The Taliban and U.S. share common concern about the more radical Islamic State group in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have ruled out cooperation with the U.S. in fighting IS.

However, the most pressing issue facing Afghanistan is deepening poverty, with the country heavily reliant on international aid. Its financial system is collapsing and millions face hunger. The Taliban are struggling to pay the wages of most teachers, doctors and some half-million civil servants. Prices of food staples have increased and the country is struggling to import medicine because it is blocked from the global financial system.

The EU on Tuesday announced a support package worth 1 billion euros ($1.15 billion), including 300 million euros ($346 million) that had been committed earlier, to help the Afghan people amid the crisis. The United States, the single biggest donor to Afghanistan, provided $330 million this year.

“Isolation will never be an answer,” Al Thani said at the Global Security Forum in Doha. “Engagement is required with whoever is governing Afghanistan because abandoning Afghanistan would be a big mistake.”

The forum, organized by The Soufan Center, drew speakers in-person and virtually from U.S. security and counterterrorism agencies, as well as officials and experts from other countries.

Qatar's role in stabilizing Afghanistan has become increasingly vital in the wake of America's chaotic troop withdrawal and the hurried U.S. airlift of more than 100,000 people from Kabul in August. The tiny gas-rich Arab nation served as a transit point for some 60,000 evacuees.

Qatar describes its role as that of a mediator in talks with the Taliban. The U.S.-Taliban deal known as the Doha Agreement was signed in Qatar in February 2020, paving the way for the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

The Taliban say they want international recognition, warning that weakening their government will affect security and spark an even bigger exodus of migration from the country. They also face an increasingly active Islamic State group, which has ramped up attacks in recent weeks, including a suicide bombing Friday at a Shiite mosque in the city of Kunduz that killed 46 worshippers and injured scores.

The international community has condemned some Taliban actions since the U.S.-backed Afghan government crumbled. The Taliban have brought back public hangings and other brutal tactics. They have only allowed girls to return to primary school but have barred them from going to high school in all but one province. Women have not been allowed to return to work.

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who is among those in Doha this week, said the Taliban reject the imposition of external ideologies and political models on Afghanistan.

“The differences of ideas, ideologies, ethnicities, languages is a reality, and this reality must be acknowledged,” Muttaqi told an audience at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. “Just as we are able to grasp differences of others with us, our expectation is that others also grasp our differences with them.”

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