Burns is reported to have met Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader who led negotiations in Qatar with the U.S. government in what is highest-level in-person contact between Washington and extremists who overran Kabul, but the outcome of the talks was not immediately known. It is not clear if the meeting centered on operational, logistical issues related to evacuation or if they included longer term political and diplomatic issues.
Baradar had held talks with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Doha during the Trump administration and also spoken to President Trump on phone.
Burns’ secret mission came ahead of a virtual G7 meeting on Tuesday where US allies are expected press President Biden to extend the withdrawal deadline till the airlift sorties are completed. Thousands of westerners from NATO countries and their Afghan cohorts remain stranded outside the capital despite evacuation picking up pace amid what is seen as Taliban intransigence in permitting access to the Kabul airport.
Taliban representatives have said the US would be crossing a “red line” if extended the withdrawal beyond 31st and warned of unspecified “consequences,” but Britain, France, and other NATO allies are pressing for more time to evacuate their people even as they have gone much further than Americans to airlift evacuees, in some cases deploying special forces beyond the Kabul airport.
The US itself has undertaken helicopter missions beyond the airport to Americans and Afghan allies to the airport, but Washington has been guarded in disclosing the nature of the sorties. The Pentagon has revealed that three Army chinooks picked up 169 Americans who were trapped at the Baron Hotel just outside the Kabul Airport last week, but it did not say whether this was done with Taliban consent or not.
President Biden reportedly told US military commanders last week that he was reluctant to deploy US forces outside the Kabul airport perimeter over fears of a Black Hawk Down-like tragedy in Somalia in 1993 when 18 American personnel killed after US choppers were shot down. But he later said the US has “constantly increased rational access to the airport where more folk can get there more safely.”
“It’s still a dangerous operation, but I don’t want to go into the detail while we’re doing that,” he added.
Some US allies, notable Canada has gone to the extent of calling for sanctions against Taliban, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling them terrorists. But the Biden administration has been more circumspect, given that thousands of Americans remain to be evacuated from Afghanistan.