CIA Director William J. Burns has held a secret meeting with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, more than a week after the Taliban's capture of Afghanistan's capital of Kabul.
The Washington Post, citing unnamed US officials familiar with the matter, reported on Tuesday that the chief of the American spy agency had held a secret meeting with Baradar in Kabul on Monday.
The discussions likely involved implementing an August 31 deadline for the US military to conclude its airlift of thousands of US and Western citizens. The administration of President Joe Biden has been under pressure from some of the US's allies to keep US forces in the country beyond the end of the month to assist the evacuation.
The highest-level face-to-face encounter between the US and the Taliban came more than a week after the militant group seized power in Afghanistan. The Biden administration's move of sending its senior-most secret services officer to negotiate with the Taliban will also likely be seen as recognition of the militant group's authority over Afghanistan.
The Taliban leader, however, is no stranger to Westerners. Baradar has served as the Taliban's chief negotiator in peace talks with the US in Qatar that resulted in an agreement with the Trump administration on the withdrawal of the US forces. A close friend of the Taliban's founding leader, Muhammad Omar, Baradar is believed to hold significant influence over the Taliban ranks.
The reports of the meeting come as the US is weighing its options as to whether or not to stay in Afghanistan beyond the deadline to oversee the evacuations. The Taliban has stressed that next week's cut-off date is a "red line."
The militant group's spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said on Monday that any foreign military presence beyond the agreed deadline would be "extending occupation."
The US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power 20 years ago, but the invasion worsened the security situation in the country. The militants intensified their offensive and rapidly overran major cities in recent weeks, as the US-led foreign forces enforced what was seen as a hasty withdrawal.
The Taliban laid siege to Kabul on August 15, and the then-Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled on the same day.
For the past two weeks, Kabul's airport has been the scene of chaos and sporadic violence, with panicked Afghan and foreign nationals desperately trying to catch evacuation flights out of the country, prompting officials there to enforce restrictions.