Give William Burns credit for guts. He’s one of only a few American civilians willingly flying into Kabul rather than going in the other direction. The CIA director sat down with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar yesterday, the Washington Post reports this morning.
And he’s probably not offering a few instruction manuals for the billions of dollars’ worth of American materiel, either:
CIA Director William J. Burns held a secret meeting Monday in Kabul with the Taliban’s de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the highest-level face-to-face encounter between the Taliban and the Biden administration since the militants seized the Afghan capital, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
President Biden dispatched his top spy, a veteran of the Foreign Service and the most decorated diplomat in his Cabinet, amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul international airport in what Biden has called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”
The CIA declined to comment on the Taliban meeting, but the discussions are likely to have involved an impending Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. military to conclude its airlift of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.
Ya think? Adam Schiff’s declaration on the steps of the Capitol yesterday that the Biden administration was “very unlikely” to succeed in getting all Americans out of Kabul by next Tuesday was clearly no surprise to the White House. Despite all of their spin that they expect to get everything accomplished by the August 31 deadline, Biden’s clearly not confident in that outcome at all.
The only reason to send Burns is to negotiate a later deadline. The choice of Burns shows just how desperate Biden is to get more breathing room. Why not send Zalmay Khalilzad, the official US special representative for Afghan-Taliban negotiations? Biden needed to escalate the representation to make an impression, but the risks are high. It would be quite a prestige-building coup for the Taliban to capture a CIA director, especially given the CIA’s role in fighting the Taliban the first few years of the war.
Has it helped? The situation around the airport has calmed down considerably, NBC’s Richard Engel reports, and even inside of it as well:
The scramble to evacuate thousands of still-stranded Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan continues with just one week to go until the Aug. 31 deadline. @RichardEngel has the latest from Kabul. pic.twitter.com/pOQHNRJDqm
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) August 24, 2021
So the facilitation has improved, mainly because we have tacitly recognized the Taliban’s authority in Kabul and Afghanistan. Does that mean that Burns has won some concessions on the deadline? Biden will have to make a decision within the next few hours, and the decision is either to cross the Taliban and get a street fight now, or abandon Americans a week from now:
On Monday, an administration official told Reuters that Biden would decide within 24 hours whether to extend the timeline to give the Pentagon time to prepare.
Beyond the need to remove thousands of Americans, citizens of allied countries and Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, Department of Defense officials said it would still take days to fly out the 6,000 troops deployed to secure and run the airlift.
Some Biden advisers were arguing against extending the self-imposed deadline for security reasons. Biden could signal his intentions at a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven wealthy nations on Tuesday.
Two U.S. officials had said the expectation was that the United States would continue evacuations past Aug. 31. A senior State Department official told reporters the country’s commitment to at-risk Afghans “doesn’t end on Aug. 31.”
A few of these G7 nations still have personnel in Kabul, and don’t have the means to get them out once the US leaves for good. They’re also pressing Biden to get the deadline extended. After Schiff’s statement to reporters last night, it’s almost certain that Biden won’t have much choice but to cross the Taliban — or make it worth their while to allow us more time.
What did Burns offer to get that breathing room? That will be a fascinating question in the days ahead if we get more time without a street fight. The US has tied up billions in assets that belonged to the previous Afghan government. Maybe someone should check those bank accounts.
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