Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban urged the United States Wednesday to take “practical steps” toward settling outstanding issues as the two sides prepare for a fresh round of talks in Doha next week.
The U.S. said on Tuesday its special envoy for Afghanistan, Thomas West, will lead the American team in two weeks of meetings with Taliban leaders in the Qatari capital.
Senior Taliban official Suhail Shaheen hailed as “a good step” the U.S. decision to resume bilateral meetings.
“We are open to resolve all issues with the U.S. through dialogue and start positive relations with them,” Shaheen, the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations, told VOA.
“The ball is in the U.S.’s court. It is now time for the U.S. to take practical steps toward normalizing relations and resolving all outstanding issues with us,” Shaheen said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that special envoy West will discuss issues of “vital national interest” with Taliban interlocutors.
“That includes counterterrorism, that includes safe passage for U.S. citizens and for Afghans to whom we have a special commitment, and that includes humanitarian assistance and the economic situation of the country,” Price said.
The U.S.-Taliban talks come amid a mounting humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan where the U.N. estimates almost 23 million people or 60 percent of the population are suffering from acute hunger.
The crisis, stemming from years of war, high poverty levels and rampant corruption, has been exacerbated by the imposition of international financial sanctions on the Taliban when it seized power in mid-August, ousting the Western-backed Afghan government.
The U.S. and other Western countries have blocked the Taliban’s access to nearly $10 billion in Afghan central bank assets, largely held in the U.S. Federal Reserve. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have also halted aid programs for the country.
The Taliban and international aid agencies have warned international sanctions have plunged Afghanistan into an economic crisis.
West said in an exclusive interview with VOA on Tuesday the worsening humanitarian crisis has a lot to do with the loss of foreign aid because the Afghan economy largely depended on that over 20 years.
“Some 75% of the former government’s public expenditures were foreign donor funded, some 40% of the country’s GDP was foreign donor funded,” West said.
“And so really, in our engagement … with the Taliban over a period of years, we made clear that if they chose a military path to power, that that aid would disappear, and that is what occurred,” the U.S. envoy explained.
West said it is not as simple for the U.S. as the Taliban might think to unfreeze the Afghan aid.
“There are very complicated legal reasons, as well as judicial reasons, for why that money is not moving from particular banks into other places. I think it’s important also to recognize that there are an additional $2 billion worth of foreign reserves located outside of the United States. That money, likewise, has not moved for similar reasons,” he said.
The international community has ignored Taliban calls for diplomatic recognition of their new government, citing human rights concerns, especially those of women and girls, and questions about whether the Islamist group will deliver on its counterterrorism pledges.
The Taliban are also being pressed to govern the warn-torn country through an inclusive political set up to ensure that the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities, are protected.
For their part, the Taliban say their interim government represents all Afghans and has brought security to the conflict-torn nation in a short period of time.
Last week, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi published an “open letter” calling on the U.S. Congress to release the frozen assets. He said the economic misery at home could prompt a mass exodus and refugee problems for the world.
Muttaqi’s office said Wednesday he will lead the Taliban delegation in the Doha talks with the U.S. and discuss, among other issues, the release of Afghan assets.
Nike Ching contributed to this report.