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Politics & Government

In An Unexpected Move, The CIA Director Met With Taliban Leader In Kabul

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A surprise move, CIA Director William Burns has traveled to Kabul and has met the top Taliban political leader. That would be Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. This news comes as the U.S. faces an August 31 deadline, a self-imposed deadline for completing its airlift and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: To start with, what's going on in Kabul. What is the latest?

MYRE: This airlift keeps picking up speed - 21,000 people, Americans, Afghans, third country nationals were evacuated in the past day. But this August 31 deadline that you mentioned, self-imposed by President Biden, really seems to be firming up. And this is extremely tight because it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the military to airlift all the U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans up until the final moment, which would be next Tuesday. That's because there are almost 6,000 U.S. forces at the airport, and they have to organize their own departure. This includes dealing with equipment like armored vehicles and helicopters.

KELLY: Now let's talk more about the surprise meeting between the director of the CIA and the Taliban's top political leader. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that one. What do we know, Greg?

MYRE: Well, we know that William Burns and Mullah Baradar met on Monday in Kabul. We don't really have details. And of course, it really begs the question, where did they meet? Burns could have gone to the airport or the U.S. Embassy, but seems highly unlikely that Mullah Baradar would go there, so maybe the presidential palace. We just don't know.

But it does suggest both sides are being pragmatic and see the need for a dialogue. And in addition to these high-level meetings, the Pentagon keeps saying they're in daily contact with the Taliban at the Kabul airport. Armed Taliban members are effectively performing crowd control. The military talks about expanding the perimeter there. And it seems the Taliban has pushed the crowd back a bit. And this very strange arrangement has been working.

KELLY: And once we get past the immediate crisis - this, as you called it, this very strange agreement - what are we expecting in terms of contact between the U.S. government, between others besides the CIA director and the Taliban?

MYRE: Well, based on what we're seeing now, Mary Louise, it seems like there's a good chance it could continue. The U.S. will have left over business even after the troops leave. Will the U.S. recognize the Taliban government? Will the U.S. try to reopen its huge embassy in Kabul? So these are questions for the U.S.

On the Taliban side, they were shunned by the international community when they ruled from '96 to 2001. They're really seeking international legitimacy this time. They're speaking generally in a softer tone and know that they can't rule alone. Also, they're facing an Afghan economy that's very weak, heavily dependent on assistance from the U.S. and other Western countries. There could be a real risk of economic collapse, the humanitarian crisis, refugees flooding across the border. This may force the U.S. and the Taliban to cooperate, whether they like it or not.

KELLY: Yeah. And we should note that there is history here. There's a lot of history, obviously, but there is personal history between the CIA and this specific Taliban leader. Tell us about it.

MYRE: Well, Mullah Baradar first encountered the CIA as part of a joint Pakistan-CIA operation that captured him in 2010. He spent eight years in a Pakistani prison. When he got out in 2018, he negotiated this U.S.-Taliban agreement in Qatar. And so now he's met with the CIA director under very different circumstances than his previous encounter.

KELLY: That is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.