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Taliban meets with opposition militia representatives in Iran

Women’s rights, press freedom discussed in first talks between Taliban and exiled uprising leaders

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, second from left, meets with his Afghan counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, right, in Tehran on Jan. 9, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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KABUL — A group of Taliban officials met over the weekend in Iran with leaders of several armed Afghan resistance groups, reportedly offering to let them return home safely. It was the first direct interaction between Afghanistan’s new rulers and an alliance of domestic militias that launched a short-lived uprising after the Islamist extremists took power in August.

But a spokesman for the resistance groups later angrily rejected the Taliban’s outreach move, saying the meetings had “achieved nothing” and calling the Taliban a tyrannical regime that opposes human rights and freedoms. He said that the Taliban is not serious about addressing the group’s concerns and that they will continue to fight.

“We tried to leave a door open,” Sigbatullah Ahmadi told the BBC Persian service in an interview in Afghan Dari on Monday night. “The Taliban were thinking we would stop our resistance if they offer us ministries, provinces, embassies. Our resistance is not for participation in a tyrannical government. Our resistance is for the people of Afghanistan.”

Bilal Karimi, a senior Taliban spokesman, said in a tweet Monday that two top Afghan militia leaders, Ismail Khan from western Herat province and Ahmad Massoud from northern Panjshir province, met with the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, and other officials.

In live comments to Iranian media, Muttaqi said his group had met with both leaders and other Afghans who had fled the country. “We gave them assurance all could come back to Afghanistan without any worry,” he said in a video tweeted by a Taliban spokesman. “We don’t cause anyone security problems. … Everyone is welcome to return and live in their homeland.”

After the Taliban seized power, Massoud, son of the slain militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, led an aggressive, month-long rebellion in the Panjshir Valley 75 miles northeast of Kabul, which had been the stronghold of anti-Taliban opposition since the late 1990s. The uprising was eventually crushed and its leaders fled the country.

The unannounced meeting in Iran came as two violent attacks in Afghanistan over the weekend — a fatal bombing in eastern Nangahar province and a lengthy nighttime firefight in Kabul — underscored the continuing threats to Taliban rule from various sources.

The bombing near a school, which officials said killed at least 10, was believed to have been carried out by the Islamic State, which has staged numerous attacks in that region in the past. A bombing inside a mosque in Nangahar in November killed at least three people and wounded a dozen.

There were no official statements about the firefight or any resulting casualties, but residents in western Kabul described barrages of heavy gunfire on both sides Sunday night, and commentators on social media said the attackers were likely to have been former members of the Afghan military.

The gesture by Taliban leaders to travel to Iran and meet with their armed domestic opponents was groundbreaking. One attendee from the resistance side said the atmosphere at the talks, held Saturday and Sunday, indicated “flexibility” on the part of Taliban officials.

“By extending an olive branch to Massoud, the Taliban are telegraphing a desire to conciliate with a key resistance figure, likely with an eye toward dampening the prospects for broader armed opposition,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center in Washington. But he predicted that the Taliban will continue to struggle to gain domestic legitimacy, “which could lead to the very emergence of a stronger armed opposition they seek to preempt.”

But Ahmadi, the resistance spokesman, said the Taliban had other motives, such as trying to win official recognition from leaders in next-door Iran and trying to resolve internal tensions between moderate and extremist factions within its leadership. He said the Taliban had “lied” about wanting peace and reconciliation with its opponents.

It was not clear which militia leaders attended, and some militia spokesmen initially denied that the meeting had taken place. One National Resistance Front member said that Massoud had not attended but that Khan, a pre-Taliban governor, and Hafiz Mansour, a pre-Taliban legislator, were there.

Noticeably absent was Amrullah Saleh, an outspoken anti-Taliban figure who served as a chief of the country’s national intelligence police under President Hamid Karzai and later as a vice president to President Ashraf Ghani. Saleh left Kabul for Panjshir as soon as the Ghani government fell and vowed to fight to the death. He is now living in Tajikistan.

Khan, a legendary anti-Soviet fighter, was described as taking a leading role in the talks.

But one opposition delegate, former provincial governor Hasmuddin Shams, told the Iranian media that the two sides had discussed substantive issues, including women’s rights, free expression, democratic rights and inclusive governance. In recent weeks, the Taliban has further restricted women’s rights, shut down several democratic institutions and announced that it will not allow any former government officials to join the cabinet.

“So far as we know there is flexibility. There is a sense of responsibility for Afghanistan’s issues,” Shams said. He said Muttaqi was expected to take the group’s suggestions and an agenda to Taliban leaders in Kabul. After that, he said, “we are waiting for the answer whether the negotiations will take place or not.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Omid Sobhani in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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