Facing growing pressure over his looming deadline to leave Afghanistan, President Joe Biden dispatched his spy chief to meet with the Taliban's de facto leader, according to a senior diplomat in the region and another source familiar with the matter.
CIA Director William Burns held a secret meeting with the Taliban co-founder and political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar on Monday, the sources said. The meeting was first reported by The Washington Post.
The CIA declined to comment on the meeting, citing the agency's policy of never discussing the travels and meetings of its director.
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The news comes as Biden has decided to stick to the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from the country, with contingency planning to stay longer if required.
The Taliban have warned any delay in the withdrawal would cross a "red line" and threatened consequences. In a press conference Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the U.S. of instigating Afghans to leave the country, particularly skilled people, and said they would prevent Afghans from heading to the airport in Kabul but allow foreigners to go.
"We are not going to allow Afghans leave, and we will not extend the deadline," he said, according to a translation from the BBC.
In remarks Tuesday afternoon, Biden said officials believe the U.S. is "on pace to finish" evacuations by the 31st, but that he's asked the Pentagon to come up with "contingency plans" in case more time is needed. "It's been a tenuous situation," he said, and "the sooner we can finish, the better."
The president has faced criticism at home and abroad and mounting calls to delay the withdrawal until more Americans, Afghans and others seeking to flee the Taliban can be airlifted out. Thousands desperately await evacuation in the wake of the militant group's rapid takeover of the country.
The pace of the evacuations has accelerated in the last day, with about 21,600 people evacuated from Kabul in the 24-hour period, according to a White House official — 12,700 evacuees left on 37 U.S. military flights, while another 8,900 people were flown out on 57 coalition flights. Since the airlift began Aug. 14, the U.S. has evacuated approximately 58,700 people, the official said.
Biden said over 70,000 people have been evacuated in the past 10 days.
On Tuesday morning, Biden held an emergency virtual meeting with his Group of Seven counterparts, where he faced further pressure to extend the evacuation effort. He told the other leaders that the mission in Kabul was on pace to finish by the end of the month, but that timeline depended on coordination with the Taliban, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Biden said in his address that he and the world leaders "all agree that we will stand united in our approach to the Taliban."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed after the summit that the allies would try to use their economic, diplomatic and political leverage to influence the Taliban, saying "the No. 1 condition that we are insisting upon is safe passage beyond the 31st, beyond this initial phase, for those who want to leave Afghanistan."
European Council President Charles Michel said the European Union was also calling on the Taliban to allow free passage to the airport in Kabul and urged the U.S. and allies to "secure the airport as long as necessary," Reuters reported.
The U.S. military informed the White House that it will take about three to four days to get the roughly 6,000 troops and the small number of embassy and consular staff out, the officials said. That means they have to start moving the military out by the end of this week to stick to Biden's cutoff date for the U.S. forces to withdraw from the country.
As more U.S. troops leave, the evacuations will likely slow down, the officials said.
The Taliban control the outside of Kabul airport and have used force to control the chaotic crowds as thousands rush to escape their rule. There has been concern that if Washington tried to change the deadline, the Taliban would lash out at Americans and other foreign nationals still in Afghanistan, according to the two U.S. officials.
Thousands are desperate to board flights and leave the country as the Taliban continue to consolidate their power, with early reports of violence and repression of nascent resistance instilling fear in those left behind.
Many Afghans fear reprisals and a return to the harsh version of Islamic law that the Taliban enforced while in power from 1996 to 2001, in particular the repression of women and freedom of speech.
Biden told reporters Sunday that he was considering extending the Aug. 31 deadline, but hoped that it wouldn’t have to come to that. He set the deadline in early July before the Taliban’s military blitz saw them sweep across the country and take control.
The U.S. will now have to contend with Baradar and other senior Taliban leaders, who are in the process of choosing a new government Baradar is expected to lead, a commander with the militant group told NBC News.
Baradar was arrested more than a decade ago in a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation and held for eight years in Pakistan.
He was released from prison in 2018 and served as the Taliban’s chief negotiator in peace talks in Qatar that produced an agreement with former President Donald Trump’s administration to withdraw U.S. military personnel by May 1 of this year. After he was inaugurated, Biden said the withdrawal would be completed by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
He then moved that forward to Aug. 31, but is now facing pressure from international allies to delay in order to allow more evacuations to take place.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace warned Monday there were just “hours, not weeks” to evacuate vulnerable Afghans. But he told the United Kingdom's Sky News on Tuesday that he was doubtful there would be an extension, calling it "unlikely."
"It's definitely worth us all trying, and we will,” he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that France was “concerned” about the Aug. 31 deadline, adding that "additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations,” according to Agence France-Presse.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also said Monday that G-7 leaders needed to decide whether to remain beyond Aug. 31.
"We are working on ways to get people out of the country beyond the end of the military evacuation operation," he was quoted as saying by the German Foreign Office on Twitter. "As bitter as it is, we need to talk to the Taliban. The alternative would be to abandon these people. And we are not willing to do that."
Biden is also facing pressure at home. House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told reporters after a briefing Monday that he didn't believe the evacuation could be completed in the eight days remaining.
"I think it's possible but I think it's very unlikely given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated," he said, according to Reuters.
An NBC News poll released Sunday showed just 25 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of Afghanistan, while 60 percent disapproved.