British envoy in Kabul as Taliban seek to break isolation

·4-min read

A senior British envoy held talks with top Taliban officials in Kabul on Tuesday -- the first since foreign forces evacuated from Afghanistan -- as the country's new masters seek a path out of international isolation.

The hardline Islamist movement declared a new regime after overrunning the capital in August and ousting the US-backed government.

But after 20 years of war the aid-reliant country faces economic collapse, with major donors pausing funding and no emergency support in place.

The new rulers have been courting hesitant foreign powers in a bid to restart cash flows to the country, where civil servants and healthcare workers have gone months without salaries.

Taliban officials tweeted pictures of the first meeting between Simon Gass, Britain's special representative for Afghanistan, and deputy prime ministers Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi.

The British team, which flew in on a flight facilitated by Qatar, secured the release of Ben Slater, a former British soldier who was detained by the Taliban on the Pakistani border last month as he tried to escort Afghan refugees to safety.

He flew out of Kabul with the British delegation, a UK government official said.

The two sides discussed how Britain can help Afghanistan battle terrorism and a deepening humanitarian crisis -- and provide safe passage for those who want to leave the country, a UK government spokesperson said.

"They also raised the treatment of minorities and the rights of women and girls," the spokesperson added, adding that Gass was joined by Martin Longden, charge d'affaires at the now evacuated UK mission to Afghanistan.

The Taliban, notorious for their brutal and oppressive rule from 1996 to 2001, have faced a backlash after effectively excluding women and girls from education and work across the country.

- Call for inclusive rule -

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the Taliban's foreign ministry spokesman, said the meeting "focused on detailed discussions about reviving diplomatic relations between both countries".

But a UK official was more cautious, stressing that the visit did not represent recognition or "legitimacy" for the Taliban, but rather opening a channel of communication and contact building

"We're being really realistic," the official said. "It's good to be able to get in and get out safely. It's about pragmatic dialogue, securing safe passage, humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism."

Western governments have warned that the Taliban must form an "inclusive" government and respect human and women's rights if they are to be formally recognised.

Neighbouring Pakistan, however, has been pushing for the international community to engage with the new rulers and help stabilise a country threatened by famine.

The Taliban have made some gestures towards international respectability, while insisting on their right to return to a government based on their hardline interpretation of Islamic law.

Tuesday saw another example of the kind of practices that feed international concern.

In the western province of Herat the Taliban hung up the bodies of three alleged criminals after a man killed them when they entered his home, deputy governor Mawlawi Shir Ahmad Muhajir told AFP.

Graphic images posted to social media showed the three corpses hoisted from two cranes in the Obe district in northeast Herat.

- Back to school -

But in signs the Islamists may be trying to soften their public image after 50 days in power, the Taliban announced at a stage-managed rally that some women civil servants have been called back to work.

Interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti told AFP that all staff of the passport department "including female employees" were asked to return to their offices.

The spokesman said the ministry intended to start issuing Afghan passports again after the system broke down with the fall of the previous government.

Girls also returned to some secondary schools in a northern province, Taliban officials and teachers said, despite them remaining barred from classrooms in much of the country.

A video posted by the group's spokesman Suhail Shaheen showed dozens of schoolgirls in black, some wearing white head scarves and others with black face veils, sat in chairs waving Taliban flags.

Education ministry official Mohammad Abid said there had been no policy change from the interim central government, telling AFP on Tuesday: "High schools still remain closed for girls."

The Taliban, which have permitted girls to attend primary school, have said girls will return to secondary schools once their security and strict gender segregation under sharia law can be ensured.

Several teachers and a head teacher in Kunduz city, the provincial capital, told AFP that girls at high schools in some districts had gone back to classes.

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