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U.S. pushes Taliban on human rights, American prisoners 2 years after hardliners' Afghanistan takeover

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U.S. officials held formal direct talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, this week, with the American delegation pushing Afghanistan's hardline Islamic rulers to restore basic rights for women and girls and to free U.S. nationals detained in the country. The Taliban asked in return for its leaders' names to be removed from sanctions lists and for access to their country's government cash reserves locked in foreign bank accounts.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West led the delegation, along with Rina Amiri, the Special Envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, and Karen Deker, the Chief of the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, based in Doha. The Taliban delegation was led by Afghanistan's de-facto Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Mutaqi.

According to a statement posted online by the Taliban, "the two sides discussed confidence building, taking practical steps thereof, removing blacklists and lifting sanctions, unfreezing DAB [Afghanistan's central bank] reserves, economic stability of Afghanistan, countering narcotics, and issues on human rights."

Afghan burqa-clad women walk past Taliban security personnel along a street in Jalalabad on April 30, 2023. SHAFIULLAH KAKAR/AFP via Getty Images

A statement issued Monday by the U.S. State Department said the delegation had "expressed deep concern regarding the humanitarian crisis and the need to continue to support aid organizations and UN bodies delivering assistance consistent with humanitarian principles" in Afghanistan.

"U.S. officials pressed for the immediate and unconditional release of detained U.S. citizens, noting that these detentions were a significant obstacle to positive engagement," the State Department said. In December, the U.S. government confirmed the release of two Americans who had been detained by the Taliban, and it alluded at the time to there being more U.S. nationals held in the country, but they have not been identified.  

The U.S. representatives also voiced "grave concern regarding detentions, media crackdowns, and limits on religious practice," the State Department said, adding that the delegation "took note" of the Taliban's "continuing commitment" to stopping Afghanistan being a base for attacks on the U.S. and its allies, acknowledging "a decrease in large-scale terrorist attacks against Afghan civilians."

Amiri said in a tweet that she and her colleagues had "called for the removal of restrictions on women & girls, including access to education & work; release of detainees; & end to corporal punishment, & crackdown on media & freedom of expression."

Education activist Malala Yousafzai on the Taliban banning women from universities 04:23

The U.S. and the United Nations have made human rights demands of the Taliban since the group stormed back to power when the U.S. military withdrew from the country in August 2021.

Last year, Amiri declined to meet with a Taliban delegation over the group's oppression of women and girls.

Since retaking the country, the Taliban has barred girls over the age of 12 from formal education, made it virtually impossible for them to work in most professions, and restricted their movements in public unless chaperoned by an adult male relative.

The most recent crackdown was a ban on beauty salons, which the clerics ordered to close countrywide last month, eliminating one of the last means Afghan women had of interacting and earning income.

Despite two years of consistent demands from the U.S., the United Nations and many other countries, the Taliban has not made any concessions to improve human rights in Afghanistan, despite the country continuing to receiving billions of dollars in aid annually.

Given the Taliban's steady erasure of human rights, Amiri's closed-door meetings with the Taliban delegation on Sunday and Monday in Doha drew stinging criticism from some Afghan human rights activists.

Fawzia Kofi, a former member of the Afghan parliament and the previous government's negotiating team that dealt with the Taliban, said the U.S. and its allies, "only issue statements on the women's and human rights violations, and then there is no action."

"Each country is pursuing their political interests, as opposed to the interests of the people of Afghanistan and women of Afghanistan," Kofi told CBS News on Tuesday. "That's why people question the principles of engagement" with the Taliban.

Addressing Amiri by name in a tweet, activist Humaira Qadiri said she and the U.S. envoy had together met with Afghan women in the Herat province. They "all asked us [you and me] to be their voice and not engage with the Taliban," she said, accusing the U.S. representative of betraying women's trust.

"Dear Rina, women who really defend women's rights in Afghanistan never want the continuation of Taliban power!" Parwana Ibrahim Khail, an activist who was detained for several weeks by the Taliban after she criticized the group's severe restrictions on women, said in a social media post. "Please do not listen to the words of some women who support the Taliban! Taliban is a terrorist group!" she added.

"The Americans and specifically Rina Amiri shouldn't compromise our rights and principles but work on safeguarding them and put pressure on the regime," education and women's rights activist Sodaba Bayani told CBS News. "Taliban are not representatives of Afghanistan or Afghan people and the reason why we are against any form of engagement and talks with them is that the results of such negotiations may have the same consequences as the previous Doha deal in 2020."

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Given the presence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including al Qaeda and regional ISIS affiliate ISIS-Khorasan, some analysts argue the U.S. must maintain ties with the Taliban leadership to monitor potential threats originating from Afghanistan.

It's unclear how much cooperation Washington can expect, given that the U.S. has expressed no willingness to meet the Taliban's demands.

"The U.S. administration wants to keep in touch with the Taliban to ensure Washington's security interests are preserved, namely that the Taliban continue the fight against Daesh [ISIS-Khorasan], which is an enemy for the U.S, its allies, and also for the Afghan people," veteran regional analyst Torek Farhadi told CBS News.

"In exchange, the Taliban want things the U.S. cannot give them: Removing sanctions from Taliban leaders is not politically possible while the Taliban continue their repressive policies against women and girls in the country," said Farhadi.

He added that un-freezing the roughly $3.5 billion in Afghan government cash reserves that U.S. has set aside in a special fund was "not possible either, since the bank is run exclusively by the Taliban and there are no guarantees the dollars would not end up with the sanctioned Taliban."

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