DOHA (AFP) - The Taliban held their first face-to-face talks with a joint US-EU delegation Tuesday in Qatar as Brussels pledged one billion euros ($1.2 billion) in aid for Afghanistan.
The hardline Islamists are seeking recognition, as well as assistance to avoid a humanitarian disaster, after they returned to power in August following the withdrawal of US troops.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU aid package, meant "to avert a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse", at a virtual G20 summit hosted by Italy.
She stressed the funds are "direct support" for Afghans and would be channelled to international organisations working on the ground, not to the Taliban s interim government which Brussels does not recognise.
"We have been clear about our conditions for any engagement with the Afghan authorities, including on the respect of human rights," she said.
The Taliban badly need assistance as Afghanistan s economy is in a parlous state with most aid cut off even as winter nears, food prices rising and unemployment spiking.
EU countries are wary at the prospect of a surge of Afghan asylum-seekers trying to enter the bloc, as happened in 2015 with Syrians fleeing their war.
Brussels calculation is that donating money to help stabilise Afghanistan and assist countries between it and Europe could stem any flow.
- Positive relationships -
The direct talks held in Doha on Tuesday were facilitated by Qatar, which has long hosted a Taliban political office.
"I think engaging with them (the Taliban) is the most important now," said Mutlaq al-Qahtani, a special envoy to Qatar s foreign minister, who brushed aside the question of whether to recognise a Taliban government.
"A priority as we speak now is the humanitarian (situation), is education, is free passage" of people wishing to leave, he told the Global Security Forum conference in Doha.
EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said the meeting would "allow the US and European side to address issues" including respect for women s rights and preventing Afghanistan becoming a haven for "terrorist" groups.
"This is an informal exchange at technical level. It does not constitute recognition of the interim government ," she said.
Martin Longden, charge d affaires at the now evacuated UK mission to Afghanistan, joined the talks Tuesday, saying his country had "pressed for action" on a number of issues.
"I stressed the UK s support for a safe and stable Afghanistan and our determination to continue our assistance to the Afghan people," he tweeted.
"The UK has significant concerns on counter-terrorism, freedom of movement, and human rights -- including girls education -- on which we pressed for action."
The Taliban regime is also facing a security threat from the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group, who have launched a series of deadly attacks.
"We want positive relationships with the whole world," the Taliban s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said at an earlier event in Qatar.
"We believe such a balanced relationship can save Afghanistan from instability," said Muttaqi, who led the Taliban delegation Saturday for the first in-person talks with US officials since the American pullout.
- Broken promises -
Afghanistan s boys were allowed to return to secondary schools three weeks ago, but girls have been told to stay at home along with women teachers in much of the country, though they can attend primary school.
Asked about the exclusion of girls, Muttaqi said their schools had been closed because of Covid-19 -- a public health threat he said had lessened -- but didn t explain why boys schools had opened.
Muttaqi also insisted there was no discrimination against the Shiite community and claimed that IS-K was being tamed.
"Whatever preparations they had made have been neutralised 98 percent," he said without providing details.
IS-K claimed a bombing of a Shiite mosque that killed more than 60 people on Friday, the deadliest attack since the US pullout. Underlining the shaky security situation, the US and Britain warned their citizens on Monday to avoid certain hotels in Kabul.