Last week, William Burns had a full calendar in the Middle East, meeting with various officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, and Egypt, per Axios. This week, a more under-wraps gathering went down, this time in Kabul between the CIA chief and Abdul Ghani Baradar, the de facto leader of the Taliban, US officials tell the Washington Post.
- The meeting's purpose: As what President Biden calls "one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history" continued to progress in Afghanistan, with the US trying to pull out as many civilians as possible, what the Post bills as "the highest-level face-to-face encounter between the Taliban and the Biden administration" since Kabul fell took place. Although the CIA is staying mum, the news outlet notes the huddle likely focused on the deadline at the end of the month for the US to evacuate Americans and others.
- Taliban warning: Although the Biden administration is feeling the heat from allies to stick around into September to help yank out tens of thousands of Americans, citizens of ally nations like Britain and France, and Afghans trying to flee from the Taliban, the latter group has called any possible extension of that Aug. 31 deadline a "red line" that shouldn't be crossed.
- 'Tinge of irony': That's how the Post frames Baradar's role in meeting with Burns, as the Taliban leader had been arrested in a joint CIA-Pakistan sting in 2010. However, after his release from prison in 2018, apparently at the urging of either the US or Qatar, Baradar served as a lead negotiator with the White House—talks that eventually led to then-President Trump announcing a May 2021 pullout date from Afghanistan. Baradar is also thought "to hold significant influence over the Taliban rank and file," the Post notes.
- Criticism on Burns: The US intel community in general and the CIA specifically have taken flak for seemingly underestimating a quick and forceful Taliban takeover, with Burns' tour of the Middle East last week seeming to "[suggest] the [CIA] didn't think a collapse was imminent" in Afghanistan, per Axios. At the time, a CIA spokesperson told the outlet: "The CIA director remains fully engaged on Afghanistan and all critical agency business no matter his location."
- His take in July: Last month, in a wide-ranging interview with NPR, Burns was asked if he thought it was possible Afghanistan could fall within six months after the US left the country. The CIA chief's response was to repeatedly note that "the trend lines" were "troubling."
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