The Taliban has held its first face-to-face talks with EU officials in Qatar as the bloc announced an expanded support package for Afghanistan and its neighbors worth about 1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) to try to contain a spiraling humanitarian crisis amid mounting international pressure on the hard-line Islamist group to respect human rights.
The Taliban are seeking international recognition, as well as assistance to avoid a humanitarian disaster, after they returned to power in August following the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops following 20 years of war.
Afghanistan's economy is in a parlous state with most aid cut off as winter nears, food prices rising, and unemployment spiking.
The leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies held a virtual conference on October 12 to address Afghanistan's aid needs, concerns over security, and ways to guarantee a safe exit for thousands of Western-allied Afghans still in the country.
As part of that summit, the EU promised an additional 700 million euros ($809 million) in emergency aid to Afghanistan and its neighbors to prevent what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called "major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse."
The added commitment increases pledges so far to about 1 billion euros after the EU's executive arm previously earmarked 300 million euros for basic services and food for Afghans.
Brussels hopes that donating money to help stabilize Afghanistan and assist surrounding countries could prevent a repeat of Europe's 2015 migration crisis, when more than 1 million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East arrived in the bloc.
In a statement, von der Leyen emphasized the need to work "fast," and she stressed that the funds were "direct support" for Afghans and would be channeled to international organizations working on the ground -- not to the Taliban-led cabinet that Brussels does not recognize.
She also said that the Taliban must first meet five EU "benchmarks" to receive longer-term aid.
Those benchmarks include respect for rule of law and human rights, especially women's rights; preventing the export of terrorism; and an "inclusive government and representative transitional government" through talks with various elements in Afghanistan. Others include unfettered access for humanitarian aid; and allowing the departure of foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said after hosting the G20 summit that the participants have tasked the United Nations with coordinating humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.
Draghi added that all of the leaders also said Afghanistan must recognize human rights, especially women's rights and not become a haven for terrorists.
"We must not get to the point we got to 20 years ago," he said, referring to the Taliban's first stint in power from 1996 to 2001 before it was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.
More than two-thirds of leaders participated in the virtual gathering, with the remainder represented by ministers, according to a G20 official. Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping were among those who did not join.
Non-G20 guests included Qatar, which has long hosted a Taliban political office and has played a key diplomatic role in Afghanistan before and since the U.S.-led withdrawal of international troops was completed in late August.
The summit came amid differences among its members over how to deal with the Taliban-led government.
China has publicly demanded that economic sanctions be lifted and that billions of dollars in frozen Afghan assets be handed back to Kabul.
U.S. President Joe Biden and the other G20 leaders discussed "the critical need to maintain a laser-focus on our enduring counterterrorism efforts, including against threats" from an affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) terror group -- the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K). The leaders also stressed "ensuring safe passage for those foreign nationals and Afghan partners with documentation seeking to depart Afghanistan," according to the White House.
The White House statement also said leaders highlighted providing humanitarian aid via international aid groups, "and promoting human rights, including for women, girls, and members of minority groups."
Meanwhile, a Taliban delegation met with EU representatives in the Qatari capital, Doha, for what EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali called "an informal exchange at [a] technical level."
Massrali said the two sides would discuss issues such as access to humanitarian aid and women's rights, but she insisted that the meeting "does not constitute recognition" of the Taliban-led government.
The acting foreign minister of that government, Amir Khan Muttaqi, announced the Doha meeting the previous day, after Taliban delegates held their first face-to-face talks with representatives of the United States since returning to power.
The Taliban "are having positive meetings with representatives of other countries," Muttaqi said, adding that "a balanced relationship can save Afghanistan from instability."
The in-person talks with U.S. officials took place over the weekend. The American side stressed that the meetings did not amount to recognition of the Taliban government.
A German delegation also met with the Taliban in Doha for the first time on October 11, but Chancellor Angela Merkel said that recognizing the Taliban officially as Afghanistan's government was not on Berlin’s agenda.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the world on October 11 for an injection of cash into drought-hit and impoverished Afghanistan, but also slammed the Taliban's "broken" promises to allow women to work and girls to have access to all levels of education.