France in ‘preliminary talks’ with Taliban over Afghan evacuations, says Macron

Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron at Baghdad's Presidential Palace, August 28, 2021.
Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron at Baghdad's Presidential Palace, August 28, 2021. © Khalid Mohammed, AP

President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday said France was holding preliminary discussions with the Taliban about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the possible evacuation of more people at risk following the August 15 Taliban takeover. 


"We are in the process of holding discussions, which are still fragile and provisional, with the Taliban regarding humanitarian evacuations to repatriate Afghan men and women at risk,” said Macron.

Evacuations are planned jointly with Qatar and may involve "airlift operations", said Macron, adding that France had evacuated 2,834 people from Afghanistan since August 17.

Qatar has good contacts with the Taliban since Doha hosts a Taliban political office that negotiated the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. 

The disclosure came at news conference in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where Macron attended a regional security summit aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East and emphasising Iraq’s role as a mediator.

But the Afghanistan crisis overshadowed the French president’s news conference amid questions over US foreign commitments following its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters in Baghdad, Macron said France would continue to deploy troops in Iraq to battle terrorism even if the US were to withdraw from Iraq.

"No matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight against terrorism," said Macron. "We have the operational capacity to ensure this presence," he said.

The meeting came as Iraq, long a casualty of jihadist militancy, also tries to establish itself as a mediator between Arab countries and Iran.

"We all know that we must not lower our guard, because Daesh (the Islamic State group) remains a threat, and I know that the fight against these terrorist groups is a priority of your government," Macron said earlier after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.

Iraq and France are "key partners in the war against terrorism", Kadhemi replied.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah II flew in for the summit, also attended by the foreign ministers of regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah and Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also participated in the summit.

'More urgent than ever'

Oil-rich Iraq has been caught for years in a delicate balancing act between its two main allies, Iran and the US. 

Iran exerts major clout in Iraq through allied armed groups within the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful state-sponsored paramilitary network.

Iraq has been brokering talks since April between Saudi Arabia and Iran aimed at mending ties severed in 2016.

"It was really not easy to put the Saudis and Iranians in the same room," a French diplomatic source said.

But an adviser to Kadhemi said that just the presence of the two foreign ministers together was itself a "success".

Macron aims to highlight France's role in the region and its determination to press the fight against terrorism, his office said.

The French president considers Iraq "essential" to stability in the troubled Middle East, it added.

The Baghdad conference "will make it possible to lay the framework for cooperation in the fight against terrorism," Macron said.

Kabul airport attack highlights IS group threat

An Islamic State (IS) group affiliate claimed Thursday's suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, which killed scores of people, including 13 US service members.

The attack has revived global concerns that the extremist organisation, which seized swathes of Syria and Iraq before being routed from both countries, is emerging anew, analysts said.

The blast came during the final days of US-led evacuations from Afghanistan after the Taliban's lightning takeover.

While in Baghdad, Macron held separate talks with Qatar's emir on a possible role for Doha, which has good contacts with Taliban having hosted peace talks, in organising further evacuations beyond an August 31 deadline set by Washington, sources close to the president said.

Evacuations are planned jointly with Qatar and may involve "airlift operations", Macron said after the summit.

A decade after the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, the IS group in 2014 announced a "caliphate" in territory seized in Syria and Iraq, routing the badly prepared Iraqi army without a fight and seizing almost a third of the country.

France was part of a US-led coalition established to battle the extremists.

Iraq declared the IS group territorially defeated in December 2017, but the group still retains sleeper cells and continues to claim bloody attacks.

New IS group 'strides'

One of the deadliest was a July bombing that ripped through a crowded Baghdad market, killing over 30 people on the eve of a key Muslim holiday.

According to Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, the IS group "still has access to tens of millions of dollars and will likely continue to rebuild its network throughout Iraq and Syria".

In July, President Joe Biden said US combat operations in Iraq would end this year, but that US soldiers would continue to train, advise and support the country's military in the fight against IS.

Washington currently has 2,500 troops deployed to Iraq.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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