Taliban hold first talks in Europe since Afghan takeover

OSLO, Norway (AP) — The Taliban and Western diplomats have begun their first formal talks in Europe since taking control of Afghanistan in August.

The closed-door meetings were taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital. Taliban representatives are sure to press their demand for nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries to be released as Afghanistan faces a dire humanitarian situation.

“We ask them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of political rhetoric,” Taliban envoy Shafiullah Azam said Sunday night. “Because of the famine, because of the deadly winter, I think it’s time for the international community to support the Afghans, not to punish them because of their political differences.”

Ahead of the talks, Western diplomats met with Afghan women’s rights activists and human rights defenders to hear from Afghan civil society and the Afghan diaspora to share their demands and assess the current situation on the ground. The meeting brought together representatives from the EU, the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and the host country Norway.

The three-day talks began on Sunday with direct meetings between the Taliban and representatives of civil society.

A joint statement tweeted overnight by Zabihullah Mujahid, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Culture and Information, following the talks said that “participants in the meeting recognized that understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions to all of Afghanistan’s problems”, and emphasized that “all Afghans must work together for better political, economic and security outcomes in the country.

The United Nations managed to provide cash and enabled the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the UN has warned that as many as a million Afghan children are at risk of starvation and that most of the country’s 38 million people live below the poverty line.

Faced with the Taliban’s demand for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan at the top of their agenda, as well as the West’s recurring demand that the Taliban administration share the power with minority ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan.

Since taking power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of which have targeted women. Women were banned from many jobs outside of health and education, their access to education was restricted beyond sixth grade, and they were ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban, however, failed to enforce the burqa, which was mandatory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban are increasingly targeting beleaguered Afghan rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering the protests.

A US delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counter-terrorism concerns; and human rights, especially the education of girls and women,” according to a statement released by the US State Department.

The Scandinavian country, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, is no stranger to diplomacy. He has been involved in peace efforts in a number of countries, including Mozambique, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, the Philippines, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.

Mary I. Bruner