OSLO, Norway ( Associated Press) – The Taliban and Western diplomats have begun their first official talks in Europe since taking control of Afghanistan in August.
The meeting was held in a closed room at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital.
Taliban representatives will push for their demand that the nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western nations be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.
Taliban representative Shafiullah Azam said on Sunday night, “We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of political discussions.” “Because of starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it is time for the international community to support the Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes.”
Ahead of the talks, Western diplomats met with Afghan women’s rights activists and human rights defenders about their demands and an assessment of the current situation on the ground. The meeting was attended by representatives from the European Union, USA, UK, France, Italy and host Norway.
Standing silent as attendees gathered, Kabul-based women’s rights activist Heda Khamoush took photographs of Tamana Zarabi Parayani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel, two women arrested by the Taliban Last week after anti-Taliban protests against the mandatory Islamic headscarf, or hijab, for women. They haven’t been seen since.
Rejecting the Taliban’s allegation of kidnapping him, Azam said he was “not aware of this” and suggested that activists may use the incident to seek refuge.
The three-day talks began on Sunday with a direct meeting between representatives of the Taliban and civil society.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister said the meetings with Afghanistan’s civil society were not talks, but a constructive exchange. The country’s new rulers have been sharply criticized for their harsh attitude toward security, pepper spray and air-firing female protesters, intimidating and beating journalists and coming into the night to arrest anti-government protesters.
The Taliban has been criticized for setting up an interim cabinet that is all men and all Taliban. Most of the ethnicities are Pashtun. Continuing Afghan organizations as well as the international community have urged the Taliban to open government to non-Talibans as well as make a strong showing of ethnic and religious minorities and women.
Muttaki said that most of the bureaucrats returning to work are from the previous government and about 15,000 women are working in the health and education sectors. On the high number of women in the government workforce, he said that no decision has been taken yet.
“We have not dismissed anyone. “It’s progress, but of course it’s not enough.”
Talks with European and US representatives were expected to include everything from education to humanitarian aid to greater inclusivity.
Muttaki said he has a message for Afghans and the international community:
“Our message is that Afghans are at peace after 40 years of war. The war is over and now is the time for progress and economic activity. . . We want Afghans to be happy after all these years of suffering. We are the part of the world. At the same time, we want to have good relations with our neighbours, with European countries… Our meetings have produced good results and progress.”
Women’s rights activist Mehbooba Seraj acknowledged the progress made. “Yeah, they were listening. I should say that,” she said Monday morning. “We gave them a paper. We asked them what we wanted. They took it. They were very, very cordial about it.”
The talks are coming at a critical time for Afghanistan As freezing temperatures add to the misery of the downward spiral that came with the fall of the US-backed government and the takeover of the Taliban.
Aid groups and international agencies estimate that around 23 million people, more than half the country, face severe hunger and that about 9 million are on the verge of starvation. People have resorted to selling items to buy food, burn furniture for summer, and even sell to their children. The UN has managed to provide some liquidity and allow the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity.
Faced with requests for funding from the Taliban, Western powers are likely to put women’s and girls’ rights at the top of their agenda in Afghanistan, as well as power sharing with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups by the Taliban administration. With the recurring demand of the West.
Since coming to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed sweeping sanctions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the fields of health and education, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and ordered to wear the hijab. However, the Taliban have stopped wearing the burqa, which was mandatory when they first ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The Taliban have targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detentions and sometimes television crews covering demonstrations.
In a tweet on Monday, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West welcomed talks between the Taliban and representatives of the country’s civil society, saying, “We share our concerns and our enduring interest in respecting the rights of a stable, Will continue to have clear diplomacy with the Taliban for an inclusive Afghanistan.”
Rahim Faiz and Kathy Gannon contributed to this report from Islamabad.