Western diplomats meet Afghan militants amid Taliban talks

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 evening. “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 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.

Standing silent as participants gathered, women’s rights activist Heda Khamoush, who lives in Kabul, held up photos of Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel, two women arrested by the Taliban last week following a anti-Taliban demonstration against the compulsory Islamic headscarf, or hijab, for women. They have not been seen since.

Dismissing the accusation that the Taliban abducted them, Azam said he was “not aware of this” and suggested that the militants could use this event to seek asylum.

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

On Monday, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister spoke to reporters, saying the meetings with Afghan civil society were not a negotiation, but rather a constructive exchange. The country’s new leaders have been heavily criticized for their heavy-handed approach to security, dispersing female protesters with pepper spray and shooting in the air, intimidating and beating journalists and coming out at night to arrest anti-government protesters.

The Taliban have been criticized for establishing an all-male and Taliban caretaker cabinet. Most are Pashtuns. Successive Afghan organizations as well as the international community have urged the Taliban to open up the government to non-Taliban, as well as a strong presence of ethnic and religious minorities and women.

Muttaqi said most of the civil servants who have returned to work belong to the previous government and about 15,000 women work in the health and education sectors. There has been no decision yet, he said, on more women in the government workforce.

“We didn’t fire anyone,” he said. “It’s progress, but of course it’s not enough.”

Discussions with European and American representatives were expected to cover everything from education to humanitarian aid to greater inclusion.

Muttaqi said he had a message for Afghans and the international community:

“Our message is that after 40 years of war, Afghans are at peace. 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 want good relations with the world, with our neighboring countries, with European countries. . . We have had good results and progress in our meetings.”

Women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj acknowledged the progress made. “Yes, 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 come at a crucial time for Afghanistan as freezing temperatures deepen the downward spiral of misery that accompanied the fall of the US-backed government and the Taliban’s takeover.

Aid groups and international agencies estimate that around 23 million people, more than half of the country, face severe starvation and nearly 9 million are on the brink of starvation. People have resorted to selling goods to buy food, burning furniture for warmth, and even selling their children. The United Nations managed to provide cash and enabled the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity.

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 recurring Western demand for the Taliban administration to 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.

In a tweet on Monday, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West welcomed the talks between the Taliban and representatives of the country’s civil society and said “we will pursue clear-headed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and continued interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan.

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Rahim Faiez and Kathy Gannon contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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