Taliban talks spark debate over group recognition

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Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam, Taliban Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs of the Ministry of Economic Cooperation, right, speaks with a delegate. (Torstein Boe/NTB scanpix via Associated Press)

OSLO, Norway – A Taliban delegation led by Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi began three days of talks in Oslo on Sunday with Western officials and representatives of Afghan civil society amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

The closed-door meetings were taking place in a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and it was the first time since the Taliban took power in August that their representatives held official meetings in Europe.

The talks were not without controversy, however, reigniting debate over whether they legitimize the Taliban government, especially as they were taking place in Norway, a NATO country involved in Afghanistan from 2001 until to the Taliban takeover last summer.

Speaking at the end of the first day of talks, Taliban envoy Shafiullah Azam told The Associated Press that the meetings with Western officials were “a step to legitimize (the) Afghan government”, adding that “this guy invitation and communication will help (the) European community, (the) United States or many other countries to erase the bad image of the Afghan government.

This statement may irritate the Norwegian hosts of the Taliban. Earlier, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks were “not a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban”.

On Sunday, 200 demonstrators gathered in an icy square outside the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo to denounce meetings with the Taliban, who have not received diplomatic recognition from any foreign government.

“The Taliban have not changed as some members of the international community like to say,” said Ahman Yasir, a Norwegian Afghan who has lived in Norway for about two decades. “They are as brutal as they were in 2001 and before.”

Taliban leaders met with women’s rights and human rights activists on Sunday, but there was no official word on the talks.

From Monday, representatives of the Taliban will meet with delegations from Western countries and are sure to press their demand for the nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries to be released as the Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.

“We ask them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of political rhetoric,” Shafiullah Azam said. “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 conflicts.”

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 for the Taliban administration to share power with minority ethnic and religious groups.

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, have failed to enforce the burqa, which was mandatory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. and sometimes hitting television crews covering the protests.

A US delegation 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.

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