A Taliban delegation led by acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi began three days of talks in Oslo with Western government officials and representatives of Afghan civil society.
Starting Sunday, closed-door meetings in the Norwegian capital will see Taliban representatives meet with women’s rights activists and human rights defenders from Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora.
The delegation will be pushed on pledges to uphold human rights in exchange for access to billions of dollars in frozen humanitarian aid, Al Jazeera has learned.
“Western influence over the Taliban is almost $10 billion in Afghan money held mostly in the United States,” Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid said, reporting from Doha.
“Amir Khan Muttaqi will try to get some of this money back to pay civil servants’ salaries and ensure there is enough food in the country as the humanitarian situation is getting quite desperate,” he said.
“The other side of that is obviously the promises the Taliban made when he came to power on women’s rights, girls’ education, civil liberties, and that’s something the Taliban don’t. haven’t held up yet,” he added.
Obaidullah Baheer, a senior lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera from Kabul, the Afghan capital, that simply getting the Taliban to sit down and talk is progress.
“The reality is that the Taliban are new to governance and there is an opportunity to mold them into something better,” he said.
“I know they’ve been rigid in some ways, but with the right international pressure and the right kind of activism in Afghanistan, the Taliban can be pushed into specific actions.”
In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives from the United States, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and the European Union.
“In Norway, we have a meeting with the United States and also with the European Union on issues of mutual interest. And part of our encounters would be with our Afghan diaspora who are outside the country, especially in Europe,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
“Their ideas, consultations and plans will be heard. This means that meetings of mutual understanding will continue among Afghans.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Istanbul, Turkey, Mariam Atahi, an Afghan journalist and women’s rights activist, urged the Taliban to release three women she said had been abducted by the group while protesting for their right to education.
“If they want to be recognized, if they want to govern Afghanistan, they have to recognize human rights, education rights, political participation rights,” she said.
Taliban officials, however, denied beating and arresting women’s rights activists.
The Afghan group was overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2001, but regained power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.
No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks “would not represent legitimization or recognition of the Taliban”.
“But we have to talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot let the political situation lead to an even worse humanitarian catastrophe,” Huitfeldt said.
The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated considerably since August.
International aid, which financed about 80% of the Afghan budget, came to an abrupt halt and the United States froze $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank.
Unemployment has soared and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in a country already ravaged by several severe droughts.
Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the UN, which needs 4.4 billion dollars from donor countries this year to deal with the humanitarian crisis.
“It would be a mistake to subject the Afghan people to collective punishment simply because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated on Friday.