Western diplomats have told the Taliban that humanitarian aid to Afghanistan will be tied to an improvement in human rights, according to reports emerging as meetings with a Taliban delegation wound up in Oslo, Norway.
Closed-door meetings were held during the Taliban’s first official trip to Europe since returning to power in August. Following the talks, the Taliban delegation left Norway late on Tuesday without making any final statements.
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The Taliban is seeking international recognition and release of billions of dollars in Afghan central bank assets frozen by the US following the group’s return to power on August 15, 2021.
The country also found itself cut off from international financial institutions after the group’s return, triggering a banking crisis and fears the war-battered economy will collapse.
Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has rapidly deteriorated since then, worsening the plight of millions of people already suffering hunger after severe droughts after decades of war and occupation.
Aid also dried up after the US reinstated sanctions in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Secretary-General Jan Egeland, who took part in the talks, called for the lifting of sanctions, telling AFP: “We cannot save lives unless all the sanctions are lifted.”
Freezing aid is “hurting the same civilians that the NATO countries spent hundreds of billions on defending until August”, he said.
Some 55 percent of the Afghan population is now suffering from hunger, according to the United Nations.
Western diplomats outline the asks
The Taliban delegation, led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, met senior French foreign ministry official Bertrand Lotholary, Britain’s special envoy Nigel Casey, and members of the Norwegian foreign ministry.
The Western diplomats laid out what they expected from the Taliban during the talks.
European Union special envoy to Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson, wrote on Twitter that he had “also underlined the need for primary and secondary schools to be accessible for boys and girls throughout the country when the school year starts in March”.
He was responding to a tweet from a spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry hailing the EU’s commitment to “continue its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan”.
I also underlined the need for primary and secondary schools to be accessible for boys and girls throughout the country when the school year starts in March – and discussed engagement with UN appointed special rapporteurs. Looking forward to our next meeting. https://t.co/3ChjbvMQ8k
— Tomas Niklasson (@tomas_niklasson) January 25, 2022
Last week, the Taliban promised all girls will return to school by the end of March.
At the UN in New York, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said the talks appeared to have been “serious” and “genuine”.
“We made clear we want to see girls back in school in March, also those above 12. We want to see humanitarian access,” he said.
The Taliban is demanding that $10bn frozen by the US and other Western countries be released, but there is no agreement on that so far.
The group has hailed this week’s talks as a step towards international recognition.
The Taliban foreign minister, speaking on the sidelines of Monday’s talks, said: “Norway providing us this opportunity is an achievement in itself. From these meetings, we are sure of getting support for Afghanistan’s humanitarian, health and education sectors,” he told AP.
Muttaqi said the Taliban government will do “its best to protect Afghanistan from any sorts of problems, attract more assistance, seeking solutions for the economic problems.”
The UN has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity.
“The number-one problem now is that Western sanctions are creating a liquidity crisis, which means we cannot get aid funding into the country,” said the NRC’s Egeland.
No country has yet recognised the Taliban, and the international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern before releasing aid.
Norway says the talks do “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”.
Foreign minister Store, speaking to reporters, said “talking to Taliban” and “holding them accountable is the right thing to do” and that the Oslo talks were a “mere framework to address them, communicate messages and hold them accountable.”
But the decision to invite the group – and fly them over in a chartered jet at great expense – has been heavily criticised by some experts, members of the diaspora and Afghan activists.
Store said he knew many were troubled by the meeting but : “The alternative, to leave Afghanistan, one million children, at the danger of starving… that is no option. We have to deal with the world as it is.”
Norwegian State Secretary Henrik Thune had earlier said: “This is not the beginning of an… open-ended process.”
“We are going to place tangible demands that we can follow up on and see if they have been met,” he told Norwegian news agency NTB ahead of his talks with the delegation on Tuesday evening.
The demands were to include the possibility of providing humanitarian aid directly to the Afghan people, according to the NTB.
Norway was also to call for human rights to be respected, in particular those of women and minorities, such as access to education and health services, the right to work, and freedom of movement.
Taliban claims of modernisation
While the group claims to have modernised, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment and many secondary schools for girls remain closed.
Norway is believed to have raised the plight of two women activists who went missing in Kabul last week after taking part in a demonstration. The Taliban have denied responsibility.
On Sunday, the first day of the three-day talks, the Taliban met with Afghan civil society members, including women activists and journalists, for talks on human rights.
Women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani, who attended Sunday’s talks, told the AFP news agency “it was a positive ice-breaking meeting”.
The Taliban “displayed goodwill … Let’s see what their actions will be, based on their words”, she said.
In Oslo, a Western observer at the talks told AFP “there were some incremental shifts on both sides”.
“But I think we’re going to need more of these meetings before the Taliban and the West find a way of dealing with each other”.
Norway will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan in New York on Wednesday.