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Afghan civil society and Taliban hold talks in Oslo

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Taliban senior official Anas Haqqani (right) and delegates sit on a plane before departing to Oslo on Saturday. AFP

Afghan civil society and Taliban hold talks in Oslo

Talks in Oslo on January 23 between the Taliban and Afghan civil society members served as an “icebreaker”, on the eve of their meeting with Western diplomats to discuss human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, an Afghan participant said.

The first Taliban delegation to visit Europe since the hardline Islamists returned to power there, led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, spent the first day of their three-day visit talking with women activists and journalists, among others.

“It was a positive icebreaking meeting,” feminist activist Jamila Afghani said. The negotiators “displayed goodwill . . . Let’s see what their actions will be, based on their words”, she added.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a tweet, said: “All Afghans need to work together for better political, economic and security outcomes.

“The participants . . . recognised that understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions.”

The closed-door discussions, facilitated by Norway, are being held at the Soria Moria Hotel, on a snowy hilltop outside Oslo.

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since last August when the Taliban stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled.

International aid came to a halt, worsening the plight of millions of people already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.

The hardline Islamists were ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001 but took over again following a hasty withdrawal by international forces.

No country has yet recognised the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed on January 21 that the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”, but that country’s humanitarian crisis had to be addressed.

Several dozen people protested outside Norway’s foreign ministry on January 23, an AFP journalist at the scene reported.

One of them, Shala Sultani, said the talks were tantamount to “laughing in the face” of Afghans who have lost family members. “You do not talk to terrorists,” she said.

On January 24, the Taliban will meet representatives of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the EU. On January 25 they will talk with Norwegian officials.

Thomas West, the US special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted on January 23: “As we seek to address humanitarian crisis together with allies, partners, and relief orgs, we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our abiding interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan.”

Joining the delegation from Kabul is Anas Haqqani, a leader of the most feared and violent faction of the Taliban movement – the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan.

He was jailed for several years at the US’ Bagram detention centre outside the capital Kabul before being released in a prisoner swap in 2019.

International aid financed around 80 per cent of the Afghan budget until it was halted in August, and the US has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have gone unpaid for months.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 per cent of the population, according to the UN, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.

The international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern after being accused of trampling on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

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