West News Wire: Since taking control of Afghanistan in August, the Taliban and western officials have began their first official discussions in Europe.

The closed door sessions took place at a hotel in the Norwegian capital’s snow capped mountains.

As Afghanistan faces a dire humanitarian scenario, Taliban leaders will undoubtedly urge their demand for the release of roughly $10 billion frozen by the US and other Western countries.

On Sunday night, Taliban representative Shafiullah Azam said, “We are begging them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish regular Afghans because of the political debate.”

“I believe it is time for the international community to support Afghans rather than penalize them because of their political differences, because of the famine and the harsh winter.”

Ahead of the talks, western diplomats met with Afghan women’s rights activists and human rights defenders to about their demands and assessment of the current situation on the ground. The meeting was attended by representatives of the EU, the U.S., Britain, France, Italy and hosts Norway.

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

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

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

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

“We have not dismissed anyone,” he said. “This is progress, but of course it is not enough.”

Talks with European and U.S. representatives were expected to cover everything from education to humanitarian aid to greater inclusivity.

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

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“Our message is that after 40 years of war Afghans are in peace. War is ended and now is the time for progress and economic activity. We want Afghans to be happy after all those years of suffering. We want good relations with the world, with our neighboring countries, with the 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 are compounding misery from the downward spiral that has come with the fall of the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban takeover.

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

When faced with the Taliban’s request for funding, Western powers are expected to prioritize the rights of Afghan women and girls, as well as the West’s ongoing insistence that the Taliban administration share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups.

The Taliban have implemented a slew of restrictions since taking control in mid-August, many of which are aimed at women.

Women have been barred from numerous employment outside of health and education, their educational opportunities have been limited after sixth grade, and they are required to wear the hijab.

The Taliban, on the other hand, have refrained from imposing the burqa, which was mandatory during their previous rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban have been increasingly targeting Afghanistan’s struggling human rights organizations, as well as journalists, detaining and occasionally abusing television crews reporting protests.

Tom West, the United States’ Special Representative for Afghanistan, stated in a tweet on Monday that “we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our enduring desire in a stable, rights-respecting, and inclusive Afghanistan.”


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