Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Taliban Minister In Oslo For Talks On Afghan Humanitarian Crisis

The international community has a difficult choice: unfreeze Afghan funds to avoid a humanitarian crisis or wait till the Taliban fulfils its obligation to uphold human rights.

Taliban Minister In Oslo For Talks On Afghan Humanitarian Crisis
Taliban delegates in Oslo, Norway Associated Press

The Taliban may have got Afghanistan on a platter, thanks to the US wanting to get out after 20-years of no-win war. However, while getting all the trappings of power was easy, running the country with empty coffers is a major problem for the new rulers. Afghanistan’s economy was kept afloat mainly by foreign funds and that has dried up completely.

What is more, Afghanistan’s central bank has 9.5 billion dollars in bonds in the US.  The release of these funds would give some relief to the government. But the US is not budging, as this is the only leverage the international community now has to force the Taliban to respect human rights and ensure that women are not barricaded at home. This is the only leverage that the international community has on the Taliban to push for respecting the rights of its women and minorities.

The Taliban’s plea for international recognition is on hold. Recognition will pave the way for the funds to flow back into the country. However, not a single nation, not even its closest ally Pakistan has dared to recognise the new government. In its earlier stint in power, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the three countries that had recognised Mullah Omar’s government.

Taliban delegates in Oslo, Norway | Image credit: Associated Press
A Taliban delegation led by its foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi is in Oslo to meet US and Western diplomats and apprise them of the dire situation in Afghanistan. The initiative to invite the Taliban for talks was taken by Norway. Foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt emphasised that the meetings ``do not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban.’’

The team met with representatives of Afghan civil society in Oslo on Sunday. Following the meeting,  Kabul issued a conciliatory statement.

The spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, “The participants of the Oslo summit reaffirmed that Afghanistan is the common home of all Afghans, and emphasized that all Afghans need to work together for better political, economic and security outcomes in the country.” On Monday the Taliban met  Thomas West, US envoy for Afghanistan and other diplomats from Western countries. West tweeted ahead of the meeting: “As we seek to address humanitarian crisis together with allies, partners, and relief organization, we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our abiding interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan.”  On their part, the Taliban will place their demands on the table. Kabul wants the US to release frozen assets, remove names of some of the group’s top leaders from the US blacklist and resume normal diplomatic and economic activity. They want the US and other countries to re-open their embassies in Kabul.  

Just before the Oslo talks, Afghanistan's Taliban-led government has announced that high schools for girls, which have remained closed since the August 2021 takeover of the country, will reopen in March. According to local media reports, the US and other western nations had promised to pay the salary of school teachers if girls are allowed to attend classes.

Schools for girls in Afghanistan have been shut since the Taliban takeover | Image credit: Associated Press
Afghanistan is facing a major humanitarian crisis, thanks to a combination of factors. The country has been ravaged by two decades of war, a severe drought two years in succession, the Covid-19 pandemic and a complete stop to foreign aid since the August takeover. Soaring food prices, severe unemployment, the plunging currency against the dollar leading to banks placing restrictions on withdrawal of funds and a severe winter has contributed to the sad plight of people.

The United Nations had warned the international community for months that starvation or near starvation threatens nearly 55 per cent of Afghans. The UN said that 95 per cent of Afghans do not have enough to eat. Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy is in the dumps. Farmers had abandoned their fields as they rushed from the countryside to take refuge from the fighting. Now with the onset of winters that are bitterly cold in Afghanistan, the situation has become untenable.

The people need help. For the international community, it is a tough choice. Keep stalling, till the Taliban fulfils its obligation on human rights or unfreeze the funds so people will not die of starvation.

The Taliban had promised an inclusive government, respect for women’s rights as well as adherence to normal standards of human rights and no revenge killings.

Women protesting against Taliban in Kabul | Image credit: Associated Press

For a religion driven-ideological outfit headed by Mullahs who practise the austere Wahabi Islam, it is not easy to allow freedom to women. In rural Afghanistan from where most of the Taliban leadership and cadres come from, women are confined to their homes and have to be accompanied by a male relative when out of the home. The moment the Taliban came into Kabul, the sale of hijabs went up as the urban Afghan women some of who had discarded the hijab, rushed to the shops to gear themselves for the Taliban takeover. So, while the Taliban working out of the Doha political office was ready to promise a better deal for women, it was difficult to carry through on their promise. Women employees were asked to stay home. Women students who outnumber men in Herat were told not to attend classes in the university. Beauty parlours billboards and walls displaying women were splashed with white paint in Kabul and other cities.  

Though a general amnesty was announced by the Taliban soon after taking over the government in Kabul, and people were reassured that they would not be targeted for supporting the foreign-backed Ashraf Ghani government, the promise was not kept. Many government officers, especially those in the police and army were hunted down and killed. According to the UN, as many as 100 extra-judicial killings took place in the provinces. As many as 70 were by the Taliban. Some others were killed by the ISI(k) especially in Nangarhar province.