Representatives from the Taliban are currently in Oslo for talks. Photo: Terje Pedersen/NTB

Representatives from the Taliban are currently in Oslo where they meet with Western officials and civil society activists. This is the first time the Taliban have been invited to a Western country since they seized power in Afghanistan in mid-August 2021. Details from the discussions have not fully emerged but the talks have raised heated debate. Opponents claim that the talks give legitimacy to a group that so far has done nothing to accommodate demands from the international community. Supporters claim that talks are the only way of solving Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis.

There is also a bigger picture, putting its mark on any discussion about Afghanistan and its relations to the international community: While some emphasize that the Taliban have changed and that there is progress – they have for example allowed girls to go back to school – others argue calling this progress is setting the bar too low. Have the Taliban really opened up for girls getting an education when their schooling stops the year they turn 11?  

CMI researchers Antonio De Lauri, Arne Strand and Torunn Wimpelmann have worked in and on Afghanistan for decades, in close cooperation with Afghan partners. What is their view on the talks in Oslo?

- Do these talks contribute to give the Taliban legitimacy?

Antonio De Lauri: When a delegation is officially invited by the government and offered a luxury flight to Oslo, it is difficult to deny that it implies a certain degree of legitimacy. Considering that flights have been used by Norwegian authorities to deport Afghans from Norway in the past years, the plane with the Taliban landing in Oslo is a strong image to digest for all those not used to the compromises of politics. While in Norway, the Taliban will also meet representatives from other countries, including the US. All in all, even though high-profile politicians may not be involved, this is an official event that gives the Taliban some recognition in the international arena. 


Arne Strand: Not necessarily, diplomats have since August engaged with them in Qatar and Kabul, but these talks have been less transparent.  In Oslo Taliban is being put on the spot by activists and diplomats over how they govern Afghanistan and the limitations they have imposed on basic human rights. International media are there asking them questions about when also the older girls will have access to education and women will be allowed to go back to work, and about why they have arrested female protesters and journalists. They are challenged on whether their all male government with very limited participation from ethnic minorities is really in a position to lead the entire country, and rightly so.  If they fail to provide convincing answers and demonstrate that they are committed to change they risk ending up with less legitimacy after the meeting. This will make it even harder for them to be recognized as the country’s rightful government.


Torunn Wimpelmann: The most obvious answer to this question is that these talks give the Taliban an air of legitimacy. Flying Taliban representatives in like this makes it an official visit. There might be trade-offs though. If the talks lead to any positive developments, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs may very well think that this is worth the risk.


- Are there any signs the Taliban are in this for real negotiations or are they simply paying lip service to demands from the international community?

Antonio De Lauri: Real negotiations would imply structural changes that do not seem to be on the horizon of possibility at the moment. For example, Afghanistan is a narco-state (and it was so also before the Taliban returned to power) and drug trafficking is a major source of income for the Taliban. A change of course in this matter seems unlikely. The feeling is that these talks will address immediate, short-term issues, while much concern will remain for structural problems such as access to justice, education, labor, etc. 


Arne Strand: Even before this meeting the Taliban indicated plans for reopening schools in late March. They have expressed willingness to accept humanitarian assistance being channeled outside government control, through the NGOs and the UN agencies. The whole point of the talks in Oslo is the need for concrete commitments from the Taliban, and to agree on when and how this is going to take place. Getting insurances that the Taliban will respect human rights and freedom of expression is also up for discussion. Some of these topics will undoubtedly be challenging for them, such as the demand for broader representation in the government and inclusion of women in senior positions. They will for instance resist inclusion of persons they regard as corrupt members of previous governments.


Torunn Wimpelmann: It is hard to say, so far we have had no indication that Taliban will budge on demands from the international community. It is still early days of course, but there is a pitfall here: If the talks end without Taliban making any concessions, they can still use the fact that they have been invited to an official visit.


-Where do these talks leave the fight for women’s rights?

Antonio De Lauri: A woman judge who escaped from Afghanistan after the Taliban took over in August 2021 recently said: “women have been eliminated from the judiciary. Having women in the judiciary was a great achievement that was lost so quickly.” This in a way epitomizes the general situation in the country. Women’s rights will most probably be on the agenda of these and future talks with the Taliban, but the issue of women’s rights will – as often – be simply politically exploited if Afghan civil society groups and women professional associations are not seriously involved.


Arne Strand: It brings the discussions about women’s rights and more broadly human rights to the forefront. During the talks, the Taliban will meet civil society actors who will raise their concerns and opinions on these issues, and in this arena they are forced to hear them out. Especially as these actors clearly have the support of the international community. The talks have however brought to the forefront the range of different opinions among Afghan women and human rights groups. Some take a principled stand and refuse to engage or talk to them, others advocate for dialogue and welcome a more consistent engagement with the Taliban. This also reflects how uneven the progress has been for Afghan women over the last 20 years. There are still large differences between rural and urban populations and within different groups.    


Torunn Wimpelmann: We do not know yet, and there are different views emerging from Afghan women’s rights living in Afghanistan and in exile.

I do understand the view of women’s activists like Nargis Nehan who claim that by inviting the Taliban to Oslo, we are squandering our best negotiation card; recognition. She argues that talks with the Taliban could have been continued on a lower level, by moving along the process in Doha. At the same time, Mahbouba Seraj who lives in Kabul and is part of the talks has said that she has been trying to meet with the Taliban in Kabul for 5 months without any response from them.

I think the opening of girls schools above elementary level could be test case of whether talks such as these are fruitful from the perspective of women’s rights. Of course, the closure of the schools is just one of many extreme measures that the Taliban has taken since seizing power.

I do find it remarkable that Western officials including Norway’s have been quiet about the activists – Tamana Zaryab Pariyani and Parwana Ibrahimkheil that have been missing in Kabul since last week and are by all indications held by the Taliban or rough elements within them. This is something that many people are very concerned about.


-What is the alternative to negotiations with the Taliban?

Antonio De Lauri: It is necessary to engage with the Taliban given that they are, de facto, the ruling authority in Afghanistan. The issue is rather to create the conditions for talks with the Taliban to be more inclusive, that is, to involve other political voices and civil society actors from Afghanistan.   


Arne Strand: At the time being, I don’t see any alternative. Currently no political or militant group or person can challenge the Taliban in Afghanistan. Neither is there anyone who can unite the dispersed groups and representatives of the Ghani government. This is more a question about what to negotiate about, and where one decides to set the bar for which concessions the Taliban must meet.


Torunn Wimpelmann: There are very few who argue that one should not talk to the Taliban at any levelAnd there might be advantage to bringing the Taliban to Oslo compared to continuing lower-level talks in Doha. Talks such as these are focused in the sense that they are time-limited and in such a setting the participants might be prepared to give and take. The Taliban may feel that they will have more to gain by accepting some of the demands posed by officials, and others for example in terms of aid.


-Can the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan be solved without negotiating with the Taliban?

Antonio De Lauri: All forms of humanitarian intervention imply negotiations with different actors ranging from governments to armed groups. Negotiations, including with the Taliban, are necessary to guarantee access to aid for the populations in need, to monitor the unfolding of crises, to create immediate solutions, etc. Of course, negotiations can be used by all sides for political interests that transcend humanitarian needs. Therefore, they need to be constantly monitored and assessed.


Arne Strand: No, even if humanitarian assistance can be channeled outside of government control for a while, this will only function as a temporary band aid. The economy must be revitalized and the underlying poverty challenges addressed to avoid a permanent and even larger crisis. That requires a more peaceful Afghanistan, and the Taliban taking their share of the responsibility. As I have said previously: that requires a lot of tea and honest discussions.  


Torunn Wimpelmann:  I would assume that the main debate going on in Western capitals is whether the humanitarian crisis can be addressed only with humanitarian aid- or whether some funding also have to go to the Taliban controlled state. Money to the state apparatus would go some way in addressing the economic collapse that is the underlying cause of the terrifying humanitarian crisis- but that aid would go to a government that seized power by force, is not representative in any sense, rules in an arbitrary and repressive way- and have introduced the most extreme restrictions on women seen anywhere in today’s world.