ISLAMBAD - Norway Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere has described as 'serious" and "genuine' the talks his country hosted this week between the Taliban and Afghan civil society activists as well as Western diplomats regarding the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The three-day talks concluded Tuesday amid protests and criticism, particularly from Afghan rights groups, of Norway's decision to host the Islamist Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan last August.
Gahr Stoere told reporters in New York the meetings were not tantamount to legitimizing the hardline group's government in Kabul. He said it was 'a first step' in dealing with the de facto Afghan authorities to prevent a humanitarian disaster in that country.
'It's no act of recognition. It's a mere framework to address them ... passing clear messages to the Taliban and also listing (international) expectations and listening back what they have as messages,' the Norwegian prime minister said. 'So this is, I believe, a measure that makes it possible to hold those who hold power in Afghanistan accountable.'
Taliban delegates, led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, met with members of Afghan civil society, including women, on Sunday, followed on Monday and Tuesday by multilateral talks with diplomats from the United States, the European Union, Britain, France, Italy, the United Nations and host Norway.
Wide range of issues covered
The closed-door meetings, which took place at a hotel outside Oslo, were supposed to cover a wide range of issues including education for Afghan women, humanitarian aid and greater inclusivity in the caretaker government the Taliban have established since taking over the conflict-torn nation.
No country has yet recognized the Taliban regime.
Gahr Stoere acknowledged that hosting the Islamist group was a challenging move for his government.
'It's also something that is a troubling thing for many people, including for me, but the alternative - to leave Afghanistan - 1 million children at danger of starving, half the population in need of aid, 90% are really out of any proper working. That is no option,' he stressed.
'We made it clear we want to see girls back at school in March, also those above 12. We want to see humanitarian access unimpeded,' Stoere said, without sharing further details.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Muttaqi said his team's meetings with Afghans and Western envoys were successful.
'Norway providing us this opportunity is an achievement in itself because we shared the stage with the world,' Muttaqi said. 'From these meetings, we are sure of getting support for Afghanistan's humanitarian, health and education sectors,' he added.
The Taliban regained power in mid-August as the Western-backed government collapsed. Remaining U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from the country later that month, ending a 20-year occupation.
The change in power immediately halted international assistance for aid-dependent Afghanistan, and the U.S. blocked the Taliban's access to roughly $9.5 billion in foreign assets - largely held in the U.S. Federal Reserve - in addition to imposing financial sanctions on Kabul.
International donors have urged the Taliban to form an inclusive government and respect human rights, especially those of women, as a condition for the release of more aid, which the group has not done.
Schools start mid-March
The EU's special envoy to Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson, tweeted after his meeting with Muttaqi's delegation that he had '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.' The new Afghan education year begins mid-March.
While the Taliban allowed boys to resume classes in September, most secondary schools for girls remained shuttered across the country, and most female government employees have not been allowed to resume their jobs.
The punitive actions have plunged the fragile Afghan economy into an unprecedented crisis, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis in the country. The U.N. says it needs $5 billion this year to bring urgent relief to an estimated 24 million people experiencing acute food insecurity, 9 million of whom are threatened with famine.
The U.N. Security Council session on the situation in Afghanistan is scheduled to take place on Wednesday. The Norwegian prime minister will chair it as well.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, his special representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, and the Norwegian foreign minister will brief the council.
Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.