Afghan women, Taliban hold talks in Oslo

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban representatives have held unprecedented meetings with a large delegation of Afghan women in Norway's capital this week, a step in efforts to end a bitter 14-year war that has killed thousands, officials said Friday.

It remains unclear whether such meetings can bridge the chasm between rhetoric and reality as insurgents continue to threaten and kill women seeking education and employment as a constitutional right in Afghanistan.

At least nine prominent Afghan women, including five lawmakers and high-profile rights advocates, traveled to Oslo for the talks with Taliban men -- members of a failed regime notorious for its brutalization of women. At least two of the women participants have survived assassination attacks by militants.

While the meetings were informal, they signal a potential for the Taliban to shift on hard-line positions to facilitate an eventual dialogue with the Afghan government. They also highlight fears among Afghan women about just what the Kabul administration might be prepared to sacrifice to end the war, once a formal dialogue begins.

Afghan officials said the talks took place Wednesday and Thursday as part of a long-term Norwegian initiative for Afghan peace. Both Taliban members and Afghan officials confirmed the talks but offered few details, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the nature of the meetings.

"This meeting with the opposition is not a formal peace dialogue," the Taliban said in a statement distributed to media.

Norway's Foreign Ministry spokesman Frode Andersen said the meetings were to conclude Friday.

At least five female lawmakers, including prominent women's rights advocates Fawzia Koofi and Shukria Barakzai, took part, attending as "independent representatives" from parliament, one of the Afghan officials said.

"They are not part of any [Afghan] government initiative and were invited to an unofficial meeting, not as official delegates," he said.

At least three of the women are members of the government's High Peace Council negotiating body, and one is a women's education activist, the other Afghan officials said.

The Taliban position on women's rights is mired in an extreme interpretation of Islam.

Their recent statements have been perceived as a softening of opposition to women learning and working, though Heather Barr, a senior researcher on women's rights at Human Rights Watch, said actions continue to speak louder than words and that there is a "massive disconnect between what the Taliban" say and what they do.

The Islamic militant group banned women and girls from education and work during its 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan, and ruled women could not go outside unless wearing an enveloping burka and accompanied by a male relative.

In modern-day Afghanistan, prominent women are regularly targeted by the insurgents, and some have been killed in attacks or shot dead in the street. Women health workers, police officers, female soldiers, women who run their own businesses -- they all have stories to tell, stories of family members kidnapped, homes bombed, suicide bombings or fatal street shootings.

Barakzai, who survived a November attempt on her life, said it was her outspokenness on women's issues that riled her attackers. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Her fellow lawmaker, Koofi, has said in the past that she has fled her home to escape threats against her and her family.

President Ashraf Ghani, and his often outspoken wife Rula, have said there will be no roll-back of hard-won constitutional protections for Afghan women as part of any peace deal.

Nevertheless, rights to equality and protection from violence are widely regarded as vulnerable to demands from Taliban and other extremist groups.

In their statement Friday, the Taliban said that the "Afghan government should include the Taliban when making policy. Both sides should be ready for an Islamic system and anyone who does not want this has no role" in Afghanistan.

The Oslo meeting is the most recent in a series hosted by the Norwegian government and comes a month after another round of informal talks in the Gulf state of Qatar. The meetings are seen as ice-breakers, attempts to build trust between the warring sides, and a step on a long road toward ending to the war.

Ghani has prioritized bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and ending their insurgency, which has battled Kabul for 14 years, since being ousted from power by a U.S.-led invasion in December 2001.

In the meantime, each side is fighting for supremacy on the battlefield, as the Taliban's summer offensive has spread across the country and Afghan forces are taking huge casualties -- fighting for the first time alone after the departure last year of most international combat troops.

Formal peace talks are seen by diplomats and other observers as being years away.

Information for this article was contributed by Karl Ritter and Amir Shah of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/06/2015

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