OSLO, NORWAY - Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society.
In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union.
The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.
On the agenda will be 'the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women,' a U.S. State Department official said.
The hardline Islamists were toppled in 2001 but stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.
The Taliban hope the talks will help 'transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation,' government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.
No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would 'not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.'
'But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,' Huitfeldt said.
'Have to involve the government'
The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August.
International aid, which financed around 80% of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.
Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants' salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts.
Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.
'It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly', U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday.
A former U.N. representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: 'We can't keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban.'
'If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another.'
The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.
While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed.
On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists.
A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.
She told AFP she feared the talks would 'normalize the Taliban and ... strengthen them, while there is no way that they'll change."
'If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side,' she said.
'What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?' she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested.
Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway's 'celebrity-style' peace initiative.
'Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway's global image as a country that cares for women's rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,' he said.
Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia.