KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban representatives have held unprecedented meetings with a large delegation of Afghan women in Norway's capital this week, an apparently incremental step in efforts to end a bitter 14-year war that has killed thousands, officials said Friday.
Though striking, 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, travelled to Oslo for the talks with Taliban men — members of a failed regime notorious for its brutalization of women.
The talks are not likely to have been a meeting of the minds — at least two of the women participants have survived assassination attacks by militants and most of the women at the Oslo meetings are likely to have experienced threats and harassment by men.
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.
The talks were part of the Norwegian government efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan. Both Taliban members and Afghan officials confirmed the talks but offered little 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.
Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the talks took place on June 3 and 4 as part of a long-term Norwegian initiative for Afghan peace. Norway's Foreign Ministry spokesman Frode Andersen said the meetings would conclude on 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.
"They come out with great rhetoric which some people are willing to accept because they want to see a 'changed' Taliban in terms of a victory after so many years of war," she said. But she also noted the Taliban use of vague language, terms such as "principles of Islam" when referring to women's rights.
The Islamic militant group, during its 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan, banned women and girls from education and work, and ruled they 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, policewomen, 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. Those concerns spiked in 2013 when some conservative lawmakers seized upon an attempt by Koofi to have parliament ratify the Elimination of Violence Against Women act, decreed by former President Hamid Karzai. Efforts to remove some protections ultimately failed, but women's groups were shaken.
In their statement on 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. Formal peace talks are seen by diplomats and other observers as being years away.
Barr said Taliban participation displays the group's need to be seen as "a legitimate political force rather than a group of terrorists."
Unlike the Islamic State group fighting in Iraq and Syria and which has made no overtures to governments as it cuts an uncompromisingly extremist stance across the Middle East, the Taliban are "playing hard to get, but not impossible to get, even though every sign is that they are winning on the battlefield," she said
Ghani's office said all Afghan citizens have the right to "work for peace where and whenever they want."
"We appreciate these are non-government talks, they are not representing the government of Afghanistan," the office said in a statement.
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 following the departure last year of most international combat troops.
The Taliban representatives to the talks were Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a former senior official of the Taliban regime, and Mohammad Zahid Ahmadzada, who was a junior diplomat in that regime, one of the Afghan officials said.
He said that along with Barakzai and Koofi, other women lawmakers at the Oslo talks included Nilofar Ibrahimi, Farkhunda Naderi and Suraya Dalil. The women members of the High Peace Council who travelled to Norway were Siddiqa Balkhi, Gulalai Noor Safi and Awa Alam Nuristani. The head of the Afghan Women's Education Council, Hasina Safi, also participated, he said. None of the women could be immediately reached for comment.
Associated Press writers Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.