UPDATED: Norway’s government has secretly brokered talks between Afghanistan authorities and the Taliban, paving the way for direct negotiations between the warring parties, Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide revealed on Tuesday. Eide claimed that his government played a key role in the process, which has included secret visits to Norway by the radical Afghan rebels.
Eide made his announcement the same day as NATO handed over responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the war-torn country’s own forces. Meanwhile, the Taliban opened its own office in Qatar’s capital of Doha, effectively giving the fundamentalist rebels an official political role.
“It has been a strictly confidential process, but we can now reveal it,” Eide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), which broke the news on Tuesday evening.
The talks have been going on at the same time as Norwegian forces have been fighting deadly battles with Taliban forces on Afghan soil, as part of the international ISAF force. Asked whether those diverse roles have been problematic, Eide said: “We’ve been asking ourselves that question all along.”
Eide said the international community has been wanting talks with the Taliban for several years.
“It’s been clear that a full military victory, removing the Taliban from the face of the earth, has been impossible to achieve,” Eide told NRK.
Indications of secret talks taking place in Norway was first reported by news bureau Al-Jazeera in February, with Norway’s foreign ministry declining to comment on a possible role for Norway in peace and reconciliation efforts. Taliban representatives said their delegates had “gone to see the snow.”
Newspaper VG reported on Tuesday that representatives of the Taliban spent some of their time in Oslo visiting the large Ris church in Oslo to learn about Christian tradition and discuss relations between the state and the church in Norway. The church visit took place on the foreign ministry’s request.
“They were positively interested, they asked several questions and were clearly curious about this,” Stig Utnem, pastor of the church, told VG.
Utnem is a former head of an inter-ecumenical council of the Church of Norway, (Mellomkirkelig Råd) which has previously taken part in various international peace efforts.
On Tuesday, Eide would not say how many times Taliban delegates have been to Norway, who they met or where the meetings took place. No signs of any contact surfaced when Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai visited Norway last February in what appeared to be just another official visit.
Peace broker for decades
Norway, a member of NATO but not the EU, has a long history of brokering peace talks, often providing secret venues on Norwegian soil. Two decades ago Norwegian diplomats created the so-called “Oslo channel” in which Israeli and Palestinian offcial reached interim peace accords. In 1996, more secretive talks led to an agreement that ended civil war in Guatemala. More recently, Norwegian diplomats have staged productive talks between the government of Colombia and FARC guerrillas.
“We’re in a position that allow us to talk to people who are not able to be in direct contact,” Eide told Aftenposten, adding that the talks have taken place with the full support of the US, the Afghan government and Qatar. VG reported that Norway’s involvement has taken place in close cooperation with US Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor Hillary Clinton.
An Afghan spokesman said his government would soon send delegates to Qatar to prepare direct talks with the rebels, possibly involving the US. In the US, officials talked of “a great breakthrough,” but stressed that the parties still have a long way to go.
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