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The Taliban meet Western diplomats in 1st major international meeting since takeover

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This past week, the Taliban started their first talks with Western diplomats in Oslo, Norway. This marks the armed group's first major international meeting since it took over Afghanistan in August after the U.S. withdrew troops. And the aim is to convince the international community to free up roughly $10 billion in assets. Now, complicating that decision for Western powers are regular reports of human rights abuses at the hands of the Taliban. We're joined now from Kabul by Soraya Lennie. She's a correspondent for the Turkish state broadcaster TRT World. Hello. Welcome.

SORAYA LENNIE: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So it's been nearly six months since the Taliban took over. What is the situation on the ground right now?

LENNIE: Security wise, OK. So the war is technically over. There's a kind of a restive peace. Most Afghans are happy about that. But then if you look at the economic situation, the economy is effectively collapsed. The state government barely exists in a financial sense.

SUMMERS: As you were talking to people in the country, are they talking at all about the meeting in Oslo and how they feel about the Taliban seeking and perhaps getting formal recognition as a government?

LENNIE: So for those people who knew the meeting was happening, you know, I suppose, you know, the educated class in Kabul who are paying attention to the news - they were happy, most of them, that the meeting was happening in terms of - you know, to see the outcomes but also to see if the international community, for example, and the stakeholders there could, you know, pressure the Taliban in some capacity to, you know, adhere to women's rights, social liberties. Then there's also the other side of that, of course, is to do with the financial aid. So a lot of Afghans, including those who don't support the Taliban, really wanted to see a release of those assets just simply for the issue of, you know, the humanitarian crisis.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you more about that frozen aid, which is frozen largely over fears that the money would go to the Taliban rather than helping the Afghans who need it. The Norwegian Refugee Council released a report last week saying that some 23 million people are facing acute hunger. You've been traveling recently. Tell us what you've been seeing.

LENNIE: You know, a few days ago, I went to Logar province, which is, you know, not far from Kabul. Even so, it is one of the least-developed areas in Afghanistan. And only a few months ago, it was one of the most dangerous. And people there relied on, say, farming, labor kind of jobs pretty much just to get by but also foreign aid before the Taliban takeover. So the world food program is still there and is still delivering aid. And this aid was a stopgap measure, I suppose you could say, but many of them now have lost the little income that they made before.

SUMMERS: Meanwhile, we are still seeing reports of arrests and disappearances of academics and activists alike. We hear that girls in some cases still are not able to go to school, that journalists cannot even talk about press freedom. Now, we should note that the Taliban generally deny or dismiss these reports. But are you seeing Afghans push back against Taliban authorities?

LENNIE: That's an interesting question. There is no collective pushback throughout the populace. There are no widespread protests. They were very limited early on. What did continue was this very small group of women who protested here in Kabul, maybe 15 to 20 women who would come out. And now what we've seen, you know, a couple of these girls have disappeared. And effectively it looks as though they've been arrested, and they've been detained for around a week now. There was also a very high-profile university professor, Faizullah Jalal, who was arrested earlier in January. He's an outspoken critic of the Taliban and very well-respected. Now, he was released just a few days later. But there is no collective opposition, at least publicly.

SUMMERS: Given these reports of rights abuses, I want to ask you, do you hear people there talking about the new Taliban being, well, basically the same as the old Taliban?

LENNIE: Yes, in some respects. I think so, yeah. And that's what some people say because their tolerance for dissent, their tolerance for criticism seems to be waning. And I think that goes for journalists. That goes for activists. And it goes for anyone who is outwardly criticizing them.

SUMMERS: And you've spent time in Kabul. You've recently been in Logar. I'm curious. As you were speaking to people in Afghanistan, can you talk a little bit about just what you hear from people? What are some of the themes that come up, the overarching concerns that people have there in this moment of perhaps uncertainty?

LENNIE: There's a lot of talk from regular Afghans who are looking at this situation. They're saying, this is not going to last. And, you know, I've asked several, you know, please expand on that. What do you mean, this is not going to last? And they say, well, you know, they predict that in a couple of months, a civil war is going to break out. They say Afghanistan could break into several different pieces with - because, you know, it is a tribal society. The Taliban has shown it cannot do basic governance of a state. It cannot do administration, for example, or the usual things that a - you know, a state runs on at a very basic level. So this is one of the fears that a lot of people have - is that things are actually going to get a lot worse.

SUMMERS: That was journalist Soraya Lennie. She joined us from Kabul. Soraya, thank you for your reporting.

LENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.