The Taliban authorities will be absent from the U.N.-led talks on Afghanistan that open on May 1 in Qatar, as a government spokesman rejects linking international engagement with women's rights in the crisis-stricken country.
Envoys from the U.S., China and Russia — as well as major European aid donors and key neighbours such as Pakistan — are among representatives from about 25 countries and groups called for two days of talks by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, however, have not been invited to the meeting which would focus on how to deal with them and press them to ease a ban on women working and girls going to school.
The Taliban government's deputy spokesman, Bilal Karimi, said on Monday it "wants positive engagement with the world".
But "internal issues" — such as curbs on women's rights — should not factor into decisions about diplomatic engagement and formal recognition, he told AFP in Kabul.
"These should not be used as political tools," he said. "Countries should have the moral courage to independently come forward for positive engagement."
On Saturday, a small group of Afghan women staged a weekend protest march in Kabul to oppose any moves to recognise the Taliban government.
In an open letter to the Doha meeting released on Sunday, a coalition of Afghan women's groups said they were "outraged" that any country would consider formal ties with the government that the U.N. calls the "de facto authorities".
The U.N. and Washington have insisted that recognition is not on the agenda.
Rights groups' fears have been fuelled by remarks made last month by U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who said the Doha meeting could find "baby steps" that lead to a "principled recognition" of the Taliban government.
The U.N. said the comments were misinterpreted.
No country has established formal ties with the Afghan administration and U.N. membership can only be decided by the U.N. General Assembly.
Ahead of his arrival in Doha, Mr. Guterres' office said the meeting "is intended to achieve a common understanding within the international community on how to engage with the Taliban" on women's and girls' rights, inclusive governance, countering terrorism and drug trafficking.
"Any kind of recognition of the Taliban is completely off the table," U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said last week.
Despite not being invited to the talks, the head of the Taliban representative office in Doha, Sohail Shaheen, said he has met with members of the British and Chinese delegations.
He said the U.N. meeting and "the importance of engagement" was among topics raised.
Since ousting a foreign-backed government in 2021, the Taliban authorities have imposed an austere version of sharia law that the U.N. has labelled "gender-based apartheid".
Women are barred from almost all secondary education and universities, and prevented from working in most government jobs -- as well as U.N. agencies and NGOs.
Though divided on many disputes, the U.N. Security Council united on Thursday to condemn the curbs on Afghan women and girls and urge all countries to seek "an urgent reversal" of the policies.
Diplomats and observers say, however, that the Doha meeting highlights the quandary faced by the international community in handling Afghanistan, which the U.N. considers its biggest humanitarian crisis with millions depending on food aid.
The United Nations' Mohammed said it was "clear" the Taliban authorities want recognition. Formal U.N. ties would help the government reclaim billions of dollars of desperately needed funds seized abroad after it took power.
But diplomats from several countries involved in the talks said this would not be possible until there is a change on women's rights.
The U.N. chief is to give the Doha meeting an update on a review of the world body's critical relief operation in Afghanistan, ordered in April after authorities had stopped Afghan women from working with U.N. agencies, diplomats said.
The U.N. has said it faces an "appalling choice" over whether to maintain its huge operation in the country of 38 million. The review is scheduled to be completed on Friday.