News of negotiations between the United States and the Taliban and the prospect of impending intra-Afghan talks have given hope to the Afghan people that years of war and unspeakable suffering may finally be coming to an end. Americans, too, are war-weary and want to see an end to what has become America’s longest war.
The talks with the Taliban, and the decision by the Trump administration to maintain a presence of just 8,600 troops, however, have also sparked enormous fear among Afghans — especially among Afghan women.
Although arguably the strongest advocates for peace, they worry that an agreement reached with the Taliban — without women’s participation in the negotiations — could put their hard-won gains on the chopping block. After all, it was the Taliban, who during their regime, imposed rules on Afghan women and girls based on their misguided extremist interpretations of Islam that deprived them of their rights — including the right to go to school and to work — and justified violence against them.
WINNERS & LOSERS
No one has suffered more at the hands of the Taliban than the women of Afghanistan. There is also fear in the broader society that a precipitous deal with the Taliban could usher in a civil war — experienced by women as a reign of terror, comparable with what followed the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989.
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The talks between Washington and the Taliban are to pave the way for the intra-Afghan peace negotiations between representatives of the Afghan government and members of society with the Taliban. The top concern of U.S. policymakers in their discussions with the Taliban is, understandably, to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a harbor for terrorist groups like al-Qaida, as it was leading up to 9/11.
However, the U.S.-Taliban talks, because they are taking place behind closed doors, have aroused suspicion that Afghanistan’s future is being negotiated without the inclusion of Afghans. Whatever agreement is reached, it must not undermine the future talks between Afghans and the Taliban. The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan has said, “Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.” His statement will be sorely tested in the weeks ahead.
When the Afghan government-Taliban talks get underway, Afghan civil society, youth and especially women all have an important role. Why women in particular?
First, Afghan women have made enormous strides since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. Women’s rights are protected in the Afghan Constitution and that means equality in every respect, including citizenship, access to education, health care and justice.
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More than 3.5 million girls now attend schools and 100,000 women are enrolled in college. Women serve in the government, in Parliament and as judges. They operate businesses, lead civil society organizations, mediate disputes locally and are running for office at all levels of society. Much of this progress is due to investments by the international community, including the United States, in partnership with Afghan women. These investments and attendant progress have secured important possibilities for Afghanistan’s future.
In Herat, Afghanistan, in August 2019.© Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images
Afghanistan, notwithstanding continuing challenges, is a different place today. The median age of the population is just 19 — a generation of Afghans has not experienced the deprivation and terror of Taliban rule.
Second, some claim that the Taliban have changed. For example, they no longer oppose girls going to school. In preliminary intra-Afghan talks that took place in June in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban said they would assure that women’s rights would be upheld but “within the Islamic framework.” Whose Islam? It does not appear to be the moderate Islam practiced, for example, in Indonesia or Malaysia, but a version closer to what they espoused when they were in power earlier. We have only to look at the state of Afghan women today in areas controlled by the Taliban. Their situation is grim.
Third, why does the fate of Afghan women really matter? The United States surely wants an Afghan peace agreement and the cessation of hostilities to endure. That will not be possible, however, if the rights of half the population — whose talents and contributions are vital to Afghanistan’s future — are abrogated. Women are a moderating force critical to preventing the conditions that could give rise to another 9/11 emanating from Afghanistan again. They are essential to fighting corruption, growing the economy, and sustaining peace and stability.
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Fourth, women must be ensured a serious role in the peace negotiations. There is a growing body of empirical evidence, including research we have produced at Georgetown University, that shows women play a dispositive role in reducing conflict, advancing reconciliation, and ensuring that critical issues get addressed in negotiations.
Research demonstrates that peace agreements are two-thirds less likely to fail if civil society, particularly women, are included in the process. In fact, the United States, in the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 signed by President Donald Trump, codifies the role of women in peace processes to mediate, resolve and recover from deadly conflict.
Once the United States withdraws most of our remaining troops, our leverage and influence will be significantly relinquished. Withdrawal — even the planned partial withdrawal — should be based on key conditions being met by the Taliban.
The prospects for a genuine and enduring peace will be contingent on a peace process that includes the resolution of key issues and the protection of human rights, and ensures that women and other members of civil society will be at the table and fully engaged in the post-agreement process to chart a better future for Afghanistan.
The stakes for Afghans and Americans are too high for anything less.
Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and a former U.S. ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Follow her on Twitter @MelanneVervee
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