With the prospect of U.S. troops withdrawing, Afghan women are seeking reassurance that the Taliban won’t bring back the bad old days.
It’s been 18 years since the Taliban were overthrown in Afghanistan. These Grade 2 students at Kabul’s Fatima tul Zahra school are too young to remember the Taliban’s rule and its bans on education for girls.
A generation of girls have grown up with access to education that their mothers did not have.
There are 9.3 million children back in school, 39 per cent of them girls.
In Kandahar, these women are training to be teachers themselves.
But the prospect of peace with the Taliban has Afghans worried that 18 years of progress are in peril.
If U.S. troops leave, many fear a resurgence in violence, if not civil war, as the Taliban reasserts itself.
Where does that leave the women and girls of Afghanistan?
“Peace talks with the Taliban” sounds like a classic oxymoron. Afghanistan is a country that’s been at war for 40 years – with the Soviets, with the United States, with itself. But, like the promise of spring, the notion that the guns will be silenced and the suicide bombers will stop their carnage is a headline-grabbing elixir.
Last month, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to Afghanistan, met with representatives from the Taliban in Doha, the capital of Qatar. There, the draft framework of a deal was agreed upon. But the hard truth is that the government of Afghanistan was shunned at those peace talks, and the long-suffering Afghan people were ignored.
The reason? U.S. President Donald Trump has long told his supporters that he’d bring American troops home, including from Afghanistan. And, given that he has so far failed to deliver on many of his campaign promises – and with the 2020 election in sight – it would appear the White House is willing to play chicken with the 21st-century players of what Rudyard Kipling called the Great Game, in order to score at least one foreign-policy win.
Here’s what’s on the table: The United States gets a promise from the Taliban that Afghanistan won’t be used as a terrorist training ground (one that could turn around and attack the U.S.).
The Taliban, in turn, extract a promise that Mr. Trump will pull out the 14,000 American troops currently stationed there.
There’s no talk yet about a ceasefire, a prisoner exchange, or how the Taliban will be yoked into office with the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani. Yes, there are unofficial whispers about a continued presence of a small contingent of U.S. troops.
But so far, the only thing we know for sure is that the United States and the Taliban are closer to an agreement than ever before.
There’s a lot at stake. The Americans certainly have a case for leaving Afghanistan; they have been unable, for 18 years now, to find a solution to what is basically a mix of tribal and religious warfare. As for the Afghans, the whole country is exhausted from decades of war. And, while many Afghans presume that the Taliban would stop the crime, the drug trade and the corruption, they also worry about the cost of the peace that they might be forced to accept: a new round of violence, and maybe even a civil war.
The years since the international troop withdrawal in 2014 have been like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Taliban have successfully taken over 55 per cent of the territory of Afghanistan – although, because they don’t control the cities, the government still has influence over 63.5 per cent of the population. The ubiquitous “talks with the Taliban” are turning up throughout the region: Taliban talks in Pakistan; Taliban talks in Qatar; Taliban talks in the United Arab Emirates; in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, China, the United States.
But last week, when Russia brought together Taliban representatives and political elites from Afghanistan — including former president Hamid Karzai – for meetings in Moscow, there was no delegation from the Afghan government. President Ghani saw Russia’s hand in an anti-government act, and dismissed the meeting as a move against the people of Afghanistan.
And there were only two Afghan women at that meeting: human-rights activist Hawa Nooristani and MP Fawzia Koofi.
I began reporting from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in 1996 and turned the mothers and wives and sisters and daughters into a holy threat. I have followed this human-rights catastrophe ever since – always convinced there must be a good-news chapter yet to write. And, despite the continuing security quandary, I have been encouraged by many of the changes I have seen.
But I shudder to think that this “peace process” means a return of the Taliban and the horrors those blameless women and girls lived with from 1996 to 2001, when the Americans invaded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. For five long years, while the Taliban ruled the country, the world looked the other way. The single biggest fear the women have had since then is that the Taliban terror could happen again.
In the words of Nabila Musleh, the country’s deputy minister of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, “Afghan women are seriously worried that human rights, particularly women’s rights, will be taken back to where it all started.”
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