Not Ignoring the Key to Peace!

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The conflict in Afghanistan is the world’s most lethal one, involving United States and Taliban on the same battleground. The nineteen-year-old conflict has killed more than 2400 U.S. troops; 12,000 are still stationed in the country. According to the Watson Institute of Brown University, 58,000 security personnel and 42,000 opposition combatants have been killed in Afghanistan.


The Afghan government announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban, five members are women. Zalmay Khalilzad U.S. special representative and the lead envoy to the talks, tweeted, “I want to congratulate Afghan government, political and civil leaders for coming together. They have forged on inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. The Islamic Republic delegation reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women.”


A critical landmark occurred at the end of February 2020, when the U.S. and the Taliban negotiated a historic peace deal. Both the Taliban and the U.S. representatives confirmed that they had reached an agreement for gradual U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, in exchange for Taliban promises to sever ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and to enter intra-Afghan negotiations to resolve the conflict. U.S. Defense Secretary, Dr. Mark T. Esper called it a hopeful moment but also a beginning, because the road ahead will not be easy. The agreement entails that within the first 135 days of the deal the U.S. will reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 with allies also drawing down their forces proportionately. This would allow President Trump to showcase the fact that he has brought troops home ahead of the U.S. presidential elections in November. The deal also calls for prison swap of some 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security forces prisoners. Both U.S. and UN sanctions on the Taliban will also be eased out.
The Afghan government  announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban, five members are women. Zalmay Khalilzad U.S. special representative and the lead envoy to the talks, tweeted, “I want to congratulate Afghan government, political and civil leaders for coming together. They have forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. The Islamic Republic delegation reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women.”
However, among many unaddressed issues is the concern about women’s rights and human rights, which are not mentioned in the text of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. The female civil society representatives were conspicuous by their absence in the talks. Zahra Husseini, an Afghan activist, said that she feared the deal could worsen the situation for women in Afghanistan.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognizes the benefit of women’s engagement in peace. The landmark piece of international law was a result of more than twenty years of advocacy and lobbying by women activists from war zones and post-conflict states around the world. Moreover, Resolution 1325 recognizes the importance of women’s place at the decision-making table and their positive contribution to conflict resolution and the promotion of peace and security.
Research has shown the best indicator of a state’s level of peace is not its economy, nor its type of government or ethnic identity, rather it is how well women are treated in the society. Dr. Adam Lupel, Vice President of the International Peace Institute, (IPI) emphasizes the fact, saying, “Women’s substantive involvement in peace processes increases their potential for success and durability, because if women meaningfully participate, peace processes are less likely to be simply a negotiation about power among men with guns, and more likely to include broader issues about how to build a sustainable peaceful society.”
On the contrary, U.S. has been a bit evasive in Afghan women’s case, saying women’s rights and other issues relating to human rights, political structures and power sharing should be resolved through the subsequent intra-Afghan talks. The major focus of the talks is on foreign troops’ withdrawal and preventing Taliban’s support for international terrorist attacks.


Research has shown the best indicator of a state’s level of peace is not its economy, nor its type of government or ethnic identity, rather it is how well women are treated in the society. Dr. Adam Lupel, Vice President of the International Peace Institute, emphasizes the fact, saying, “Women’s substantive involvement in peace processes increases their potential for success and durability, because if women meaningfully participate, peace processes are less likely to be simply a negotiation about power among men with guns, and more likely to include broader issues about how to build a sustainable peaceful society.” 


Owing to the fact that the women rights situation has improved in Afghanistan since the removal of Taliban from power in 2001, women in Afghanistan fear that the forthcoming Taliban deal with the Afghan government may result in regression on women’s rights front. Moreover, it has also been pointed out by Hilary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State, “If women are sidelined, the prospects for sustainable peace are slim.” The truth of the matter is that neither side is in a strong enough position to dictate its stance on women’s rights in a political settlement. A possible way forward is a negotiated settlement on issues affecting women; a middle ground, which could mean regression.
Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan lawmaker, who is also one of the five women on the 21-member team, has pledged to fight for the hard-won gains made by Afghan women. She also opines that Afghani “fragile gains” in women rights are at risk, unless women play a key role in peace talks with the Taliban.
The fear seems real; the Taliban are characteristically termed misogynistic. The 1996-2001 time period is known for suppression and maltreatment of women. The women of Afghanistan under the Taliban were denied even the basic human rights of education, movement and healthcare.
In the last nineteen years, since the demise of the Taliban regime, the gains in women’s rights have been due to pressure from the international community. International experts had a significant influence in the creation of the Afghan constitution. The Afghan government has used women’s rights and gender equality to appease donors, precisely why Afghan women do not trust their own government to protect them fully. The lynching of a young Afghan woman, Farkhunda Malikzada, by an angry mob happened in Kabul in 2015, and not under the Taliban. The perpetrators have not been brought to justice to-date. Her lawyer, Najla Raheel, said, “Some government officials did not want 49 men punished for the death of one woman.”
Women are silent victims of war across the world; the forty-year-old Afghan war is no exception. However, the Afghan women have made spectacular progress especially in last two decades. In contemporary Afghanistan, there are women ministers, governors, judges, police and soldiers; the Afghan parliament has a higher percentage of women than does the U.S. Congress.
The Taliban have also matured politically since then. The official Taliban line presently is that women can work and be educated but only “within the boundaries of Islamic law and Afghan culture.” They have time and again, said that they do not seek a turn to the past and would not try to re-impose the rules enforced by their former Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. For many, this is the crux of the problem and the solution. The Taliban, so far, have consistently avoided specifying which old rules could be relaxed and which parts of the current legal order they consider un-Islamic by their strict interpretation. This ambiguity creates both fear and skepticism especially amongst the women, who do not even know how committed the Afghan government is to the protection of their rights and fear that it may barter them away for other gains.


However, the Afghan women have made spectacular progress, especially in last two decades. In contemporary Afghanistan, there are women ministers, governors, judges, police and soldiers; the Afghan parliament has a higher percentage of women than does the U.S. Congress. 


A segment of women leaders of Afghan used to strongly oppose any negotiation with the Taliban, but with the changing ground reality, this was no longer the case. However, fear and skepticism still prevail. The Afghan government, unfortunately, is also perceived as an unreliable partner, in supporting the cause of women rights. The previous and present government in Kabul have rebuffed demands for full women participation in the process. The real challenge is to make this participation real, and not just ceremonial. It is a question of survival for Afghan women; their participation should be methodical, sustained and substantive. Women’s rights need to be protected at all costs and the gains the Afghan society has made because of female empowerment, should only be consolidated and not squandered away. The deal should include the voices of women who are now building communities and promoting hope at all levels. Women are the key to peace; if their rights are ignored in the peace talks, then perhaps the efforts to build a peaceful society may not be sustainable. HH