Why Are Women Excluded From Afghan Peace Talks?

Muna Habib writes about the Afghan peace process which has excluded women who are one of the main stakeholders in Afghanistan given the way they had been affected by the violence perpetuated by the Taliban.

Peace talks are back on track between the United States and the Taliban, including the possibility of intra-Afghan talks. It has given some Afghans hope that after years of tragic suffering, death and violence, the war may end soon. However, the news has also terrified some Afghans – especially women.

Afghan women claim, as the U.S., Afghans and the international community negotiate a peace agreement that satisfies all sides, they are being side-lined.

Arguably the strongest advocates for peace, they worry that an agreement struck with the Taliban – without them at the negotiating table – would see them lose their hard-won gains since 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown by the U.S.

Their fear is understandable, considering the Taliban stripped Afghan women and girls of their basic rights, based on an extremist interpretation of Islam, imposed draconian rules that justified violence and public executions of boyfriends, banned girls from going to school and women attending work.

Speaking at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), Afghanistan’s first lady, Rhula Ghani, said the U.S. peace talks focus on: the withdrawal of foreign troops and efforts of counter-terrorism but exclude the voices of Afghan women. She is pushing for women’s participation in the peace talks, “We are not seeing any kind of real work being done to understand what women really want. What are their thoughts? What are their priorities? What do they see as obstacles to peace?” Ghani said.

She said, “thousands of women have expressed a consensus on two points. They insist the war needs to end…the peace to follow must continue to build opportunities for women.”

To date, the U.S- Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, were held predominantly by men – highlighted by all-male photo sessions. The recent talks in Moscow between the Taliban and influential Afghans only include two Afghan women out of a 42-person delegation.

Ghani called on all sides to recognise women as critical for lasting peace in Afghanistan. Her views have been echoed by Ambassador Swanee Hunt.

Hunt is the founder of Inclusive Security, a Washington D.C., based non-profit that conducts research and advocacy in ways to involve women as key-decision makers in international peace and security processes. Hunt said, “If you have women involved, the possibility of that peace agreement lasting for 20 years is 70%. If there are no women, the possibility of that lasting for 20 years is 25%.”

Inclusive Security’s research also found: women work across allegiances, appear less intimidating, evoke maternal influence, appear more trustworthy, and have insight and understanding of their communities that will facilitate a lasting peace agreement.

Her team works in the most volatile conflict zones around the world, and she has been personally active in over 60 countries.
Hunt stressed, “it is crucial for women to be engaged during peace talks, women are aware of what is happening on the ground. Men cannot always relate to women’s’ experiences.” She continued, “women engage and work together differently.”
She queried, “somehow women’s rights are going to be protected by the men who will not let women sit at the table where their rights are going to be discussed... it doesn’t hold up.”

In her address, Ghani asserted Afghan women are unwilling to make concessions of their civil rights in the peace agreement, this view is supported by the Afghan people according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Asia Foundation.

The 2019 Asia Foundation Survey of Afghans found: 65 percent of Afghans would oppose a peace agreement that endangered women’s education or the ability to work outside the home.

Although based on individual security concerns, some Afghans deviated from this view. “people living in the most conflict-affected areas are more likely to give more concessions compared to those living in lower conflict… stable areas.” Said Abdullah Ahmadzai, Country Director, Afghanistan for The Asia Foundation.

The survey also found that 89 percent of Afghans support efforts to negotiate peace, and 64 percent still believe that reconciliation is possible. But not at any price. With 80 percent of those in a country, struggling with education and literacy, consider preservation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as important to be protected in any peace agreement.

The 2019 Asia Foundation surveyed 17,812 Afghans across Afghanistan. Under international pressure, the Taliban claim to have shifted some policy positions towards girls and women, in a recent report ‘How the Taliban Makes Policy,’ The author Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri explain, although the Taliban strive to present themselves as a legitimate political movement able to govern and implement policy, their claim evokes incredulity amongst Afghans.

While the Taliban claim they do not oppose girls’ education or women working, the reality is in the areas the group controls, girls do not attend school beyond puberty and women are not allowed to leave the house without a male chaperone. The authors said this at a recent report launch.

As the U.S., Afghan and international forces draw down – as part of the U.S. President Donald Trump’s, 2017, Afghanistan strategy, the Taliban are no longer an ominous insurgency – but now a self-proclaimed government in waiting.
The few women who have participated in some of the peace negotiations question their commitment to Afghan women and girls’ civil liberties.

Senior Afghan human rights activist and analyst Belquis Ahmad described her experience when selected as one of the few women to negotiate with the Taliban, “during a 3-day conference, “I went to speak in the front of 70 Taliban members. The Taliban protested and told me to speak with my back to the class. I did so and when I turned my head to see if people were listening, I realized that the 70 Taliban members had left because they didn’t want to listen to a woman.” Belquis said.

She was told by a member of the Taliban that “women were the reason that everything was going wrong in Afghanistan.”

“I will believe they (the Taliban) have changed when I see it on the ground,” she said.

Despite the concerns raised, the peace negotiations to end the war continue. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he wants an end to America’s longest running war – to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by 2020. And with the the bombshell release of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ this week, revealing how U.S. officials misled the public about the war in Afghanistan -- public pressure to bring U.S. troops home will mount.

Moreover, U.S. policy objectives will be the priority for the U.S. officials negotiating – and not women and girls’ civil rights, explained, Laurel Miller, former acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a recent USIP event titled, ‘Peace for Afghanistan: What has changed?

Miller said, “I understand the concerns of the Afghan women; however, it is important to remember, number one…the United States did not invade Afghanistan to liberate Afghan women; number two: The United States will not make a decision about its exit from Afghanistan based fundamentally on considerations regarding Afghan women.”

She added. “I am not saying that as a policy proposal, prescription, recommendation -- I am saying it as a policy reality in the United states …but at the end of the day the decision making will be based on security concerns of the United States and not considerations related to women.”
Correspondent Washington DC

The author has worked at BBC and ITN in the past.