By SALLY ARMSTRONG
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Human-rights activist, journalist and author whose books include Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan; Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan's Women; and Ascent of Women: A New Age Is Dawning for Every Mother's Daughter. She was recently made an officer of the Order of Canada.
'P eace 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 humanrights 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."
The women I met while the Taliban were running the country were proud of their Afghan culture, devoted to their Muslim faith and disgusted with the Taliban, who were using Islam for political opportunism.
Under Taliban control, the country descended into the dark ages. It was as though there'd been a power failure. On my visits there, I saw televisions impaled on lampposts by the Taliban, and I talked to women who buried radios in back yards because, as they told me, news became more important than food.
At times, the oppression bordered on the absurd: Women weren't allowed to wear white socks, because the Taliban claimed they were sexually promiscuous - white socks! For women and girls, there was no school, no music, no dancing. It was even forbidden to laugh.
The loudest message the women gave to me was this: "We no longer have a voice. Ask the women in Canada to become our voice."
After 9/11, the world finally began paying attention to a country it had ignored for far too long. Over the course of my many trips to the country in the years following the start of the war, I witnessed women and girls bursting out of their cocoons like butterflies.
Today, the days of wearing wedge shoes because the Taliban didn't like the tap-tap-tap sound of a high-heeled shoe; of painting your windows black so that no one outside the family could see you; of being whipped by squads from the Vice and Virtue Ministry, who patrolled the streets looking for women to punish - those days are mostly over. The burka-clad women who were flashpoints in the Western media after 9/11 are now governors and cabinet ministers and rugby players and orchestra conductors and opera singers.
"The Taliban might have changed to some extent, but the situation of women in the areas under their control is catastrophic," says Deputy Minister Musleh, who, like most women, can hardly believe, after the fighting and dying and terror, that they may have to accept the Taliban, which has demonstrated its cruelty and misogyny over and over.
While she's hoping for the best, Ms. Musleh fears the worst: Current development plans for women's empowerment will be stopped; well-trained women from governmental and nongovernmental organizations will leave the country; the current laws and policies that support women will be weakened. Some say the Taliban are more moderate now.
She doubts that, and told me, "I don't think that the Taliban would agree to have a Ministry for Women's Affairs."
Many women in Afghanistan still have to deal with the realities of domestic violence, child marriage, forced marriage, brutal tribal law - a practice known as baad, for instance, involves young girls being given to other tribes in order to right a wrong - being jailed for enduring rape and honour killing. But the constitution has been rewritten to address these old, unacceptable customs. And civil positions have been created to try to stop the egregious practices.
"Afghanistan is far from perfect for women, but there have been significant strides made in the past 18 years, and any discussions about the future of this country must have women at the table," says Samira SayedRahman, 27. Born and raised in Toronto, she moved back to her parents' homeland four years ago and eventually landed a job as a communications expert in President Ghani's office. Now she's a junior partner at DNA Consultants, a Kabul company that focuses on business consulting and project management.
Ms. Sayed-Rahman feels strongly about the peace talks between the United States and the Taliban that have sidelined the government and put the country's women in peril. "For far too long," she says, "the fate of the women in this country, as with the rest of the world, has been decided by a few men with power."
Setara Hassan, the chief executive director of Zan TV, an allwomen station in Kabul, describes women's full participation as "vital" to long-term peace and development in Afghanistan. She is horrified by what she sees as a process of tyranny. "I cannot insist enough that a regime where women are nothing but domestic slaves, perceived as half-humans, deprived of their most basic human rights - such as education, [equal access to] health care, and even the right to breathe in fresh air, not be behind prison-like burkas, and move around independently -
would make a peaceful and developed Afghanistan an absolute impossibility."
The good news for women is that, without the support of the international community, the country simply cannot operate; and the international community likely won't support any move that sidelines the gains women have made.
Although the Taliban have promised that women will have jobs as long as Islam remains the country's doctrine and law, it is imperative, journalist and author Ahmed Rashid says, that the current Afghan government "insists" that any peace deal includes women.
But so far, the Afghan government isn't being consulted.
It's not just women who have made gains. So has the country itself.
For 18 years, more than 40 countries have committed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan: repairing broken roads and bridges and buildings; establishing institutions and processes of governance that the people can trust; constructing hospitals and schools, and making sure Afghans can access them.
Their work has been largely successful. The World Health Organization reports that life expectancy in Afghanistan has gone from 47 years to 62 years, and that maternal mortality rates, once the highest in the world, have dropped by 75 per cent. Polio is almost eradicated.
There are 9.3 million children in school, 39 per cent of them girls.
It's worth noting that the investment opportunities in Afghanistan are vast. The world's second-biggest copper mine, Mes Aynak, is just 40 kilometres from Kabul; in all, mining could yield US$1-trillion in mineral deposits.
But although the Chinese have invested US$3.5-billion in the mine, most investors won't touch the country, as the security situation is so unpredictable.
The ambassadors and envoys in the diplomatic community, as well as the humanitarian-aid workers and such non-governmental organizations as the International Crisis Group, can take a lot of credit for building systems that create trust and for altering the status of women.
For example, just two months before the last presidential election, in 2014, it became obvious that women wouldn't be able to vote because there were no female "searchers" - poll workers who check for guns and explosives - posted at voting booths.
In response, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and others in the international community contacted women's groups across the country. In the end, 5,000 female searchers were hired and trained in time for the election.
The ace now held by the international community is money. No one wants to lose the estimated annual US$5-billion for the government and another US$5-billion for the military that comes from 70 donor countries.
In fact, Afghanistan would collapse without those funds.
Chief among the countries keeping a close eye on the situation are those Afghan neighbours that are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, also known as the Alliance of the East, which promotes trade and which includes such big players as Russia, China and India and smaller ones such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan has observer status in the alliance, as does Iran. Seen as a security pillar in the region, the alliance conducts military exercises and cultural exchanges.
And its members are keen observers of the peace talks launched in Moscow last week: the ones at which no Afghan government officials - and only two Afghan women - were present.
The infamous warlords who still control their own private militias, and who profited immensely in real estate, drug running and government appointments once the Taliban were ousted, were in Moscow, too. Obaid Ali, of the non-profit Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, says of the warlords: "They won't go with the Taliban or against the government. They want assurances for their assets and incomes after the peace talks."
The fact that President Ghani brought the warlords into his tent is quite an accomplishment, but their presence in Moscow suggests they are power seeking, not nation building.
Despite the many obstacles, Mr.
Rashid says, "It's too soon to cry wolf. We need to give these talks space and time to see if a deal can be worked out. There will be a second phase, an internal phase about how to form the next government. Most expect an interim government with the Afghans and the Taliban headed by a neutral figure. An election would follow. This second phase will be complicated and may include opening up the constitution."
Then, he says, there will come a gradual erosion of the current players' political clout. "Political forces that exist today will take on a new shape, including the Taliban," he says. "The Taliban don't have an ideology. They don't command the loyalty of Afghan people. Once they see civil society working, their hardline attitude will be eroded."
But Sima Samar, who has just been appointed to the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation, doesn't believe it. She's been in the crosshairs of the Soviets, who murdered her husband in 1979, and then of the mujahedeen and the Taliban, for her entire adult life - all because she insisted on educating girls and on running medical clinics for women and girls.
When the Taliban told her to close her schools or they would kill her, she said, "Go ahead and hang me in the public square, and tell the people my crime - I was giving paper and pencils to the girls."
Dr. Samar, who is also chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, has been celebrated and honoured around the world - in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia - for the stand she has taken to alter the status of women and girls. Now, she sees the Taliban coming back into the fold, taking away the hard-won human rights she and others have struggled to establish. "I think they will not reach a just deal, this will not bring peace. It will be a short political deal for some personal agenda. It is not a sustainable peace."
For young Afghans such as Ms.Sayed-Rahman, there's no winning for Afghans in these talks.
"The Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of the nineties under the Taliban," she says. "We have the most educated and informed young population in the history of this country. We have the ability to distinguish between a good and a bad deal for our people."
And, she adds, "We have been the victims of terrorism and war for a long time, and we will not allow ourselves to be the victims of peace."
'We will only welcome the Taliban if they accept democracy and its values in the country,' says 22-year-old freelance journalist Zainab Farahmand, seen in Kabul, left. For 18 years, more than 40 countries have committed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, particularly to the benefit of women and girls; today, 39 per cent of the country's students are girls, such as the ones attending the Fatima tul Zahra in Kabul, seen at top.
TOP LEFT AND RIGHT: PETER BREGG; BOTTOM LEFT: MOHAMMAD ISMAIL/ REUTERS
Toronto-born Samira Sayed-Rahman feels strongly that peace talks with the Taliban will put Afghan women's futures in jeopardy.
Sima Samar is chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and says any agreement struck by the U.S. with the Taliban 'will be a short political deal for some personal agenda.'