While U.S.-Taliban talks have moved forward in recent months, intra-Afghan discussions—between the Taliban and the Afghan government—on the country’s political future have yet to even start. A conference scheduled to take place in Doha in mid-April could have initiated that dialogue but was postponed at the last minute over disagreements on who from the Afghan government list of delegates should attend and in what capacity. It was so last minute, in fact, that many planning on attending or observing—myself included—were already on flights to Qatar when the postponement was announced. Left out of negotiations to this point, what does Afghan civil society think about the peace process and the future of their country? After my trip to Doha and a recent trip to Kabul, where I had conversations with a cross-section of Afghans, several key concerns emerged.

Female Afghan students at the Jamal Agha Girls School in Kapisa province, Afghanistan. Women’s education has been one of the biggest success stories post-2001, but many fear these gains could be sacrificed for peace. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
Female Afghan students at the Jamal Agha Girls School in Kapisa province, Afghanistan. Women’s education has been one of the biggest success stories post-2001, but many fear these gains could be sacrificed for peace. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

What I Heard in Doha

Even though the conference did not take place, I still had the opportunity to interact with many Afghan women—some had lived in Doha for decades, others only for a few years. (For their safety, the names of the Afghans I spoke with in Doha and Kabul are withheld.)

The younger women who had been in Qatar most of their lives said they had no desire to ever visit Afghanistan, overwhelmed by the violence. They feared that returning to Afghanistan would mean they would have to stop their education. One high school student said: “The situation in Afghanistan is not very good from what we hear. Everyday people get killed there. There is no education opportunity for women. Here [Doha] I go to a Pakistani high school. We follow the British curriculum … if it was my choice I would stay here.”

But, older women said they hoped they could return home. “We all want peace and want to go back to our country. Who doesn’t want to return to her homeland?” said an older woman from Paktia province. “I worry about my relatives back home.”

When asked about the peace process, a middle-aged woman from Nangarhar province told me, “We try to stay away from politics. It is depressing. We only have one Friday that we women can get together and have fun. We don’t want to talk politics.” Many of the women in Qatar seemed content to avoid the depressing situation in Afghanistan altogether.

Meanwhile, the women who had been in Doha for five or six years felt the Afghan government was not serious about peace. Mocking the size of the Afghan government’s delegation, one of these women from Ghazni province asked, “How do they expect to proceed with sending a list of 250 people as if they are sending people to a wedding party?”

Afghan Civil Society’s Concerns

Back in Afghanistan, there was much more of a focus on the critical questions of war and peace looming over the country. I found more consensus in Kabul from Afghan civil society representatives, both men and women, than from the women in Doha. They uniformly expressed their desire for an immediate cease-fire and for their constitutional rights to be preserved in a peace deal.

One thing is for certain: Afghans are tired of war.

“We are all suffering from anxiety. Every morning we leave home, we say a proper goodbye to each family member … not knowing if we will be together again,” said a mother of two school-age girls.

A university student from Paktika province studying in Kabul said, “I have accepted the hardship and challenges of staying away from my family and live alone in Kabul in order to pursue my education. I would go crazy if they [Taliban] take my freedom away from me.” Tears rolled down her cheeks and she apologized for being “too emotional.”

Others said Afghanistan was seeing a creeping “Talibanization.” The Taliban currently control more territory than at any point since 2001. Afghans told me they see the Taliban increasingly asserting influence over education in these areas under its control, by dictating curriculum and attempting to impose uniforms on male and female students and teachers. Teachers are even forced to pay taxes to the Taliban on top of what they give the Afghan government.

Although an immediate cessation of violence was at the top of every Afghan’s priority list, many said they are not willing to sacrifice their constitutional rights to bring peace. I found Afghans’ views about peace and politics sophisticated. They didn’t want to just see an end to the violence that has plagued their country for decades. For these Afghans, peace means being able to exercise and enjoy basic rights like freedom of speech and live in a society where the rule of law is respected and enforced without discrimination. They want good governance grounded in strong institutions. And they want to have a say in decisions that will impact their lives and the lives of their children.

As much as Afghans want peace, they also are demanding the protection and promotion of their rights—rights that have come through great sacrifice over the last 18 years. “Our redlines are women’s rights, freedom of speech and the constitution,” said a woman from Zabul province.

Have the Taliban Evolved?

Along with two other Afghan women, I attended a conference in 1998 in Peshawar, Pakistan sponsored by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. There were 70 Taliban members in attendance. Working groups were formed and each had a designated spokesperson—I happened to be the spokesperson for my group.

When I came up to the stage, there was an immediate rustling within the crowd, as the Taliban members said that I should not be allowed to stand in front of them; they wanted me to give my presentation at the rear of the hall, so they could turn their backs to me.

Urged on by one of the U.N. facilitators, I went ahead and gave my presentation. I heard chairs moving about, and even a few murmurs of “Allahu Akbar”—I was worried they might attack me. When I turned around, all 70 of them had left the room. Back then, the Taliban could not countenance watching a woman present to them, even though I was dressed in conservative garb.

Twenty years later, the Taliban said they were prepared to hear from Afghan women at Doha, and did so in side meetings that were held after the conference was postponed. But, the question remains, are they ready to respect the advances women have made? If not, the presence of women at these talks is but a symbolic gesture aimed at placating the international community.

For Afghans, if the Taliban and the Afghan government are serious about peace, then they should declare an immediate cease-fire and support an inclusive process where women, youth and other marginalized groups have meaningful representation at the negotiating table.

The tragedies Afghans face every day can be stopped if both the Taliban and Kabul have the will. The international community has role to play in compelling both sides to stop fighting.

Above all, Afghans want the war to end, but are worried about the compromises that could be made to get there. Everyone wants peace, but not if it means sacrificing hard-won gains. Afghanistan has made great strides since the Taliban was overthrown, and those advances need to be upheld in a new constitution if the war is to end in a positive way. These constitutional rights are just words on paper if the government isn’t empowered to uniformly administer day-to-day services. Afghans want a deal to help move their country toward peace, but they know any peace deal between Afghans and the Taliban won’t be the end of conflict in the country entirely.

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