The halt in the U.S.-Taliban dialogue, plus Afghanistan’s September election, has forced a hiatus in formal peace efforts in the Afghan war—and that creates an opening to strengthen them. A year of preliminary talks has not yet laid a solid foundation for the broad political settlement that can end the bloodshed. While talks so far have mainly excluded Afghan women, youth and civil society, the sudden pause in formal peacemaking offers a chance to forge a more inclusive, and thus reliable, process. Even better, a little-noted encounter in Qatar between women and Taliban leaders signals that a broader process is doable.

Girls study at a school housed in a tent in central Afghanistan. Afghan women leaders vow to work to preserve education for women and girls in any negotiations with the Taliban over the country’s future. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Girls study at a school housed in a tent in central Afghanistan. Afghan women leaders vow to work to preserve education for women and girls in any negotiations with the Taliban over the country’s future. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Including Afghan women in the inevitable resumption of a peace process is not simply a moral and human rights imperative, although it is that. Twenty years of data and experience show that a broadly based peace settlement, including women’s participation, is the most likely way to win the national and global security goals for which the war has been fought. So foreign policy moralists and realists alike should celebrate that a determined squad of Afghan women won a small advance in July during negotiations with Taliban leaders.

As U.S., Afghan and other policymakers ponder how to shape a next phase of talks to protect Afghanistan’s re-nascent democracy and international security, they should note clues from the most significant encounter so far between Afghan women’s rights activists and upper-rank Taliban officials. That dialogue, barely reported at the time, happened July 7 and 8 as a broad Afghan delegation held preliminary discussions with Taliban negotiators in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Mediators from Qatar and Germany selected 11 women as part of an overall delegation of 45 to meet the Taliban group. A similar conference, held in Moscow in February, had included only two women.

Afghan Women: Prepared to Meet the Taliban

In many ways, the preliminary “intra-Afghan” discussions in Moscow were a setback for peacemaking, said Mary Akrami, director of a nonpartisan pro-democracy group, the Afghan Women’s Network. The Afghan delegations summoned to meet Taliban officials, had been selected in Moscow and failed to represent large swaths of Afghan society, including women. “In those talks, the Taliban, who had a tightly coordinated delegation, presented a unified message,” Akrami said in an interview. “But the rest of the Afghans represented groups with disparate or opposing views. They had not organized themselves, and in the talks they were all over the place. This only fed the Taliban’s sense of supremacy and their feeling that they are somehow the authoritative representatives of Afghans.”

As various sides in the Afghan war have crept toward a peace process, it has been Afghanistan’s pro-democratic women who have been able to set aside factional differences and form a nationwide, coordinated front for eventual talks with the Taliban, said Akrami and other Afghans close to the July talks. Over recent years, the Afghan Women’s Network trained members in negotiations, strategy and women’s rights in Islam. It formally consulted its thousands of members, and dozens of women’s organizations on the positions to be taken with the Taliban. In February, it formed a delegation—of 10 women from Kabul and 31 from across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces—to meet Taliban officials during U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar, only to be told they would not be allowed access.

So in July, when Akrami received a phone call from the German embassy in Kabul inviting her to the meeting in Doha, she immediately asked what other women were being asked. To face the Taliban’s longstanding and practiced negotiating team, the women would need to quickly strategize and agree on a joint presentation, she explained. The German embassy declined to share the names. Akrami pressed strategic questions: Which of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups were represented? How many of the women would be able to speak from the experience of living under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime? How many of them spoke Pashto, the language of ethnic Pashtuns, who are the core of the Taliban movement? Akrami said embassy officials assured her that the women selected to participate would adequately address her concerns. And if not, they said, “there would be other opportunities” to do so.

Anxious to overcome the handicap of the late, secretive invitation, Akrami began calling other women leaders to fine and convene members of the invited group. But it was too late; they were to fly the next day to the talks in Doha. So the Afghans summoned to negotiate with a well-prepared Taliban contingent discovered their own group’s makeup only when they walked into a departure lounge at Kabul’s airport. Akrami quickly asked the 11 women present to huddle, asking first whether they could agree to set aside their political differences to project a unified front of demands.

Some men in the room began to join the conversation. “The men had been in the earlier talks in Moscow, and they recognized that the disunity of those delegations had lost them ground in those talks,” Akrami said. “They recognized the importance of unifying the group, but they had not prepared to do it themselves.” A Qatari airliner rolled up to the airport gate, and the Afghans continued their discussions during the flight. Frustrated that the sudden summons had left their group with virtually no time to prepare for an important negotiation, both men and women agreed to meet the next morning to try to make up for lost time. That meeting would produce three basic positions: a demand for a cease-fire, support for Afghanistan’s constitution, and an insistence that the Taliban begin talks with the government.

A Difficult Start to Dialogue

Jamila Afghani is a former deputy minister and an Islamic scholar who heads an organization that trains Afghan imams on women’s rights in Islam. Afghani walks with crutches, the result of a childhood bout with polio. Nervous at confronting Taliban officials for the first time, she said in an interview, she arrived late at the first dinner organized for the two delegations. She exchanged greetings with Taliban delegates, who immediately asked about her health, and why she used crutches. “I was surprised by their responsiveness,” she said—a reminder that, even amid a brutal war, a starting point for dialogue can be found.

The start of formal, however, yielded monologues rather than dialogue. “On the first day, each person spoke for seven to 10 minutes,” said Shahgul Rezai, another of the women delegates. “The Taliban did not respond to specific statements from our side, but made only general declarations.”

While the German and Qatari mediators stressed that all the delegates were to represent themselves, rather than speak as representatives of organizations or governments, Taliban consistently presented themselves as members of the “Islamic Emirate,” the movement’s formal title. “This was a double standard,” said Akrami, “so I spoke against the Taliban trying to imply that somehow the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Afghan Muslims who support it are not Islamic enough, when all we have been practicing all our lives is Islam.”

Other delegates took up the theme. Zainab Muvahid, a professor of sharia, or Islamic jurisprudence, at Salam University, a private religious university in Kabul, explicated the argument on the basis of Islamic theology, which the Taliban cite as the basis for their claim to rule. Using theology against the Taliban’s position “had never happened before in these intra-Afghan talks,” said Akrami, and the Taliban responded energetically. When the formal talks halted for a break, “Taliban went to her and continued the debate,” she said. Akrami and delegate Asila Wardak said Taliban delegates expressed grudging appreciation for a case made on the basis of religion.

During one such break, Akrami said she challenged a Talib official on the movement’s continued declaration that it would allow “women’s rights according to an Islamic framework.”  Akrami asked how the Taliban's implementation of such policies would differ from the oppression of women under their rule. He responded that “girls would be able to go to school, women would be able to work in ‘protected safe spaces,’ and that women would have political rights—all with the condition that they must wear ‘hijab’,” Akrami said. Delegate Fawzia Koofi pressed the official to define “hijab”—did it mean imprisoning women in the all-covering blue burkas that Taliban fighters have continued to force women to wear? He told her that what she was wearing, including a head scarf that did not conceal all of her hair, was acceptable.

“I wish we had been able to videotape that conversation,” said Akrami, to show the massive gap between a Taliban diplomat’s position voiced in the plush conference hall of a foreign luxury hotel and Taliban fighters’ often brutal treatment of women in Taliban-controlled villages and towns. She said the official agreed that the Taliban, as well as other Afghan groups, need to educate their members and other Afghans against oppressions of women committed in the name of Islam.

After two days of talks, a committee of delegates drafted a declaration of the points of agreement. When it was read to the full group, it called for an “Islamic system in the country”—not an “emirate.” The declaration expanded slightly from the Taliban’s curt offer of women’s rights “within the Islamic framework,” to specify that those rights apply “in political, social, economic, educational, cultural affairs.” The delegation’s lone non-Muslim—Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh member of parliament—raised her hand to protest the absence of any reference to rights for Afghanistan’s Sikh, Hindu and other minorities. Among others, a senior Talib delegate supported her position, and clauses were added to protect “the rights of religious minorities.”

Put Civil Society, Women at the Fore

The limited advances scraped out by a constrained, but determined, band of women negotiators at Doha are that (1) their constant pressure upon Afghan colleagues and the international community won them a degree of inclusion; (2) they won a respectful hearing among other pro-democracy delegates by providing leadership; and (3) they showed that a dialogue with the Taliban, while difficult, can be inched forward by including arguments of Islamic interpretation that the Taliban recognize.

The viability of peace negotiations will be determined in part by whether the Taliban will end the utter disconnect between their politeness in Doha and their brutality in continuing to refuse a cease-fire. As soon as the Doha talks’ declaration was released, Taliban spokesperson Sher Abas Stanikzai described it as a statement of aspirations, not an agreement for implementation. Women delegates spoke of feeling cheated—a sentiment validated by Afghanistan analyst Michael Semple, among others.

“On the ground, Afghans experience relentless Taliban violence and the tightening of their grip over areas they control, while in peace talks Taliban promise respect for everyone’s rights,” Semple said in a recent interview. He noted at a USIP forum this month that the Taliban leadership, based in Pakistan, has avoided telling the group’s fighters that the peace process will require any compromise, but rather that it “is a guarantee of the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” As a result, Semple argues, “the [Taliban] fighters I am in touch with do not take the peace process seriously, but expect to continue the war until victory.”

The best hope for ensuring that the Taliban will accept and implement compromise is in the kind of nationwide campaign for nonviolence and human rights that increasingly have been bubbling up from Afghan civil society—and notably from women. When a formal peace process resumes, as it must, a key to its viability will be for Afghans and their international allies to do a better job of placing an energized civil societyincluding youth and women—at its center.

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