Reflecting on recent conversations in Doha and Kabul, USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi says that Afghans told her they want peace, but are not willing to sacrifice the hard-won gains of the last 18 years to get there. As U.S.-Taliban talks move forward, the extent of the Taliban’s evolution on issues like women’s rights remains in question. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Ahmadi.
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley: Let's speak to one of those seemingly endless wars, what has been taking place in Afghanistan. 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. That is a key I think to moving forward, but let's get perspective of an expert who wrote those words.
Tim Farley: Belquis Ahmadi is a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace and by the way, is somebody who actually has lived in Afghanistan through several governments, so has scholarly as well as personal understanding of this issue. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Belquis Ahmadi, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.
Belquis Ahmadi: Thank you. Good morning and good to be here.
Tim Farley: Belquis, I know you were on your way, I guess, to a get-together. It was scheduled to take place in Qatar for a meeting that was canceled, but you have managed to speak to people about the progress, or lack thereof, of negotiations there. First of all, set it up for us. What should be happening right now with the Taliban and the Afghan government?
Belquis Ahmadi: I believe an intra-Afghan dialogue should be treated as a key element to the peace process in Afghanistan. After all, it's the Afghan government who will be suffering and be impacted by this peace agreement. So, for me, I think intra-Afghan dialogue and the voices of civil society actors and women's groups and other minorities must be reflected in any talks, dialogue and agreement that need, that will eventually end the years and years of violence in Afghanistan.
Tim Farley: Now as I mentioned, the meeting that you were going to attend was canceled, but you did in this piece, from what you had written, have an opportunity to interact with a lot of Afghan women, some of whom had lived in Doha for decades, some a few years. Give us a sense of what they told you.
Belquis Ahmadi: Indeed, yes. I had an opportunity to speak with mostly women, I would say in Qatar, in Doha when I was there. I spoke with women and girls who had only been in Doha for the past five or six years and I also spoke with those who have been there for 10 to 15, 20 years. So the majority of those who had been there for 10, 15 years old are those who moved there for businesses and personal reasons.
Belquis Ahmadi: Among the younger generation, the high school and college-age girls, they were not all that keen to go back to Afghanistan. They said they follow the news in Afghanistan, the violence and the fact that there isn't the level of opportunity and support for girls' education. That was their main concern.
Belquis Ahmadi: But, on the other hand, the older women were very keen to return to Afghanistan, and they said they keep worrying about their relatives and their families, extended family and so on.
Belquis Ahmadi: So that's one group of women, and then I also managed to speak with those who had only been there for five or six years. Their views were slightly different from the ones who had been there for a longer period of time. So they seemed to be more informed about the political situation in Afghanistan. They were aware of the peace talks or the dialog that was supposed to happen that week. They blamed the Afghan government for not doing enough to take part or at least be active participants in the peace process.
Tim Farley: Belquis Ahmadi is with us, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace. Are they tired of the American presence in Afghanistan? You say in the piece that you wrote that they are tired of war, but what about the American presence in that country?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, that depends on who you talk to. So when I talk to people inside Afghanistan, they are obviously grateful for the support of American people in helping them establish institutions to promote democracy, people's, women and men's rights and so on.
Belquis Ahmadi: But, then you also talk to people who have been directly affected by the war, basically those who live in areas who are affected or impacted by the bombing, night raids and so on. So it's a mix, it's mixed messages that we get or I get when I go and talk to people in the country.
Tim Farley: In these negotiations with the Taliban, what role would they assume in a new government, I guess that's part of what they're trying to determine, and what would be the positives and negatives of any kind of influence on the governance in Afghanistan of the Taliban?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, if the Taliban wants to be recognized as a political organization in talks in Afghanistan, then I believe they should accept the democratic institutions in Afghanistan, the constitution and so on. We all understand the constitution needs to be amended. That message comes from inside Afghanistan, not from here, from the U.S. obviously.
Belquis Ahmadi: But the wishes and the desires and the needs of millions and millions of Afghans who live in Afghanistan, and their lives are impacted by the violence, has to be respected, not only by the Taliban, but by all parties.
Tim Farley: Do you trust the Taliban?
Belquis Ahmadi: Obviously there are concerns by women and youth about what may happen, and those concerns should be, they are legit concerns that need to be addressed by all those stakeholders who are engaged and involved in the peace process.
Tim Farley: Belquis Ahmadi, do you trust the Taliban? I mean based on your experience, not just as a scholar but also, as I mentioned, your personal acquaintance with the various governments that have been in charge of Afghanistan.
Belquis Ahmadi: I will believe it when I see it. As I said in my paper as well, I believe that Taliban have been consistent with their opinions, especially when it comes to women's rights. They have been saying that they believe in women's rights according to Sharia rights from the beginning, from the day they were formed in 1994.
Belquis Ahmadi: But, the question remains of what form and type of Sharia they're talking about. If they're talking about the same Sharia that they enforced to violence when they were in power, then I don't think they have changed. So, so far the messages that we see from the Taliban indicates that they have evolved and changed, but as I said, it has to be seen to be believed.
Tim Farley: And what are the final steps that need to happen to get this negotiation moving a little more quickly, actually, you know, getting it off the starting line I guess?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, my understanding is that the peace process has many elements, and for the U.S., the most important factor in this process is that the Taliban will not engage or associate with terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, ISIS and so on, so that's important obviously for us here in America and also for Afghans inside Afghanistan. For the Taliban, the most important thing, as I understand, is the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Belquis Ahmadi: And then the other elements include, which has to be treated as important by all parties, is that the Taliban need to talk with the Afghan government and with Afghans who actually live in Afghanistan to discuss their differences and agreements and disagreements.
Tim Farley: And this is a little off the topic, but I wonder how you see the role of Pakistan in all of this.
Belquis Ahmadi: Pakistan, so far, has been a main player in so many different ways, by either keeping silent, turning a blind eye or openly supporting the Taliban. So, I think a secure and safe Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan and other neighboring countries of Afghanistan. So far, the indication is, at least to statements, that Pakistan is willing to cooperate in the peace process.
Tim Farley: All right, we're going to take away, “I believe it when I see it,” from this conversation if nothing else. Belquis Ahmadi, thank you so much for joining us today.
Belquis Ahmadi: Thank you for having me on your show.
Tim Farley: Belquis Ahmadi is a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace, has lived a long time in Afghanistan, understands different governments and what to see, talking about the moving of a peace process, which includes negotiations with the Taliban, between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which she says are key, and you can find the Twitter handle is @USIP.