Since 2001, Afghan women have assumed larger roles in society—becoming teachers, doctors and government officials. With intra-Afghan talks expected to begin this month, USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi says it’s important the Taliban “accept the reality that today’s Afghanistan is very different from the country they ruled” when it comes to women’s rights.
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: Yesterday, President Trump was speaking with reporters. He was making his way, National Institutes of Health, I think is where he was, over at CDC yesterday. Anyway, when he was doing that, he was sitting down with reporters and they were talking about a few things including his, evidently, he had spoken with the Taliban yesterday:
Tim Farley: Well, we'll see how that plays out. Let's talk more about the agreement which has been signed. This is the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Belquis Ahmadi is joining us. Ms. Ahmadi is the senior program officer for the United States Institute of Peace, has a lot of experience, senior management positions under USAID programs in Afghanistan. Related to that, she has published extensively on democracy, governments and women's rights in Afghanistan. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Belquis Ahmadi, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.
Belquis Ahmadi: Good morning, Tim. It's good to be with you.
Tim Farley: Is there any way to... How do you evaluate this agreement? I mean, obviously the president is using it as to saying that we need to get out of a longstanding war that's not going to result in anything more than just the loss of blood and treasure. That's part of his pitch. But is this a step forward or not?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, the U.S.-Taliban situation for ending the war is a good starting point, so let's begin with that. The agreement that was signed on last Saturday is or was meant to be the first step towards that goal. And the events unfolding right after the signing of the agreement and in the near future, what colors, which direction you're going with the agreement.
Tim Farley: So in this particular case, the president also said he had a conversation with the Taliban leader and he had opened up the possibility the other day he's going to be meeting with the Taliban. Is that a good idea at this point or not?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, any effort to move the peace process onwards is welcomed, but I think those moves should not undermine the legitimacy of our biggest ally in the region, that's Afghan people and Afghan government. Let's not forget that we have a lot more in common with Afghan people, civil society and the government than we do with the Taliban. So any move or any effort to move this process forward should very carefully calculate the cost, both monitoring materially and also morally for the agreement to remain the same.
Tim Farley: Let's talk about those costs because clearly the concern is the United States invested 2000 plus deaths, not to mention millions, billions of dollars in this, but the idea is that the people of Afghanistan have something at stake. What are the risks moving forward and what kind of investment in terms of capital, in terms of people, does the United States still need to make in that country?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, if we go back and compare this Afghanistan with the Afghanistan of late 2001, it's almost as if we are talking about two different countries. A lot has taken place both because of the international support, most specifically the U.S. support to Afghanistan and Afghan people, but also because of the willingness, sacrifices and resilience of Afghan people.
Belquis Ahmadi: If we just talk about improvements and progress in women's rights, it's just phenomenal and those are the realities. The Taliban cannot turn a blind eye, and they should accept the reality that today's Afghanistan is very different from the country that they ruled for four years from 1996 to 2001.
Belquis Ahmadi: What needs to be done is, I mean, we all realize that when we went to Afghanistan, we basically started from the scratch. There was no infrastructure. We had to train thousands and thousands of civil society members, government officials, to stand on their feet. And those gains are still fragile. It takes time for any peace to be sustained and lasting. I think Afghanistan, moving forward, will need or will have to rely on international allies and support in order for the peace deal to stick. Can I just talk about the changes?
Tim Farley: Please do.
Belquis Ahmadi: The progress that has been made, especially in the women's rights. So in 2001, when the Taliban was ousted, there were no women politicians in the country. Today they are members of the parliament, they are ministers, they are deputy ministers, they are ambassadors. There are more than 6,000 women who are serving in the justice and security sector. During the Taliban time there was none. There are more than 10,000 doctors today. There are... Oh, the list can go on and on, 70,000 women teachers…
Belquis Ahmadi: So those are the realities the Taliban will have to accept. And I think international community also has an obligation, morally, to stick with Afghan people who have sacrificed so much in the past 18, 19 years. Not to mention the previous years, all together it's 41 years that Afghans have been in this fight.
Tim Farley: Belquis Ahmadi is with us, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace. To that point you're making, and, of course, International Women's Day is March 8th, so it's an interesting backdrop for this conversation. But to your point, it seems to me one of the entire organizing principles of the Taliban is to not have that recognition of the equality of women. In other words, as you say, it's a reality they can't ignore, but it is a reality it would seem that they would be wanting to change. They would try to alter that reality somehow. Is that not a danger?
Belquis Ahmadi: Definitely a danger, but I think Taliban should also realize that they are a distinct minority of Afghans, at least for those members of the Taliban who are Afghans. They are distinct minority as I said, and then Afghanistan has [a] 35 million population. So if they think, wrongfully, that they will go to Afghanistan and rule the country, I think that's a mistake that they need to realize now before it gets too late.
Tim Farley: Will the United States be more secure? Will the region be more secure as a result of this agreement with the Taliban? What's your sense?
Belquis Ahmadi: Well, I think this is a unique situation. This is the first time that we are entering in an agreement where the group that, until recently, was recognized as a terrorist group. So, we shall see. It's difficult to say if we can trust the Taliban because they haven't proved that they have actually changed and they're not the Taliban of the late '90s, when they hosted them gave shelter to al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups. So time will tell us if we have made the right decision in coming and entering into agreement with the Taliban or not.
Tim Farley: We appreciate your joining us today to help spell out some of the things we need to know about, Ms. Ahmadi. Thank you for being on POTUS.
Belquis Ahmadi: Thank you, it's good to be here.
Tim Farley: Belquis Ahmadi is senior program officer of the United States Institute of Peace on the now signed U.S.-Taliban agreement. What happens next and what should we be watching for? The Twitter handle is @USIP.