More than a month after Afghan peace talks formally began, the effort to end the war in Afghanistan is stalled, and no one faces higher stakes than Afghan women. The attempt at negotiations has snagged on preliminary issues, the Taliban have escalated their attacks, and all sides are watching the evolution of the U.S. military role in the country. Afghan women’s rights advocates say the moment, and the need for international support, is critical. U.S. officials have noted how U.S assistance can be vital in supporting women’s rights, a principle that can be advanced at a global donors’ conference next month.

As the United States’ troop drawdown reduces its influence in Afghanistan, Ambassador Kelly Currie says Afghan peace talks must yield protection for women’s rights if Afghanistan is to retain vital U.S. support in coming years.

The good news in these talks is simply that a broad range of Afghans has gathered for the first time in 40 years of conflict with the declared goal of negotiating a peaceful settlement. The government delegation for the formal talks in Qatar has members from across Afghanistan’s ethnic and other communal groups. Four women are among its 21 members. And an Afghan a civil society that has blossomed in the 19 years since the ouster of the Taliban regime is working to bring peace and preserve the human rights gains of the past two decades, notably for women and girls.

The Peacemaking Challenge

The next challenge is huge. While the Taliban agreed in principle to intra-Afghan talks, they refuse to recognize the government as a negotiating partner. And two initial Taliban demands signal their unreadiness for a peace process that could include women or other marginalized groups. The Taliban insist that peace talks be based on the U.S.-Taliban agreement reached in February, which does not include the Afghan government and provides no assurances on rights protection. The Taliban also insist that the Hanafi version of Islamic jurisprudence (one of four main schools of thought in Sunni Islam) must serve as the basis for resolving disputes in the peace process. That stipulation would marginalize Afghanistan’s non-Sunni minorities: Shia Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.

The Taliban enter the talks with significant leverage, which they are trying to maximize with a high tempo of warfare—notably in their recent assault on the capital of Helmand province. While the Taliban agreed in February that intra-Afghan talks would include discussion of “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” their offensives sustain warfare that killed or wounded about 3,500 civilians in the first half of 2020, with Taliban-inflicted casualties nearly twice as high as those caused by government forces. The government has “been very open to ceasefire,” Deputy Interior Minister Hosna Jalil said this month at an online public forum convened by USIP. “But [the] Taliban keeps adding to the number of victims and keeps adding to the level of violence, and it makes it quite difficult for the public . . . to be hopeful for the peace talks,” she said.

A primary source of leverage for the government is its support from the international community, including the U.S.-dominated coalition force that helped the post-Taliban Afghan state build its security forces. But analysts note that the United States’ mixed messages about the near-term future of the U.S. troop presence—including a tweet by President Trump suggesting he would withdraw troops by Christmas—encourage the Taliban while shaking Afghans’ confidence in effective international backing for the government and for human rights in Afghanistan.

Afghan and international women’s rights advocates express worry that the United States is aiming to disengage from Afghanistan at the earliest moment despite the attendant risk of abandoning Afghan women and human rights principles.  If “we don’t have stronger support from the U.S and international community … the fear is that there will be significant setbacks,” civil society activist Palwasha Hassan said in the USIP online forum.

America’s Financial Leverage

While Afghans will decide their political future, “The United States will … not have the same relationship with an Afghan government that does not respect and protect the rights of its women,” the U.S ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Kelley Currie, told the USIP forum. “It is just not going to happen.”

“No Afghan government should count on U.S government support if it restricts, neglects, or oppresses Afghan women and girls,” said Jenny McGee, an associate administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

The officials’ statements added detail to a declaration by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month that the outcomes of the peace talks “will affect both the size and scope of future U.S. assistance.”

The Taliban have not publicly responded to U.S. warnings about future aid. In recent years, 75 percent of Afghanistan’s government expenditures have come from donors, notably the United States, which spent more than $800 million on aid to Afghanistan in 2020. The World Bank estimates Afghanistan will need more than $6 billion per year in foreign help just to maintain basic services following any peace accord. Both sides in the Afghan talks recognize that their country will require extensive international aid in the coming years.

If the United States is to effectively use its aid commitments to Afghanistan in defense of women’s and human rights, this is a crucial moment. On November 23, the U.S. government will play a central role at a global donors’ conference in Geneva that aims to shape international aid to Afghanistan for the next four years. That conference “could effectively promote development and peace in Afghanistan, or it could turn out to be counterproductive,” notes William Byrd, a USIP expert on Afghanistan’s finances.

Afghan Women: No Surrender on Rights

Foreign donors initially led in shaping an agenda for Afghan women’s rights and representation following the Taliban’s brutal 1996-2001 regime, which denied women any right to education, or to speak, work or move outside their homes. But Afghan and American speakers noted in the USIP forum that it is now Afghans who lead that struggle. Afghans have returned girls to school and women to positions of economic and political power. Women run businesses, are prominent in public debate, comprise 27 percent of the parliament and hold senior government positions.

So 2020 and a troubled peace process represent “a critical time that we as the people and government of Afghanistan have to keep the gains and all of the achievements, that we have worked from zero to get to,” said Hasina Safi, Afghanistan’s acting minister of women’s affairs. At USIP’s forum, Safi said Afghan women activists are working around the clock to sustain pressure on the Taliban to finally accept women’s rights—and on the government to implement its commitments to those rights.

Afghan women’s groups—such as Our Voices, Our Future, the Afghan Women’s Network, and Together Stronger—recently have written to global leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urging them to reinforce the international commitment to an inclusive peace process that can protect the fundamental rights of all Afghans. At the grass roots, a social media campaign called #MyRedLine has posted dozens of videos in which ordinary citizens frame their personal demands for human and women’s rights.

Afghan human rights advocates recognize that the gains of 19 years since the Taliban’s overthrow have been uneven. Change has come more quickly in cities and towns, especially given Taliban violence and intimidation of rural civilians. In many areas, the war, poverty and Afghanistan’s hidden crisis of epidemic domestic abuse make women’s living conditions among the worst in the world. The wider openings for women in Kabul and a few other cities have led some critics, including Taliban, to charge that an insistence on women’s rights is an “elitist” or “foreign” idea. That notion is refuted by the overwhelming, nationwide responses of women, both rural and urban, through provincial-level peace councils, and in local dialogues, supported by USIP, about the nation’s needs in a peace accord.

Afghan campaigners for rights and democracy, both from government and civil society, say the societal transformation since the Taliban era cannot be undone. “The Taliban must accept that women are a part of society and part of the community,” said Dr. Habiba Sarabi, a member of the government team negotiating with the Taliban, told listeners at the USIP forum. Activist Palwasha Hassan agreed: “We have risen from ashes again and again, and we continue to fight. We are resilient.”

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