The Biden administration’s announcement last week that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by September 11 came as a blow to the current peace talks and many Afghan citizens who appreciate the rights and freedoms that international forces have helped to defend against the Taliban. Still, President Biden made clear that the United States continues to support the Afghan government and democratic system, and, to that end, the administration has indicated it would request $300 million from Congress in additional civilian aid. But Biden explicitly de-linked U.S. troops from that equation — stating that they would not be “a bargaining chip between warring parties.”

The opening session of a 2019 tribal assembly in Kabul, Afghanistan. Many Afghan women seized on the freedoms that emerged after the American invasion and collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. They do not want to go back to the terms of Taliban rule. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
The opening session of a tribal assembly in Kabul. Many Afghan women seized on the freedoms that emerged after the 2001 collapse of the Taliban government. They do not want to go back to the terms of Taliban rule. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

The Taliban’s reaction was swift and decisive. On April 21, the militant group announced they would not participate in high-level talks in Istanbul that would have begun this weekend and went further to say they will not negotiate with other Afghans until all foreign forces have left. The twin announcements by Biden and the Taliban have increased concerns among Afghans and observers about whether civil and political rights — particularly women’s equal rights to receive health care and education, work, vote, serve in government, appear on TV and participate in public life — will be maintained throughout, and after, a peace process.  

Taliban Ambiguity

In their statements, the Taliban have remained vague on their positions on women’s rights, only saying that they aspire for a “truly Islamic system,” governed by Sharia law. Of course, there are states that adhere to Islamic laws and traditions are democracies with a free press and protect women’s rights. But in practice the Taliban have imposed restrictions on girls’ education, women’s employment and access to services in territory they currently control. Afghan women and civil society leaders therefore rightly fear that the Taliban’s invocation of Sharia is code for a return to their abusive, isolated and impoverished 1990s rule.

The Taliban’s avoidance of the Istanbul talks, and their general approach to the negotiations in Doha, appear to be part of a strategy to avoid topics that will invite the opposition of a majority of the Afghan people and jeopardize international legitimacy. It was hoped that the Istanbul conference would be a forum for representatives of the Afghan republic, Western donors and the region to speak with one voice about the need to respect international rights norms in any future political settlement. The Taliban have implied they saw such a forum as a trap they want to avoid. Now the United States’ plan for an Istanbul conference to produce a framework agreement establishing a new political power-sharing arrangement in exchange for promises of a permanent cease-fire appears to be impossible. So, what is the next best path to secure both peace and rights?

Supporting the Afghan Consensus on Rights

One hopeful answer is that as the Taliban dodge questions about their vision for future governance in Afghanistan, women’s rights advocates are increasingly united in their calls to maintain democracy and rights. Political leaders differ on power-sharing and interim government issues, but behind the political divisions a strong consensus has developed among a broad Afghan political spectrum that rolling back principles of democracy and equal participation in society is fundamentally unacceptable. Just last week hundreds of Afghan women convened in Kabul to develop policy recommendations on a wide range of issues including the protection of fundamental rights for all Afghans. This suggests that the Taliban will not be able to negotiate their way into power without revealing their true positions on governance and confronting an organized front on the issue of democracy and women’s rights.

To strengthen efforts to secure these principles, it is important to do four things: 

1. Have women directly involved in peace negotiations. Afghan women have the most to lose because their current equal rights would disappear if the country returns to the 1990s version of Taliban rule. While the Afghan government has stated strong support for preserving these rights, it is largely relying on men to make the argument for them.  Only four of the 21 members of the Afghan republic negotiation team are women. The High Council on National Reconciliation, headed by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, that supervises the negotiation team, has only 10 of 50 members that are women. And, most embarrassingly, the 12-member Afghan delegation that attended the March 18 Moscow conference had only one woman. In her remarks at that conference, Habiba Sarabi, the lone Afghan woman participant said, “Why should (I) be the only woman in the room? “Fifty-one percent of the people should not be ignored.”  

Including women as negotiators is not just symbolism. The Afghan government’s democratic legitimacy derives from women’s votes. Evidence from past peace processes demonstrates that when civil society groups, including women’s organizations, are included in peace processes, accords are 64 percent less likely to fail. When women participate in a peace process, the likelihood of reaching an agreement increases, and it is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. This is because women broaden the issues discussed, increasing the chances of addressing root causes of conflict and building much-needed community buy-in.

2. Pressure the Taliban to put their positions about substantive issues on the table before they are given further concessions. So far, the Taliban have been given a pass under the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal on revealing what their vision is for a unified and peaceful Afghanistan. The agreement does not explicitly link U.S. troops and any actual agreement among Afghans on a future government — although it does say that a political settlement, violence levels, U.S. troops and blocking safe havens for terrorist groups are “interrelated.” The Biden policy announcement has officially disconnected troops from the substance of peace talks — although diplomatic and economic leverage will still be brought to bear on the peace negotiations. Now the international community, especially the United States, must follow through with the explicit commitments U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made in Kabul last week by exerting diplomatic pressure on the Taliban and their backers to state their positions on key governance and rights issues. They should withhold any sanctions relief on the Taliban until this happens. And they should cease pressuring the Afghan government to release additional Taliban prisoners unless there are concrete deliverables from the Taliban.

3. Focus on democratic principles. The primary way that women and girls’ rights can be guaranteed is through a peace process that upholds the current constitution and the system of government that holds these rights to be central. Even if women are at the table in Istanbul and Doha, that presence will not have a lasting effect if the ultimate peace deal does not include women in the ratification process and guarantee participation in future governance. Equal attention is also needed on the way rights are interpreted in future governments. Therefore, any roadmap for peace should include provisions that ensure:

  • Any peace deal is ratified by a democratic process with women equally represented;
  • Future elections are held according to principles of universal suffrage and equal rights for women to cast ballots and be elected;
  • Constitutional rights are equal for all citizens without caveats for social norms; and
  • Ensuring that elected leaders and independent courts have the final say on interpretations of national laws and the constitution rather than any non-elected ulema or other religious council. 

Much of the focus so far has been on the individual rights enumerated in Chapter 2 of the current constitution, which align with international human, civil and political rights norms. But rights promised without the above safeguards won’t be preserved. And rights given away in negotiations without a democratic system that has equal participation will be very difficult to regain. It is also important to continue to support the Afghan security services, bolster democratic processes and ensure that the peace process and related mechanisms are inclusive, with representatives from Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, and that the process is closely monitored.

4. Enlist international and regional support for basic principles of governance and human rights. While a political agreement cannot be imposed from the outside, the content of a settlement to the Afghan conflict will have direct effects on international security. A combination of international donors, including the United States and NATO allies, along with regional neighbors who both support the state and have the ability to spoil a peace deal, could help shape a more inclusive and sustainable end-state by expressing a unified view on acceptable political principles. An initial example of this pressure is the joint statement issued by Russia, China, Pakistan and the United States at the March Moscow conference. It is remarkable that these four regional powers, which have serious differences among them on most issues, agree on one thing: It is time for Afghan leaders and the Taliban to focus on a political settlement to their conflict. Moreover, their joint statement “reaffirm[ed] that any peace agreement must include protections for the rights of all Afghans, including women … ” and rejected any suggestion that an Islamic emirate return as the form of government for Afghanistan. If the United States, NATO allies and regional neighbors make it clear that future support to the Afghan state, which is essential for Afghanistan’s prosperity, is contingent on maintaining minimum standards of human, civil and political rights, it will significantly increase pressure on the Taliban to provide assurances that they do not seek a return to the disastrous policies of the 1990s.

For a peace process to lead to sustainable peace, inclusivity must be taken seriously. Despite the United States withdrawing troops, it still has leverage it can exert to help ensure the hard-won gains it helped achieve are not lost. Applying that smartly in alignment with input from the greater Afghan society, including women, will help to preserve democratic rights in the peace process.

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