A year on, the situation in Afghanistan is “looking really grim” as women and girls have lost the gains made over the past two decades and the country’s humanitarian crisis continues to spiral, says USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi. “The Taliban are trying to erase women from society.”
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Julie Mason: Belquis Ahmadi is senior program officer for the United States Institute of Peace. Here to discuss women's rights in Afghanistan, and hopefully her own experiences there. Belquis, welcome back.
Belquis Ahmadi: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Julie Mason: Really good to have you. I know that you were in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. Seems to me that was a time of some great improvements for women.
Belquis Ahmadi: Indeed, yes. I was just talking to someone the other day; those were the days that we could just walk around in this city and go shopping and do stuff like normal people.
Julie Mason: Right, sit in a café, go to school, have a job, normal stuff.
Belquis Ahmadi: Those are considered normal stuff and very distant right now.
Julie Mason: It's terrible to think of the advances and then the terrible setback for Afghan women.
Belquis Ahmadi: Don't get me started on that. I can go on for hours on that.
Julie Mason: I mean, what the Taliban is doing, and of course, part of the shame of it is that the U.S. promise is unfulfilled, and well, and world promises to Afghanistan, really, unfulfilled.
Belquis Ahmadi: Yes, yes. What [the] Taliban [is] doing [is] basically trying to erase women from the society. I have been on your shows before and we have talked about the gains of Afghan women in the past 20 years, or even more, longer than 20 years. The legal rights, the fact that the constitution of the country recognized women as equal citizens of the country. So, right now, that's gone. Family laws that provided some level of protection to women, gone. [The] elimination of violence against women law that was put in place to support and protect women, gone. That does not exist. The national action plan for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security does not exist anymore.
Julie Mason: Meanwhile though, the people are starving.
Belquis Ahmadi: The people are starving. Especially women because they don't have opportunities to earn an income, do the jobs that they have prepared for so many years. If you recall, in one of the previous programs I was in, I talked about the number of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and police and army. Six thousand women serve in these entities, one thousand journalists – I'm talking about women alone – and more than one thousand women owned small and medium businesses that created 80,000 jobs for men and women, invested their own money, $70 million. None of those exist right now. Women served as ministers, as ambassadors, as legislators.
Julie Mason: Yeah, we were speaking on the show recently with an Afghan journalist about how perhaps the greatest metaphor for this is how in Kabul, there was like a Ministry of Women or Department of Women's Rights, it was an agency devoted to the advancement of women in Afghanistan and achieving that, and that has been emptied, you know, stripped of all meaning, and is now the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which enforces these terrible laws against women, even riding in a taxi with a man not a family member.
Belquis Ahmadi: That was in fact one of the first decisions [the] Taliban made to replace the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and all their departments throughout the country, with their Ministry of Vice and Virtue. By the way, the Taliban are the only creatures on the face of the Earth who believe that there has to be a ministry dedicated to vice and virtue.
Julie Mason: And yet they can't govern and, you know, I think what U.S. policymakers are struggling with is obviously the U.S. does have a responsibility to Afghanistan, but how do you help the people without helping the Taliban?
Belquis Ahmadi: I believe there are different ways to do that. We just have to be creative and think out of the box. And there are certain decisions that require, how should I put it in a more diplomatic way, decisive decision, such as targeted sanctions on Taliban leaders. This current sanction hurts Afghan people more than the Taliban. [The] Taliban make money. They have revenue. They are not hurt. So, my suggestion would be strongly, of course, to target sanctions on Taliban leaders. They have businesses outside the country, they have bank accounts everywhere. Freeze their bank accounts, so they feel the pinch, not the people.
Julie Mason: That's so interesting because, you know, they seem so primitive. You never think of those guys as having foreign investments.
Belquis Ahmadi: They like to be perceived that way. But they are, at the end of the day, they are human beings. They also have needs to fulfill and they have lived, the leaders have lived outside the country for years and years. I mean, how do you survive in a place like Pakistan if you don't have an income, and if you don't have a bank account? They own houses. They own properties in different countries.
Julie Mason: So, there's ways to go after them that are meaningful.
Belquis Ahmadi: That would be one of the and then reinstate [a] travel ban. Because we live in the twenty-first century, you don't have to meet face-to-face. You don't have to meet or travel thousands of miles – by the way, in private jets and business class – in order to go and meet with an official in Qatar or Uzbekistan or somewhere else. During the pandemic, we have been meeting, we continued living, conducted businesses through Zoom and so many other tools. Why can't the Taliban do that? And if there is an argument that, “Oh well, certain things have to be discussed in person, and so…” Yes, do that for that specific meeting. Bring them out and then let them go back and let them travel, like, economy class. Who in their right mind would decide to send a private jet to pick up Taliban from Kabul and take them to Norway, to Qatar and other places?
Julie Mason: Okay, so where do you think the situation is heading in Afghanistan?
Belquis Ahmadi: Not well. Let's start with the humanitarian crisis. Both man-created – by “man,” I mean Taliban-created and also by natural disasters. You heard about the earthquake a few months ago and now flash floods everywhere displaced thousands and thousands of people. It's looking really grim. It requires out-of-the-box thinking and decisions, and Taliban sympathizers and supporters in Afghanistan [and] outside Afghanistan, they have to be pressurized. I can think of Pakistan to begin with and other countries.
Julie Mason: Of course, the return of al-Qaida, or the resumption of al-Qaida, activities in Afghanistan is worrisome as well.
Belquis Ahmadi: [This is] something that [the] Taliban denied for years and years. And there you go, an al-Qaida leader shows up under their nose. And they still deny his existence. I mean, how do you deal with people with so many lies? They are governing based on lies, basically. While in fact, I take it back, they are ruling, they are not governing because to govern, you have to have certain skills and resources. [The] Taliban have replaced every single judge in Afghanistan with their own mullahs. The majority of them have no legal background. They don't even know the constitution of the country, which is, by the way, suspended. The Minister of Health is a mullah, the Minister of Technology is a mullah. How do you govern?
Julie Mason: You don't. I mean, as you say, it's not governance. It is merely rule. For governance, you have to have values. You have to have…right. There has to be more to it than just authority. But that's all they have is authority. Belquis Ahmadi, thank you so much for joining me this morning.
Belquis Ahmadi: Thank you for having me.
Julie Mason: Good to have you.