As a U.S. envoy finalizes a supposed “peace” deal with the Taliban, there is good reason to worry that the deal will hand Afghanistan back to these Islamists.
So here’s one way to judge whether the deal holds promise or peril: Does it betray Afghan women?
If this deal sells out Afghan women, who have made very real progress since the Taliban’s fall nearly two decades ago, it will signal more than a betrayal of past American promises. It will indicate that the Taliban, with the White House turning a blind eye, are bent on restoring their previous brand of harsh Islamic rule. Down that road lies a new Afghan civil war, and a possible return of the new variants of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
In other words, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, any sellout of Afghan women means U.S. security needs are being sold out as well.
To understand why, you need only listen to the warnings of Fawzia Koofi, a deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament and one of the country’s many amazing female success stories. I spoke with her by phone to Kabul on Friday morning.
Born in the remote Afghan province of Badakhshan, the 19th of her father’s 23 children, she was put outside to die because she was female, but was rescued by her strong, illiterate mother. The only girl in her family to get an education, she was elected to parliament from Badakhshan after the Taliban were overthrown. (I visited her and her two daughters at her Kabul home in 2011; one daughter now studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey.)
Koofi has become a spokeswoman for women’s rights and she is determined to protect them. But she fears that the vital concerns of the Afghan people, including women, are being left out of this peace process. And if these interests are ignored, she told me, “this creates the environment for all-out civil war.”
So far, the U.S.-Taliban talks have excluded representatives of the elected Afghan government because the Taliban refuse to recognize its legitimacy.
The terms of the draft peace accord supposedly call for the Taliban to start intra-Afghan talks, but it is still unclear whom they will talk to, or under what terms.
The signs are ominous. The Taliban team call themselves the Islamic Emirate, which indicates they still believe they are ruling the country. Indeed, they reject the very concept of an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – the current name of the country – because a republic means Afghans can elect representatives to a parliament.
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An emirate, on the other hand, means an Islamic state, and the Taliban hope they can reinstate one. Clearly they are aware of how publicly eager President Donald Trump is to quit Afghanistan, which encourages them to hold firm.
Koofi’s personal experience provides little optimism that the Taliban are willing to be inclusive in the future. She participated in three informal Afghan meetings with Taliban officials in Moscow and Qatar. “They pretend to change,” she says, “but we have to watch carefully. I tried to tell them you can’t take Afghanistan back to when they were ruling. But they use words that make us worry.”
For example, when she pressed them on female education, they said “according to Islam,” which could mean religious education only. When she asked for clarification, they said only that there could be no co-education, which is already the case in Afghanistan through high school. But at college level, she says, “we haven’t enough teachers for separate education.”
The Taliban were similarly vague when it came to the rights of women to work. Koofi asked them, “Will you respect international human rights principles?” Their response: “Such rights contradict Islam.”
If the Taliban refuse to negotiate with representatives of the Afghan republic – along with representatives of wider civil society, including women — Koofi fears a new civil war may be looming.
Here is where the terms of the prospective U.S.-Taliban document really become key.
As reported, the deal focuses mainly on the Taliban’s demand that all U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, in return for Taliban guarantees that they will not permit a renewed al-Qaeda or ISIS to take root in the country.
Intra-Afghan talks are supposed to begin before a complete withdrawal of 14,000 troops. But without the pressure of a U.S. troop presence, these talks are unlikely to advance.
So the key question is the timeline for U.S. withdrawal, and whether it will be based on President Trump’s desire for all U.S. troops to exit before the 2020 elections. The president has waffled, most recently saying that some troops will remain, but he has reportedly told aides that he wants them all out soon.
“If the international community leaves,” says Koofi, “there are no guarantees.”