Two decades of progress are threatened by the Taliban return—and a hasty U.S. exit.
Afghanistan’s tortuous peace process has entered a desperate endgame that threatens to force women back to the margins of society and undermine gains they’ve made over the last two decades if the Taliban end up with a place in government.
Despite plenty of evidence that women’s involvement is critical to securing an enduring end to conflicts, Afghan women fear they’re being sidelined; even the drafted U.S. peace plan downgrades the role of women in post-war Afghanistan. While United Nations Resolution 1325, which seeks to entrench women’s participation in peace processes, stresses women’s “equal participation and full involvement,” the United States’ plan refers simply to the “meaningful” participation of women.
For the past six months, Habiba Sarabi has been one of four women, on a team of 21, representing the majority of Afghanistan’s population at talks in Doha between the Afghan government and the insurgent Taliban. Earlier this month, Sarabi was the lone woman present at peace talks held in Moscow.
A hematologist by training and the first Afghan woman to become a provincial governor, Sarabi insisted on women’s importance to the peace process, pressing the Taliban on why the group keeps murdering women. Afterward, she said, she was approached by Russia’s Afghan envoy, Zamir Kabulov. “Mr. Kabulov smiled and laughed and said: ‘You are the only one, and you are loud enough; imagine what it would be like if there were more women here,’” Sarabi said. (Kabulov could not be reached for comment.)
Before and especially during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women were largely housebound, uneducated, and lacked basic rights. For some advocates like Heather Barr, interim co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan is taking a step backward to leap ahead toward an imperfect peace.
“Four women in Doha is ridiculous; one woman in Moscow is much more ridiculous. It’s just enraging that in 2021, we’re zooming full-speed back when it comes to women’s participation,” Barr said.
Research from around the world shows women’s participation in conflict resolution improves the chance of reaching peaceful settlements—and of that peace enduring. Gender inequality, by contrast, increases the risk of extremism and instability.
And women in Afghanistan continue to suffer disproportionately from decades of fighting, which continues today despite the Taliban’s pledges to reduce violence as part of the ongoing peace process—making it seemingly even more imperative that women be fully included in the end of the war.
“Every time a woman is afraid to send her daughter to school because there’s fighting outside or can’t because the school’s been destroyed or can’t get to the health clinic because the road’s unsafe or the doctors have been killed or loses one of her children in an airstrike to insurgent IEDs or whatever, she’s part of the war,” Barr said. “Every girl who isn’t going to school right now is part of the war.”
Yet lessons about the benefits of including women in the peace process seem forgotten in Afghanistan. Canadian diplomat Deborah Lyons, who has put women’s rights at the core of her career, is currently the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan and heads the U.N. mission in the country. Yet the U.N. appointed a 70-year-old Frenchman, Jean Arnault, who served as U.N. representative in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, as the secretary-general’s personal envoy on Afghanistan and regional issues—ostensibly to represent the world body as a mediator. After the Moscow meeting this month, Arnault was singled out in the communique—not Lyons, who has been in her post for a year and was Canada’s ambassador to Kabul from 2013 to 2016.
“Deborah Lyons is very outspoken and supportive. She should be involved; she shouldn’t be kept back,” Sarabi said. “Without the participation of women, peace will not be a sustainable peace and will not be a just peace. Women must be involved. Women should not be a token.”
All of this is coming to a head now because of the peace deal that former U.S. President Donald Trump reached with the Taliban last year. In a bid to end two decades of U.S. presence in the country, Trump gave the Taliban political legitimacy and an invitation to return to power; now, the militant group feels it is in the driver’s seat. U.S. President Joe Biden, who seems almost as eager to wind down the United States’ longest war as Trump was, also appears willing to sacrifice some of Afghan women’s interests to secure a quick resolution.
An eight-page draft peace plan, reportedly drawn up by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calls for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to stand down in favor of an interim “peace government” that would include members of the Taliban. It also calls for the constitution to be re-written and for the Taliban to have representation on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The leaked plan also appears to invite participation in a transitional government of the old guard of politician warlords who, at least in their views on women, are hard to differentiate from the Taliban.
“The United States will continue to advocate with both Afghan sides for women to have meaningful participation in upcoming gatherings on peace,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Throughout this conflict, Afghan women have bravely stepped up—often at great personal risk—to call for a sustainable and just peace. Women’s voices must be fully included in all discussions about the country’s future.”
“For a peace agreement to be durable and just, it must account for the rights of women, girls, and members of minority groups. We know that women’s involvement in decision-making processes lead to better outcomes for themselves, their families, and their communities. Peace negotiations must be inclusive and reflect everyone who has a stake in the future of Afghanistan. Women, girls, and minority groups in Afghanistan have made extraordinary gains over the past 20 years, and preserving and building upon those gains is a high priority for the Biden administration,” the spokesperson said.
But problems abound ahead of the next crucial round of political talks in Turkey, slated for April. Ghani doesn’t want to step down and has responded with an alternative plan: elections six months to a year after the signing of a peace plan and a cease-fire, which was already rejected by the Taliban. Ghani is expected to keep pushing his plan at the Istanbul conference. Meanwhile, the Taliban refuse to recognize the Kabul government or the existing constitution, fueling concerns that their inclusion in a transitional government will lead to a rollback of women’s rights.
But for the United States, getting out of Afghanistan appears to trump whatever ultimately emerges from the peace process, including women’s rights, critics said.
“My concern is: Will the United States and international community stand by the principles of women’s rights in Afghanistan or will they sell us out for the sake of political expediency?” said Helena Malikyar, formerly Afghanistan’s ambassador to Italy, an academic, and a political commentator. “Are they just talking the talk now and in the final stages will settle for something less than ideal for women just so they have a deal and can leave?”
Given the terms of Trump’s precipitate withdrawal, she said, the Taliban “feel they are in a position where they don’t have to make any concessions,” which could make it harder to secure hard-won gains for women in any post-war government.
And while Ghani is deeply unpopular, the U.S. effort to nudge him aside in favor of a transitional government—which one European official described as a slow-motion “coup”—could put not only the Taliban but other conservative Afghan politicians in charge of the country.
“My fear is that replacing the government with a transitional, inclusive government as called for in the Blinken plan will see some of the ‘old guard’ of Afghan politicians entering government, most of whom are not too far from the Taliban when it comes to women’s rights,” Malikyar said. “That way, the Taliban will find it easier to change the constitutional articles on equality and freedoms and anything regarding women’s rights.”
Whether—and to what extent—women are ultimately included in the peace process will shape what kind of Afghanistan emerges from decades of war, said Shaharzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“If you exclude women and you move to an Afghanistan where half the population is entrapped and regarded as half-human, you are signing up for an Afghanistan that is poor, less developed, and cannot compete with other countries. That is counterproductive for everyone,” Akbar said.