At an international conference in London this week, seventy countries pledged to back Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s plan to reach out to some members of the Taliban. Despite reassurances that reconciliation would not betray hard-won social and political freedoms, much of the rhetoric from power players at the summit gave civil society observers the impression human rights –especially the rights of women– could soon be on the negotiating table.
Activists also expressed anger at the exclusion of women and civil society from preparations for the conference itself.
“Unfortunately Afghan civil society and women leaders were totally ignored in preparing the agenda of this conference and deciding what should be discussed,” said Orzala Nemat, a Kabul-based civil society activist and Taliban-era dissident.
The Afghan government sent an all-male delegation to the conference, but Afghan women made their voices heard at related non-governmental events. In these forums, activists and elected officials outlined their vision for the future.
“We want peace and security with justice and involvement of women,” said Mary Akrami, founder of an organization that assists impoverished women and girls, at a panel event hosted by the British parliament on women’s security priorities.
Akrami made her plea just hours after the United Nations announced the removal of five former Taliban officials from its terrorist list, paving the way for the five men to take part in UN-sponsored negotiations on behalf of at least one Taliban faction of Afghanistan’s complex insurgency.
News reports revealed that the United Nations envoy Kai Eide had already conducted secret meetings with members of the Taliban in Dubai weeks earlier.
No Afghan women were present for the talks in Dubai, and with the Afghan president expected to announce plans for a national assembly or jirga to discuss reconciliation with the Taliban, women feared they would again be excluded.
“If there is a peace jirga or talks at the regional level, we want women’s participation,” Akrami said. “We want no compromises on the constitution and women’s rights.”
Akrami argued that it was especially important for Afghan women to be included in the negotiations because the strictures of Taliban rule strangled women’s day to day lives between 1996 and 2001.
“If the situation comes back, it will be too much for Afghan women,” Akrami said. “We see social movements for women’s rights, but we need international support, our friends’ support. We expect the international community, and especially the UK Government, to listen to our voices, because we suffered a lot.”
An audience member at the parliamentary event asked the panelists if negotiations with the insurgency are the only way to end the war.
Homa Sabri, an official from the United Nations Development Fund for Women, shook her head.
“If you were in my place, would you say yes to Taliban? I don’t think so,” she said. “The first victims of politics are always women and children.”
Nemat expressed skepticism that negotiations with the Taliban would end the conflict anyway. Even if the Taliban can be brought to the table, they are unlikely to negotiate in good faith, she said.
A member of the European women’s anti-war group Women in Black told the panelists, “Our instincts are very much to call for an ending of the war in Afghanistan. We were against the war in Afghanistan from the beginning. Now we have real difficulty. Women on the street say to us ‘end the war, pull out the troops.’ It seems to me that the choices are [to] end the war, continue the fighting to the bitter end, or return to the power of the northern warlords or the Taliban.”
Responding to the comment, Afghan parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhai said she shared the concerns of Western peace activists about the war’s impact on civilians, especially military operations undertaken by international forces without coordinating with Afghan security forces, but added that the presence of foreign troops guarantees that women can serve in government, walk the streets, and travel independently.
Karokhail echoed her co-panelists’ skepticism about the efficacy of talks with the Taliban.
“It is not the only way to break them to say ‘ok women will not move, no women in the parliament, no women in ministries, no school for girls’,” she said.
Karokhail said she would prefer instead of negotiating with the Taliban that the international community pressure the government of Pakistan to end covert support of Afghan insurgent groups by its intelligence agency.
Civic activist and aid worker Arezo Qanih was one of two civil society representatives and the only Afghan woman permitted to address the official conference on Jan. 28.
“Women in Afghanistan are critical partners for peace. Women’s engagement is not an optional extra component of stabilization and recovery: it is a critical precursor to success,” she told the participants.
As anticipated, Karzai announced plans for a “grand peace jirga” for local Afghan leaders to discuss plans for future negotiations with the Taliban, and donor countries pledged $140 million to support a “Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund” that will finance Afghan-led efforts to reintegrate former Taliban fighters.
“This ‘new Taliban’ is not that much more extreme than some of the people in government,” one western diplomat supportive of the plan told the Guardian. “They could be willing to compromise on some issues, like women’s rights, girls’ education, even watching telly perhaps.”
Human rights advocates see little evidence to support this optimistic view.
“The Taliban established a terrible record of violating human rights during their rule and since then in the areas under their control we have seen terrible atrocities,” Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Director Sam Zarifi told reporters against the backdrop of dueling street demonstrations for and against continued foreign military engagement in Afghanistan close to where the diplomats gathered.
Zarifi cited examples of girls’ schools and health clinics attacked in areas currently under Taliban control.
“There is a real threat that the international community is about to sacrifice the rights of the Afghan people on the altar of political and military expediency,” he said.
The final statement of the summit applauded the Afghan government’s plan to “offer an honorable place in society” to members of the Taliban “willing to renounce violence, participate in the free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution.”
Some experts believe these conditions will eventually be compromised as members of the NATO coalition come under increasing pressure from their publics to bring the war to a close, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai seeks to ensure his government’s survival after the withdrawal of international forces.
“Women will pay the price, yes they will,” Afghanistan scholar Gilles Dorronsoro, a strong proponent of bringing the Taliban into the government through negotiations, said at a panel organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“If we can save something for women, it will be in a broad-based deal,” he added.
Nader Nadery, an official from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission disagreed.
“I do not see a single Taliban who would be willing to include women,” he said.
At a BBC-sponsored forum, an Afghan university student asked Karzai how he plans to safeguard human rights during negotiations with the Taliban.
The president reiterated that the offer of reconciliation would be extended only to Taliban who accept the Afghan constitution, including its guarantees of fundamental rights.
“They are not coming to take over the government against the Afghan constitution,” he said.
Afghan civil society activists hope the president will keep that promise.
In its official response to the conference outcome statement, the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), an umbrella organization representing many women’s civil society groups, said that the announced series of future meetings “provides an opportunity for the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to demonstrate the commitment articulated at the London Conference that reconciliation and reintegration will not take place at the expense of human rights, and that women are central to bringing peace and stability to their country .”