New Internationalist

Is talking to the Taliban a betrayal of Afghanistan’s women?

Issue 442

The US is scheduled to start a partial withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in a couple of months’ time. Talk is in the air of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. But what would it mean for Afghan women and the rights that they have struggled to gain in recent years? Our debaters this month, Orzala Ashraf and Michael Semple, are both passionate workers for peace and justice – but they take opposite positions on a thorny issue with global ramifications.

ARGUMENT

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online. The best comments will be printed in the next magazine.

Orzala

I am not optimistic about talking to the Taliban and creating a possible set-up for negotiation. I think there are too many unanswered questions about the Taliban and their position. As an Afghan woman who was active in organizing underground educational programmes for women, I am concerned about their restrictive approaches to girls’ education, women’s mobility and access to basic services and the human rights of all. Talking to an invisible force that only shows itself through a mysterious ‘Quetta Shura’* leadership or through horrific incidents such as suicide bombings and slaughtering people who in 95 per cent of the cases are innocent and ordinary Afghan civilians, is not only a betrayal of Afghanistan’s women. It is also a rather useless effort that will not achieve any effective peace. Afghan women are ready to speak with Afghans who do not have the blood of innocents on their hands; who are willing to end widespread corruption; who respect the Afghan constitution which is not owned by the President and current government but by all representatives of people from across the country who participated in the Loya Jirga (traditional council). I believe peace is only possible if it is based on a foundation of justice.

Michael

Too many people have already suffered and died in this conflict. Surely, if there is a faint chance of a lasting peace, we must strive to make it happen. I remember an idealistic friend who fought in the jihad. He told me of his disgust at today’s corrupt Afghanistan, saying ‘I cannot accept that after all the sacrifice we should have to settle for this’. My friend is now working for peace, because he refuses to accept Afghanistan the way it is. The greatest single block to progress in Afghanistan is the current conflict. It is better to have the Taliban inside the political order, in a negotiated agreement with their fellow Afghans, than to have them outside, trying to destroy the order. Any agreement would have to address security, politics and rights. But making peace should be an opportunity. I hope that voices like yours can help ensure that whichever Afghans negotiate the terms for the Taliban to end their armed struggle will be looking for endorsement of rights such as access to education.

I applaud your desire to deal only with those whose hands are clean of the blood of innocents. However, please do not let others exploit this as an excuse to prolong the conflict by pretending that the Taliban are the only villains. They have their own quota of villains, victims and moral men.

Orzala

I think that Afghans know more than anyone about losses and suffering. The reason this continues does not lie in the fact that there has been no opportunity for talks. It is to be found, rather, in all the political and strategic reasons of those who keep fuelling this conflict. No one with common sense would disagree with having peace after years of witnessing atrocities. The only exceptions are those who gain politically and financially out of war and from the further destruction of our country. Such people, who have been proved time and again to be failed and corrupt leaders, are the ones in which the international community has been investing. Unfortunately, this is one of the key reasons we are still suffering. There will not be any problem if your friend – who does not agree with the current system – can find peaceful ways of changing it based on democratic values. I hope the recent changes in the Middle East, in particular the Egyptian revolution, will have influenced your friend and people like him who did not believe in peaceful ways of changing the system. However, if there is an intention to turn Afghanistan back into a medieval regime in which no respect is given to rights, in which the killing and targeting of civilians continues, then there will be no difference between today and a day under that kind of system. My major concern is that a short-term deal may bring a few of them back into the system. Such events may be portrayed to the international community as a ‘successful’ political settlement, yet we will continue to suffer…

Michael

The idea of ‘parity of esteem’ was central to the Northern Ireland peace process. It is about accepting that different traditions can coexist in one state and that their adherents have to move beyond killing or insulting each other –

Yes, peace should be a step forward, not back. I believe a cessation of hostilities would give Afghans the best chance to build a fairer society. The insurgency provides an excuse for corruption and injustice. Mafia penetration of the current regime is mind-boggling. Palace cronies can misappropriate $600 million or more through Kabul Bank and get away scot-free. The same impunity applies to moral corruption – involvement of regime figures in armed crime or sex abuse. Yes, you should beware of the terms of any deal. But achieving a fair society means overhauling the current order. Remove the excuse of the insurgency and it will be safer to go after those who already abuse their power. I recently asked a senior Talib for tips on drawing them into a real peace process. His first suggestion was to address the Taliban respectfully. This struck me as both a good idea and a challenge. While urban Afghans and the international media associate the Taliban with medieval misogyny, brutality and suicide bombing, the leaders of the movement cling to their self-image as a moral force. The idea of ‘parity of esteem’ was central to the Northern Ireland peace process. It is about accepting that different traditions can coexist in one state and that their adherents have to move beyond killing or insulting each other. Of course, parity of esteem does not mean going soft on rights. Wife-killers should be held to account – whether affiliated with Hamid Karzai or Mullah Omar.

Orzala

The international community, which continues to pour money into Afghanistan’s ‘weak state’ government, shares considerable responsibility for creating the ‘Mafia’ you refer to. And all taxpayers of the international community share in that responsibility by failing to hold their own institutions to account. An end to the culture of impunity for corruption or war crimes is key to a lasting peace.

Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
Girls from Asciana NGO in Kabul exercise hard-won rights of self-expression and participation. But can these be protected in any deal with the Taliban? Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

On the ‘respect’ the Taliban are seeking, I think the best response is an Afghan proverb: ‘You reap what you sow’. There has to be respect for different political views, but what is not acceptable is the imposition of one over another through use of violence and terror. Afghan women (rural and urban) are demanding nothing more than a respect for their rights, which are well described in the Constitution.

Back to my initial question: who are the Taliban? They do not represent an ethnic group or a religious faction or a geographical location. They do not represent rural Afghans – the Taliban have claimed responsibility for the systematic murder of tribal elders in the south. A few months ago I visited a village in north Nangarhar where I met the local mullah who teaches girls and boys at the village school. He told me that they find it hard to call their students ‘Talib’ [which means, literally, ‘student’] because of the tremendous damage done to the term by the Taliban. ‘They [the Taliban] are not students of Madrasa [religious school], they are hirelings paid and provoked by our enemies’, he said to me.

Diversity is in the nature, geography and ethnography of Afghanistan – it should never be used to draw lines of exclusion. It is sad that earlier generations failed to see diversity as strength, but I am truly hopeful that ‘out of the ashes’ a different Afghanistan, an independent nation led by its own men, women and youth, will learn the lessons of the past and lead the country with a long-term vision.

Michael

You know that I spend my time encouraging Taliban to embrace alternatives to armed struggle. They are Afghans, not shadows. Nine out of twelve on the leadership council have been with the movement since 1994, when Mullah Omar led jihadi veterans and Madrasa students against the rape, pillage and barbarity of rogue commanders round Kandahar. They believe they are fighting to defend the place of Islam in Afghan society. Thinking Taliban explain that they did not pick the current fight – that when they tried to adapt peacefully to the new order after 2001, the same old corrupt commanders, now friends of Karzai and Rumsfeld, drove them over the border into Pakistan. Of course, the Taliban have acquired fellow travellers – foreign and Pakistani militants have all muscled into the insurgency. But, broadly speaking, we are dealing with a movement that is Afghan, largely clerical, rural, conservative and nationalistic.

So how could the armed struggle end? The Taliban and those who support the Kabul regime just have to agree to co-exist in the same political order. They need a deal whereby the Afghan security forces win the Taliban’s confidence, so that international troops are no longer required. The Taliban will need guarantees of protection from harassment and the government side will need to seek Taliban endorsement of women’s and other rights. The internationals will want concrete guarantees of co-operation to exclude foreign militants. Most Taliban assume they would be included in a power-sharing deal, but I encourage them also to consider becoming a loyal opposition, striving peacefully for the just Islamic society they talk about. None of this would change Afghanistan overnight.

But it would mean that the guns could go silent and Afghans could live and travel more safely. A good enough first step on the road to a just and prosperous Afghanistan.

Getting there will require confidence- building and mutual respect. I hope that civil society can play an independent role encouraging all sides in the direction of peace, with justice.

Afghan civil society activist Orzala Ashraf risked her life under the Taliban by launching literacy and health programmes for girls and women. In 1999 she founded Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. A leading expert on the Taliban and Afghan politics, Irish-born Michael Semple has worked in Afghanistan for more than 20 years as a development worker and conflict negotiator. He is the author of the recent book Reconciliation in Afghanistan.

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