Interview

Afghan Women Are ‘Not Willing to Give Up Their Rights’

In an interview, Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to Washington sets a hard line for Taliban peace talks.

Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, waves before posing for a photo during the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 6. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, waves before posing for a photo during the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 6. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Roya Rahmani arrived in Washington at a critical juncture.

Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the United States, Rahmani took up her post in December, just as President Donald Trump was announcing his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from her country.

Since then, American diplomats have been racing to seal a peace deal with the Taliban that would end the longest war in U.S. history—and decades of civil strife in Afghanistan.

This week, Rahmani sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss what a deal with the Taliban would mean for Afghans’ civil rights, whether it is possible to trust the militant group, and the staggering battlefield losses being absorbed by Afghan security forces.

Foreign Policy: The United States and the Taliban are touting the current round of negotiations as the most serious peace effort in almost a decade, but, so far, the Afghan government has been excluded. Is it possible that some deal can be negotiated through the Americans?

Roya Rahmani: We are of the belief and understanding that there haven’t been negotiations per se. The effort is basically to try to facilitate inter-Afghan talks. The United States is making an effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table so that they can talk to the government.

If the government is excluded, we do not think there are any negotiations. It is an issue that has to be resolved between the Afghan government representing the people of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

FP: The Taliban have maintained that the current government of Afghanistan is illegitimate and a puppet of a foreign power. Do you believe the Taliban are going to be willing to participate in direct negotiations with the Afghan government?

RR: If they want to negotiate peace, if they want to have a place in Afghanistan, then this is the only way. Our people are willing to let go of their grievances, to let go of their past for a better future. How would this group enter and be part of this society if it is not willing to engage with this society? This society, this nation has an elected government, so what are they questioning?

FP: What are your red lines in a possible negotiation with the Taliban for a political settlement of the war?

RR: Afghanistan’s unity, territorial integrity, and the civil rights of all Afghans. There are many other things to be discussed and talked about once they are present at the negotiation table.

FP: Are you concerned that the entry of the Taliban as a political party will result in the erosion of women’s rights?

RR: The Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 2001. It has changed, it has shifted, and there is a huge difference. The people of Afghanistan have their own voice. The women have been treated like a minority, but they are not a minority. Together, the women and the youth are actually a majority, and they are not willing to give up their rights. They are not willing to compromise their human rights and go back to the old days.

FP: Are you concerned about a premature U.S. exit from Afghanistan?

RR: We do not wish to be dependent forever. We would like to continue this partnership that we have with the United States and not continue to be a dependent state. This is our ambition. Having said that, a peaceful, stable Afghanistan would be helpful in realizing our aspirations.

FP: Do you have confidence that Afghan security forces will be able to support themselves and defend against the Taliban without U.S. support?

RR: The fight against terrorism is a global responsibility. Right now, Afghans are fighting at the forefront of this battle and paying a very huge price. We are providing insurance against terrorism for the rest of the world. For this fight to continue, there needs to be a global effort against the menace of narcotics, terrorism, extremism, and the enablers of criminal groups and their allies.

FP: President Ashraf Ghani recently revealed the staggering death toll that Afghan security forces suffered in the last year. Is this current rate of casualties sustainable?

RR: The casualties are happening on all sides. We are suffering immensely, and we are very concerned about that. Let’s also not forget that our security forces are volunteering to join. They have volunteered to continue to fight for the security of their people, for the hope that their children will have a better future.

This is why we are ready to move forward and give up our grievances to provide a more peaceful environment for all of us to meet our potential. This conflict is eating up and hampering our potential to prosper economically and become self-reliant. 

FP: Do you have confidence that you can trust the Taliban? They have reportedly pledged, for example, that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging point for terrorist plots. Is that a pledge that can be trusted?

RR: If the Taliban are not entering into inter-Afghan talks, having negotiations with the government, how are they offering any guarantees to anybody? How are they offering this guarantee that they are not letting Afghanistan become this safe haven? On what basis?

FP: Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who is leading the U.S. talks with the Taliban, has claimed that he has reached a framework for peace talks with the Taliban. But we know very little about it, and the Americans have been very tight-lipped about the talks. Can you describe your understanding of what that framework is?

RR: I have not seen anything myself, so I cannot provide specific details on it. I know probably as much as you know. We are just hoping that whatever the effort is, it is toward getting the real negotiations started.

FP: It sounds like you’d like to know more about what Khalilzad is actually up to.

RR: I know what you know pretty much. He has been giving statements, and we are encouraged by the statement that he gave that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” And he has made it clear recently once again that there is no timetable for withdrawal. I’m encouraged by that.

FP: To your knowledge, have there been any orders for American troops to leave Afghanistan?

RR: No.

FP: Khalilzad said Friday that he was hoping to get a peace agreement by July—before the Afghan elections. Do you think that timeline is realistic?

RR: I hope it is. I don’t have any specific ideas whether it will work or not. If we reached a peace agreement yesterday, I would have been happier.

FP: Either way, do you expect that the scheduled Afghan elections will go forward?

RR: It’s very important and reassuring to our people that what we have gained will continue. Continuity is assurance for our stability. This is what the people of Afghanistan want, and they have just demonstrated that during the recent parliamentary elections. Let’s not forget the last parliamentary elections were secured by our forces. For us to sustain the gains, it is immensely important to move toward this election.

If we are to reach a peace settlement, we need mechanisms for implementation. We need a strong and central body to ensure that despite the challenges it will bring, it can be managed. And that can only be done by an elected government.

FP: Moscow is also conducting a parallel peace effort. What are your thoughts on that effort?

RR: Personally, I think that it’s better to coordinate and have one track rather than dispersing it. Some of the announcements and statements that the Taliban made were not necessarily encouraging in the run-up to the Russian meeting. That is my personal view. As a representative of my government, we did not participate.

FP: The Trump administration has made building up the Afghan mining industry a centerpiece of its rhetoric on Afghanistan. What kind of support or direction are you getting from the administration on this issue?

RR: Mining and natural resources is a very important industry in Afghanistan. We are working toward finding ways that establish mechanisms, regulations, and also reforms into our laws and procedures to facilitate using this industry and at the same time attract investment opportunities from partner countries.

We are doing everything we can in order to facilitate this engagement for American investors in particular, given that the United States has been a foundational partner of ours.

FP: Are you expecting to sign additional mining agreements?

RR: We are working on a number of different initiatives and hoping to have more such agreements and interest from American investors.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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