Afghanistan Can’t Achieve Stability Without Women
To reach a gender-conscious peace deal with the Taliban, Afghan negotiators need more time—and U.S. support.
This year could be the historic year of peace in Afghanistan. Ending the now two-decades-long war is desirable for all parties involved. Yet I am morally obliged to warn that peace with the Taliban cannot come at the cost of basic human rights, particularly for Afghan women—who have made much progress in recent decades.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s slated Sept. 11 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will undermine the Afghan government’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban and deepen insecurity in the country, especially if troops leave before a long-term political solution is achieved. Put simply, an unconditional U.S. exit will not provide the time needed for negotiating parties to engage in a meaningful peace process. Rushed dialogue risks sidelining Afghan women and all of the gains we have made over the years. For Afghanistan to move forward, we need a peace process that guarantees meaningful—and not just symbolic—participation of women in shaping our country’s future.
As a member of Afghanistan’s negotiating team in Doha, I have spent the last six months meeting with representatives of the Taliban in an attempt to put an end to our country’s ongoing violence. I am a woman, and I—alongside other female negotiators—am here because the peace process depends on Afghanistan’s women. Studies show that peace outcomes are more sustainable when women are involved in the peacebuilding process. This is especially true in the case of Afghanistan.
When we first met in September 2020, the Taliban delegates seemed uncomfortable in my presence. They avoided making eye contact with me and struggled to say my name out loud. To many observers both in and outside of Afghanistan, I had come to Doha not as a negotiator ready for substantive discussion but as a token and provocation—meant to convince the world the Afghan government I represent cares about women’s rights.
Since then, the Taliban’s representatives have grown more comfortable around me and my female colleagues. They have started to listen to us. We now call one another by our names and share greetings when we pass one another in the corridors. We also have discussions in the negotiation rooms. I hope they have come to appreciate the diversity of views and expertise that we women bring to the table.
Indeed, the Doha negotiations may be the only peace talks in recent memory when warring parties have debated women’s rights. But my fellow female negotiators and I are not in Doha only to discuss women’s issues. We are here because we must preserve rights for all Afghans—from liberty to security to economic prosperity.
In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban reached a peace agreement in Afghanistan. But what followed was a disturbing spike in violence. In 2020, Afghanistan recorded 8,820 civilian casualties from armed conflict. Despite the ostensible cessation of war, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s deadliest places to be a civilian.
Notwithstanding security hardships, Western aid to Afghanistan over the past two decades has created the vital space for Afghan self-empowerment. Few groups have gained as much—and, indeed, have more to lose—than Afghanistan’s women.
In the years before 2001, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, women did not have the right to education and work. Now, we serve as ministers in government, perform life-saving surgeries, and manage international nongovernmental organizations, as I do today.
I am not in Doha to serve as a symbol of transformation. I am here to stress that preserving women’s rights in Afghanistan is not merely a moral imperative. Women comprise half of our country’s population: If they are unsafe or excluded, the nation will suffer, exacerbating the toll of an already long war.
Some stakeholders in the Afghan peace talks, however, expect women to give up our hard-fought rights to reach a political solution. To achieve a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, for instance, we may be called on to sacrifice our liberty and security. Increased insecurity will lead women to retreat into their homes. Everyday women in Afghanistan already feel the pain of not being able to walk in the streets of our country safely.
But my female colleagues and I will not trade our freedom for a settlement, and regional powers should not push us to do so either.
Though the Taliban have changed their posture toward female negotiators like me, personal views do not automatically translate into changes on their women’s rights and gender equality positions in Afghanistan as a whole. So far, the Taliban have not yet clarified their stance on women’s rights. They have not provided these details to the other side of the negotiating table—though sustained face-to-face engagement could get us there.
At this watershed moment, I call on the United Nations, United States, European Union, and neighboring countries with interests in Afghanistan’s stability to press both the Afghan government and the Taliban to reserve at least 30 percent of elected seats and appointments in our future political institutions for women. Moreover, international aid should be conditioned on protecting women’s constitutional role in Afghanistan’s democratic systems—a fundamental right that should be on the agenda in both Doha and further negotiations in Istanbul.
In Afghanistan, the United States and its partners have made sacrifices the Afghan people are deeply grateful for. Now, they are understandably focused on the cold logic of troop numbers and withdrawal deadlines. But foreign powers should also ensure their hopes for my country do not founder on the shoals of misogyny. Afghan women have won so much. With peace in sight, we must not lose.
Fawzia Koofi is an Afghan politician and member of the negotiations team engaged in peace talks with the Taliban. Twitter: @FawziaKoofi77