Q&A

A Taliban Victory Would Be ‘The Return of a Dark Age for Afghanistan’

Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women’s rights advocate and former politician, shares her thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal and Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
A woman waits to see a doctor in Afghanistan.
Farzana, who fled her village in Helmand province when it was taken over by the Taliban, waits to see a doctor at a mobile clinic for women and children in a village near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on March 28. ELISE BLANCHARD/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As the world watches to see how the war in Afghanistan unfolds following the departure of all U.S. and coalition troops by Aug. 31, many people in the country are feeling betrayed, disappointed, and abandoned. They blame the United States for the violence and killing being perpetrated mostly by the Taliban, which the United Nations said is at a record high.

Among the critical voices is Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women’s rights advocate and former politician who helped draft Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution, which guarantees a range of freedoms, including equality for women. She was twice elected to Parliament and was the ambassador to Norway. As founder and editor of Aina-e-Zan (“Women’s Mirror”) weekly newspaper, she was World Press International Editor of the Year in 2004.

Since leaving government, Barakzai said she is “raising my voice against the injustice that’s happening in my country, and especially what’s going to happen to women and the great achievements we have had in the past 20 years” if the Taliban win a military victory and reestablish an Islamic emirate.

As the world watches to see how the war in Afghanistan unfolds following the departure of all U.S. and coalition troops by Aug. 31, many people in the country are feeling betrayed, disappointed, and abandoned. They blame the United States for the violence and killing being perpetrated mostly by the Taliban, which the United Nations said is at a record high.

Among the critical voices is Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women’s rights advocate and former politician who helped draft Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution, which guarantees a range of freedoms, including equality for women. She was twice elected to Parliament and was the ambassador to Norway. As founder and editor of Aina-e-Zan (“Women’s Mirror”) weekly newspaper, she was World Press International Editor of the Year in 2004.

Since leaving government, Barakzai said she is “raising my voice against the injustice that’s happening in my country, and especially what’s going to happen to women and the great achievements we have had in the past 20 years” if the Taliban win a military victory and reestablish an Islamic emirate.

Barakzai talked to Foreign Policy about her deep disillusionment with the United States’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, what challenges must be overcome if perpetual war is to be avoided, and where she sees her country and herself in five years. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: What is your assessment of the situation in Afghanistan now, following the announcement by U.S. President Joe Biden that all U.S. military forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Aug. 31?

Shukria Barakzai: The decision handed extreme power to terrorist networks. They believe they defeated the United States and they feel victory. It was a big strategic mistake. After 20 years without any positive result, washing your hands, turning your face, and putting your head down and saying nothing about Afghanistan—even at the press conference, saying ‘let’s talk about happy things,’ it was very disappointing. I had great hope that U.S. Presidents Bush, Obama, and even Trump were keen to win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, to deliver democracy, nation building, state building, supporting Afghanistan, defeating the Taliban, kicking out all the international terrorist networks from the country, supporting women’s rights, that they were standing with the people of Afghanistan. It seems to me those days are gone, and right now, we have to stand on our own two feet. But it’s very difficult to see that the same experience of the Soviet withdrawal [a civil war under then-Taliban rule] is not going to happen again.

FP: Do you see civil war in the near future?

The United States has given a huge platform to the Taliban, given them international recognition and prestige.

SB: It’s not civil war anymore because the Afghan government and security forces are not facing local Taliban. They are fighting against Pakistani militants, Chechens, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al Qaeda, the Islamic State. The name Taliban is just an umbrella for all other international terrorist networks.

The United States has given a huge platform to the Taliban, given them international recognition and prestige. I don’t think they should have signed the Doha Agreement [former U.S. President Donald Trump’s pact with the Taliban in February 2020], which has essentially imposed a Taliban return to power on the Afghan people.

I don’t know how they will answer to the American people on what they have achieved in 20 years in Afghanistan. I appreciate the great job of the people: the men and women. They served Afghanistan with uniform and without uniform. I do appreciate and am grateful for their humanitarian aid and assistance. But when it comes to the big policy, they just want to close the chapter after 20 years, trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and their prestige globally and internationally. I think no one can trust them anymore as a reliable partner. If they come back, it will be hard for Afghans to trust them.

 FP: How will the Taliban be included in future governance of Afghanistan? Militarily or politically?

SB: Politically, they must accept the constitution. Then, their legitimacy will come from the vote of the Afghan people. If they come to power by military means, the Taliban will once again impose an Islamic-type of regime, which they are already doing in some parts of the country.

A political return would be welcomed, definitely, by the people of Afghanistan because we will have peace. The system we have will show their limitations. The constitution wasn’t a gift from the Western world to us. I struggled for it. I traveled almost seven months village to village to raise awareness of what a constitution is and to collect ideas. Having equal rights in the constitution for men and women, it wasn’t for free. Having freedom of expression, elections, power sharing among the government structure, and putting moderate values such as human rights alongside Islamic basic values. It wasn’t an easy job, but we made a constitution. So when the Taliban come and join politically, they will have to follow the rules of the constitution, and that constitution will allow the people of Afghanistan to decide who should be their president, their ministers, what laws they want.

Unfortunately, right now it seems they are winning and taking power by military force, and that means they are trying to bring back their own regime, which will mean the return of a dark age for Afghanistan. That would be a catastrophe.

FP: What would that mean specifically for Afghan women?

[The Taliban] are trying to bring back their own regime, which will mean the return of a dark age for Afghanistan. That would be a catastrophe.

SB: It would be a big loss. It would mean we would have to start again from scratch to achieve what we have in the past 20 years. But, of course, the Taliban will not allow us to remain alive. We are already on their hit list of people to be killed, along with journalists, civil society. Even government employees. It’s not about our lives. It’s about the future of this country. 

FP: Can you project five years in the future and see what Afghanistan looks like?

SB: I still have very positive thoughts because if I lose hope, I may not be able to fight for peace, prosperity, equality, my country itself. I don’t want to lose hope. But there are two possibilities: We will witness Afghanistan as a marginalized country, not dissimilar to Syria, or we will be again as we were five years ago.

I’m not saying 2016 was the good time, but it was much better than now. People had trust that they had friends globally. Afghans could travel with dignity. There was free media. Girls could go to school. Women were able to dream about one day being political leaders. The people of Afghanistan believed their political leaders needed them, and they were responsible and accountable to the people of Afghanistan because their vote was important.

FP: Where will you be in five years?

SB: If I am alive and in the same place? I am a fighter. I fought during the Taliban era. I ran underground schools when they were controlling more than 95 percent of this land. They beat me on the street; I didn’t stop. They tried three times to arrest and jail me. But they didn’t. I survived. I’m alive. I will continue with my work. This is not something I chose. I believe in human beings, equality, in women, in my country. I love my people. These things give me lots of power and positive energy. No matter how dark the clouds are, I am looking at the end of the night—there will be a sunrise. 

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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