Road to peace in Afghanistan is missing critical path for women

Afghanistan is making headlines again. While peace talks and shuttle diplomacy by the United States government renewed optimism last fall, recent attacks and questions about American troop numbers complicate the current landscape. The new year marks the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, which began four decades of war and violent conflict in Afghanistan, so overtures of peace are welcome now more than ever.

But it seems that every time the possibility of peace is discussed, there arises the questions of what rights will be guaranteed and who will guarantee them. At times, the American government has conceded that the “roadmap” to the future of Afghanistan, including the freedoms and rights of women, will be a decision for Afghans themselves to make.

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Yes, Afghans must decide what type of society they are striving for. Still, the position of the United States as a partner remains important. The United States must maintain its commitment to advancing the rights of Afghan women and girls. If the United States fails to do so, there is a chance for that commitment to be relinquished in an effort to reach an agreement as soon as possible. This is especially true given reports that the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has recently been given six months to achieve peace.

At a conference last fall in Geneva, President Ashraf Ghani indicated the Afghan government is seeking to include the Taliban in a “democratic and inclusive society” in which the constitutional rights of all Afghan citizens, including women, are ensured. He also stated that women will be part of the Afghan negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. This is essential to any agreement. However, there is a risk that even this may be surrendered in the hope of ensuring that the Taliban comes to the negotiating table.

It is imperative that the voices, the interests, and the progress of Afghan women be represented. The tremendous gains made by Afghan women over the years, as well as their future and that of their children, should not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. While it may lead to a peace agreement in the short term, it will jeopardize stability in the long term.

Since September, Khalilzad has traveled across the region to gather support for peace talks. In November, he participated in three days of direct dialogue with the Taliban in Qatar. Last month, he completed a trip that ended with another round of direct talks in the United Arab Emirates. This is a departure from past American policy that had emphasized the need for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The discussions led by Khalilzad, the Afghan peace march last spring, the proposal by Ghani for a negotiating process with the Taliban without preconditions or ultimatums, and the three day ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban are all rare events. Time will tell if they herald the chance of an Afghanistan free of conflict. The Taliban actively participating in the talks at least signals open lines of communication.

There is some reason to be optimistic at the willingness of these three key players of the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban to take considerable steps forward. However, it is essential that all parties, including the Taliban, remember that for sustainable peace, an agreement must include certain commitments for all citizens. From protection of social freedoms and economic rights, to upholding the rule of law, to inclusive governance, these elements will ensure that all Afghans buy in.

Afghan women must be at the table and be a part of the peace process in a meaningful way. A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the last three decades found that inclusion of women resulted in the greater odds of an agreement, implementation of the accord, and sustainability over the long term. The United States and international community must do a better job of championing policies and programs that include the empowerment of women into global affairs and defense strategies.

It is incumbent upon the United States and the Afghan government to underscore the indispensable message that Afghan women are and must remain key participants in the fabric of Afghan society. What kind of future does the world want for Afghanistan? What kind of future are Afghans themselves working toward? Certainly no one wants another 40 years of war and certainly not a future where women are again marginalized.

The United States, Afghanistan, and international community must start the uncertain road to stability with a staunch commitment to the rights of all Afghans, including women. Anything less would not be worthy of the millions of Afghans who have lost so much and who yearn for a stable, peaceful, and prosperous country more than the world can imagine.

Farhat Popal is senior program manager of the women’s initiative at the George Bush Institute. She previously worked on international human rights programs with the State Department, evaluated reconstruction projects, and did research at the United States Embassy in Afghanistan.