A new animated film called “The Breadwinner” was screened in October at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. It’s a touching tale of an Afghan family’s hardships under Taliban rule, which began in 1996. The protagonist is an 11-year-old girl who disguises herself as a boy to move freely outside her home so she can provide basic needs for her family.
In many ways, life has dramatically changed since the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan loosened in 2001 after the U.S. declared its “War on Terror” in response to the 9/11 attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden, then the head of al-Qaeda who was living in Afghanistan.
In other ways, however, life remains just as bleak. Despite being kicked out of government, the Taliban is still very much alive, and even thriving, in the country that now holds the dubious distinction of being the longest war in American history. It has regrouped into an ongoing insurgency that disrupts daily life and is estimated to hold sway over 50 percent of the nation. The Taliban has demonstrated its resiliency through terrorist attacks that continue to strike the heart of civil society in places such as markets and restaurants in major cities, as well as government, police and military facilities. These security concerns have been bolstered by the Islamic State, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, joining the jihad.
In response to the ongoing instability, President Trump announced in August that he would send several thousand additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to join the 8,400 already stationed there. While that number is still far below the 30,000-troop surge that President Obama ordered in 2009, Trump did not put a timeline on how long troops would stay in the country, despite longstanding promises to extricate the U.S. from the 16-year conflict.
Trump’s troop buildup could push the costs of the war in Afghanistan to well over $1 trillion. The president stressed, however, that his strategy hinges on countering terrorism, not nation building.
That Herculean task falls to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat who recently admitted to the BBC that he has “the worst job on Earth.”
That’s not to say the country has not made significant strides since the fall of the Taliban, because it has. Infant mortality has dropped and life expectancy has jumped, while access to basic health services and education has soared.
But by most measures, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, most corrupt and least-developed nations in the world. Ghani has embarked on an ambitious reform agenda that would tackle the country’s endemic corruption, professionalize its security forces and wean the economy off foreign aid. Equally ambitious is his vow to retake control of about 80 percent of the country’s territory in four years.
Key to Ghani’s vision is a peace agreement with the Taliban, an elusive goal that has bedeviled past administrations. Trump’s recently announced strategy has a similar endgame: Train and assist Afghan forces to strengthen their capabilities on the battlefield and pressure the Taliban to the negotiating table.
For years, however, the Taliban has been reluctant to participate in peace talks, especially since the killing of its leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor by a U.S. drone strike in May 2016.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the U.S. was launched January 2016 with the goal of peace and reconciliation, but the QCG has not yet yielded measurable progress. The group met in mid-October to revive talks, but the Taliban stated that it wants “nothing to do” with the effort. Ghani has also complained that, with myriad international actors in the picture, there are too many separate tracks attempting to achieve peace in Afghanistan.
So, how can the moribund peace process advance? Consider the overlooked half of Afghan society: women.
Afghanistan has a population of 34 million, with a ratio of one female to every male, according to CIA stats.
Granted, women playing a role in the peace process is very tricky, given that Afghanistan is often labeled one of the world’s worst countries in which to be a woman. Oppression and abuse are rampant. In 2008, Global Rights estimated that almost nine out of 10 Afghan women face physical, sexual or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage. In the majority of cases, the abuse is committed by someone close to them, such as a family member. Women who speak out often face retribution and sometimes death.
So allowing women to play a greater leadership role in such a repressed society is wrought with cultural obstacles, and yet, it is not impossible. It is far from a mainstream idea, but it’s beyond a mere theory. The country, which only 17 years ago was ruled by a regime that kept women in the dark literally and figuratively — they could not work, could not leave their homes without a burqa and male accompaniment, faced public beatings and were denied education — is actually trying it out, with mixed results.
Ghani has said that women should be involved in the peace process, and he has made pointed efforts to appoint women to senior government positions. Women now make up 27 percent of the Afghan parliament. So far, however, women have been largely excluded from peace talks. According to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), women served a formal capacity in only two of 23 rounds of talks between the government and the Taliban.
The think tank points out that when women participate in a peace process, the resulting agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. Yet research shows that in major peace processes from 1990 to 2017, women made up just 2 percent of mediators and 8 percent of negotiators. In fact, the majority of peace agreements signed from 1990 to today include zero female signatories, according to CFR.
Attitudes are beginning to shift, however. As U.S. Gen. John Allen said at a CFR symposium on the issue in December 2016, “No society has ever successfully transitioned from being a conflict-ridden society to a developing society unless women were a part of the mainstream.”
Afghanistan is at least paying lip service to this rhetoric. It signed onto U.N. Resolution 1325 that reaffirms the important role of women in preventing and resolving conflicts, including their participation in peace negotiations. In 2015, the country came out with its National Action Plan (NAP) for implementing the resolution. The plan acknowledges that the constitution upholds gender equality.
It also contains a section on “Women’s Participation in the Peace Process,” which mentions inclusion of women in the High Peace Council (HPC) that was established to facilitate reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Initially, nine of the 70 members were women. The NAP also counts 71 women as active in provincial peace committees and secretariats in 33 provinces.
The plan acknowledges the increasing role of women in the security sector (police and military) and civil service, but it is “not enough in order to respond to emerging needs of women.”
The government states it is “determined to increase women’s participation in the security sector by eliminating significant obstacles such as improper traditions, bias, and insecurity.” Female security officers, for example, are often able to access areas closed off to men where they can gather potentially valuable intelligence. The government said it also seeks to establish “policy and legal frameworks that protect women who participate in conflict resolution, and strengthen their role at the negotiating table and in the security sector.”
So far, however, the NAP has failed to produce any type of implementation plan. A workshop was held in 2016 in Kabul to discuss implementation, with no resulting strategy.
There have been some sporadic efforts to include women in the peace process. In 2015, for instance, women participated in preliminary talks with the Taliban in Norway. In the eastern province of Kunar, a jirga, or assembly, of elderly women held talks at the houses and hideouts of insurgent fighters to persuade them to renounce violence. Female members of the provincial peace committees have at times helped persuade insurgents to lay down their arms, release hostages or join peace talks.
But by and large, women have been either completely absent from formal negotiations or relegated to modest, token roles.
“The problem is that the strategies and policies are terrific but the actual implementation — there’s lack of political will, cultural barriers, structural barriers,” Mariam Safi, founding director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS) in Afghanistan, told The Diplomat.
“There has been progress in the state of women and girls in Afghanistan, but progress has been uneven,” said David Hartman, director general of Asia development for Global Affairs Canada, at a panel held after “The Breadwinner” screening at the Canadian Embassy that included Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani.
The fact that the president of Afghanistan allows his wife to play such a public role is itself a sign of progress. The soft-spoken Mrs. Ghani is not a mere token. She is involved in policymaking and entertains citizens, particularly women, in her office to discuss their concerns. While she steers clear of engaging in politics, she does travel and speak internationally. She is Afghanistan’s first first lady to have a public role since the 1920s.
Mrs. Ghani has lamented that the West often portrays Afghan women as victims. “The Western media has depicted the Afghan woman as a helpless, weak individual,” she said at a conference in Berlin in 2015. “I have said it before and I shall repeat it: The Afghan woman is strong, the Afghan woman is resourceful, the Afghan woman is resilient.”
Yet Mrs. Ghani, who is Lebanese and Christian, is not the norm for women in Afghan society. The Taliban may no longer be in power, but most Afghan women still face severe cultural constraints, particularly in rural areas where tribal customs prevail.
Since 2001, however, with the increasing involvement of Western powers in Afghanistan, there have been awareness-raising efforts to sow the seeds of empowerment among women and girls, and institutional changes have opened doors for women to participate in public life. Women are starting to gain economic power as a growing number of them enter the workforce, more so in cities than in rural areas. But with this shift has come a new form of marginalization: Women becoming token figures in civil society. The peace process is a prime example; although there are women in the High Peace Council, they are not effectively involved in negotiations with the Taliban.
Women “face blockages of having their voices heard by men in the High Peace Council,” said Safi. “When they are holding team meetings, the doors close and we are kept out of it. When there are field trips to the provinces, we are not informed, not asked to participate. You’ve taken women into the High Peace Council, but you haven’t given these women an enabling environment to execute their roles and responsibilities.”
A regional conference was held this year in Afghanistan that resulted in a joint statement resolving to have a group of 15 women meet directly with the Taliban to call for engagement in the peace process. Whether this actually comes to fruition remains highly uncertain, given the Taliban’s fervent belief that women belong behind closed doors, not at the bargaining table.
“We have not seen a female member of the High Peace Council in bilateral group talks or direct talks the Afghan government had with Taliban. Their roles are still symbolic,” Safi said.
Despite setbacks, the country has made headway on raising awareness of the importance of women’s rights, although advocates fear any gains are fragile — and tradable.
“Yes, the rights are in the constitution and not heeded in practice, but one of the great fears of the women is that those rights will be taken away, either in a peace agreement or parliamentary move,” Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the first U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues, told The Diplomat. “There is a real understanding of how far they’ve come during those terrible times [of Taliban rule] and what they’ve lived through. There is now a whole generation that sees their lives differently. I think women are taken seriously. In every home, perhaps not, [but] the women in Afghanistan have their share of influence.”
The Path Forward
First lady Ghani spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in October about women as peacemakers, and she encouraged entrepreneurialism among Afghans as a way out of poverty.
She was also clear-eyed about the role that women can play in the peace process, saying she had “no illusions” that women are currently a serious part of the negotiations.
But she also pointed out that the Taliban is not the only source of instability in the country. She says that violence, not only against women but in general, has become a fixture of Afghan life after 30 years of war. Changing mindsets involves reducing violence as a whole and recognizing that instability comes not only from actors such as the Taliban and Islamic State, but also from ordinary Afghans.
“Violent interactions between Afghans is unfortunately still very common and though the rule of law is slowly gaining ground, we still have a long way to go before people’s mentality shifts from a mode of violence and open confrontation to that of peaceful interaction,” she said at the USIP event.
On that note, Ghani has been an advocate for Afghan police “Family Response Units” as a tool to help resolve family situations before they turn violent.’
The first lady is resolute that peace cannot be imposed from the outside and must be built from the ground up — starting at home. She argues that women have a role in peacemaking by playing greater decision-making roles in their own families. The family is a microcosm of society, and if women learn how to mediate and resolve conflict within their families, they are contributing to larger peace efforts.
Having more women enter the workforce also increases the value that women have in their families and in society. Currently, only about 20 percent of the Afghan labor force consists of women.
Education is also key. “We need to transfer real knowledge to women in Afghanistan,” said Ghani, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and met her future husband at the American University in Beirut.
Under the Taliban regime in 2001, the country had less than 900,000 students, all of them boys. Today, according to government statistics, that number has increased 10-fold, with girls comprising nearly 40 percent of those students.
But enormous challenges remain. Human Rights Watch notes that only about half of Afghanistan’s girls ever go to school, and by age 12 to 15, two-thirds are out of school. On average, females stay in school for eight years and males for 13 years, according to the CIA. Of Afghanistan’s total population, 38.2 percent is literate, and the gender breakdown is 52 percent for males and 24.2 percent for females.
When Ghani spoke at USIP, she said Afghanistan’s government is pushing for women to increase their professional qualifications, for instance in peacemaking, by providing them with the opportunity to take classes in mediation and law. The idea is that as women become more qualified professionally, their numbers will reach a critical mass.
“There has been a shift in how women see their own roles in the household and outside the household,” said Safi. “This is across Afghanistan because there are so much awareness-raising and capacity-building and training programs on what gender equality means. More and more women are aware of the possibilities and opportunities for them.”
“The message that women need to be a part of [the peace process] is taking hold,” said Verveer. “If they are ignored and sold short, as they greatly fear, then the peace will not be sustainable. To have a peace, you need reconciliation, and you need society involved. Women lead on the ground.”
As Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), a panelist at the USIP event, succinctly put it: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.