When the Only Woman in the Room Has to Stare Down Warlords

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“Why should I be the only woman in the room?”

It’s a question most women have asked themselves at least once in their career. In this case, it was Habiba Sarabi raising the issue. She was one of a 16-member delegation of Afghan government and political leaders at a summit in Moscow last week with a 10-man team sent by the Taliban. And the sole woman representing her country.

When it’s warlords and the men who’ve dominated Afghanistan’s political landscape for decades negotiating over the spoils of their war-ravaged country, you know you’ve got a problem. And when the main decision under discussion is the timing of the U.S. troop withdrawal, it is impossible to make the right call for a nation facing another turning point in its troubled history.

It has been a rocky 13 months since the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal in Doha — an enormous political gamble by anyone’s standard that hinges on the withdrawal of American soldiers in exchange for a Taliban pledge to cut ties with all terrorist groups and prevent the country from becoming a haven for militants. Intra-Afghan talks and a lasting ceasefire were also part of the agreement. Now the May 1 deadline for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan is just weeks away and there is a surge in violence and targeted killings, no progress on talks and open disagreement between President Ashraf Ghani and the U.S. over how to end decades of war.

Yes, there is a significant political risk for U.S. President Joe Biden, who is under pressure on several fronts in his first months in the White House. But there is much more in the balance than the fate of 2,500 American soldiers. There are very real fears that if a peace deal gives the Taliban a role in government, it will mean two decades of hard-fought progress for Afghan women — and the country at large — may be eroded by the hardline Islamist group. As a report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted in February: “The effort to promote women’s rights may be hampered by a growing narrative in Afghanistan that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.”

There are lessons here — hard lessons — from another country in crisis. In Lebanon, the deeply despised political class is still fighting over the ruins of a capital city blown apart last August by their own neglect and a currency that’s lost 80% of its value since 2019. This political paralysis is a result, in no small part, of the peace deal negotiated at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

It was here that the powerful militia leaders from Lebanon’s three main religious sects — Sunnis, Shiites and Christians — simply laid down their weapons, divided power among themselves and took control of the parliament, where most of them remain to this day.

The ensuing chaos, worsened by the decade-long Syrian war and the influx of 1.5 million refugees across the border, has seen hyperinflation, long leaderless periods, and destructive meddling by regional powers including Iran and Saudi Arabia. The presence of mass graves containing some of the thousands missing from the 15-year war, still to be unearthed, identified and laid to rest by their loved ones, only intensifies citizens’ pain.

When warlords and powerful political clans bring an end to conflicts without the involvement of their fellow civilians, the old tensions and hurts just continue under another name.

It is headed that way now in Afghanistan, where women, youth and minorities have been mostly shut out of peace talks and any notion of transitional justice or a truth and reconciliation process is viewed by political leaders as too contentious to raise. Instead, former Mujahideen leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known as the “butcher of Kabul,” have a seat at the table.

Yet in a nation with one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the world — around 63% of 27.5 million Afghans are below 25 years — it is these very people who will have to live with, and implement, whatever is ultimately negotiated in the many peace summits in Moscow, Doha or in Istanbul next month.

For the process to have any chance of success, citizens from all parts of society must be involved, says Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Inclusion is not having one woman, like Sarabi, or four women in the room as is the case with Ghani’s official government delegation in Doha, says Akbar, who has been pushing both sides to bring in female experts in the economy, law, politics and security. “Women are half the country,” says Akbar. “We should be consulted on every level of the process.”

And then there’s the Afghan public. “They are the main constituency who will benefit from the outcome of this peace process. It is not just about a bunch of middle-aged or older men, it is a population, a young population, who will have to live with this for the rest of our lives.”

When the Only Woman in the Room Has to Stare Down Warlords

Right now, the space for public discussion and participation has withered as the campaign of targeted killings — of female judges, journalists and other civil servants — has gathered strength. “The peace process is completely detached from the daily concerns of Afghans because we do not have the space or ability to safely gather to discuss our concerns,” Akbar told me. “Our voices are being silenced because of this campaign of terror.”

Importantly, victims must be included in the talks. In a war with so many civilian victims on all sides, from night raids, air strikes, IEDs and suicide attacks, it would seem an extraordinary omission to fail to provide a process for their experiences to be shared and discussed.

Neither side is willing to take the first step toward transitional justice, truth-seeking and accountability. Victims’ issues, Akbar says, are viewed by the international community as too destabilizing. And that breeds a culture of impunity. “If we want to have lasting peace, we have to be able to look these victims in the eye and say, collectively, that we are going to make sure this will never happen again.”

Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar, in New Delhi last week to meet his Indian counterpart, agreed there could be no lasting peace without some form of transitional justice, but acknowledged, “We are far from that discussion with the Taliban, unfortunately. We just want them to come to the table for serious negotiations, and this will be one of the key topics for us to discuss with them.”

There’s no doubt, says the deputy director of the U.S.-based Wilson Center, Michael Kugelman, that “Washington is looking for the most expedient option possible,” which will probably leave Afghan civil society representatives without a say in their own future.

And there’s a strong chance that if foreign troops remain after May 1, the Taliban will accuse the U.S. of violating their agreement and walk out of the intra-Afghan dialogue, he says. “The Taliban would redeclare war on the U.S., a fragile peace process would die, and Afghanistan’s already horrific violence would intensify.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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