Afghanistan talks: hopes for peace, but at what cost?

America’s longest-running war is edging closer toward a conceivable end. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Donald Trump acknowledged that talks with the Taliban might not succeed, but that “the hour has come to at least try for peace” in Afghanistan, noting his country’s casualties. He did not mention the Afghans who have died (24,000 civilians since 2009, and 45,000 members of the security forces in the last five years), let alone the nation’s broader suffering in the world’s deadliest conflict. Around half of Afghanistan’s population was not born when this war began, in 2001. Their elders have lived with conflict for most of the last four decades, since the Soviet invasion.

A country so fissured is united in its longing for peace as last year’s brief ceasefire, in which civilians, militants and soldiers celebrated together, showed. A US-Taliban agreement would be one step along that road. Yet Afghans ask at what cost a deal may come, conscious that those likely to pay the most are not negotiating the bill. Only two women are present at the talks between Taliban representatives and Afghan politicians, warlords and other powerbrokers in Moscow. These follow last month’s talks between US and Taliban negotiators in Qatar, which reached a draft framework under which the US would withdraw troops in exchange for guarantees that the country would not harbour terrorists.

The considerable obstacles that remain include, most obviously, the Taliban’s refusal to speak to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and his government. Hope for peace coexists with the fear that the US will leave as carelessly as it boosted intervention in 2017, when civilian deaths surged due to increased air strikes. The Trump administration’s lack of interest in human rights, and the president’s record of contempt for women’s rights, increases those anxieties.

Women – and many men too – are frightened about the possible terms of an agreement and very aware that they would essentially be unenforceable once US troops were out of the country. They are rightly frightened that it could dismantle the gains they have made, which fall far short of what is needed – patriarchal values and misogyny are hardly unique to the Taliban – but are nonetheless real, substantive and precious.

The Taliban’s statement in Moscow is clearly meant to dispel the memories of women being beaten and murdered under its brutal theocratic rule, as well as forced into burqas and barred from leaving their homes without a male relative as escort. It states that “Islam has given women all fundamental rights, such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health and right to good life”. Yet the words which follow are anything but reassuring, warning that “immorality, indecency and circulation of non-Islamic culture” have been imposed on Afghan society “under the name of women [sic] rights”. Despite Taliban pledges that they allow women’s education, schooling for girls generally stops around puberty in Taliban-controlled areas.

 Read more at The Guardian

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