What talking to the Taliban really means
by Horia Mosadiq
It looks as if the beleaguered Afghan government and its international partners have used human rights as a bargaining chip in order to reach some kind of a deal
After the murder of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president - who was responsible for dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, current President Hamid Karzai says he has halted direct talks with the Taliban and will focus on negotiating with Pakistan. Sooner or later, though, when dialogue with insurgents in Helmand and elsewhere resume, President Karzai and his international supporters will need to rethink how they approach any reconciliation.
At Amnesty, we have been warning about the "talks with the Taliban" agenda for a long time. To us, it looks as if the beleaguered Afghan government and its international partners have been tempted to use human rights as a bargaining chip in order to reach some kind of a deal with the anti-government armed groups. The underlying approach seems to have been: "If we talk about limits on the education of girls or consider new rules on segregating men and women in public places, will you stop the roadside bombs?"
Some 10 years ago, when the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban after 9/11, American Secretary of State Colin Powell vowed women's rights would "not be negotiable". Similarly, Tony Blair promised: "We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before." There were speeches by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair about Afghan women, and their plight under the Taliban became an international talking point.
A decade later, the situation for women in Afghanistan is undoubtedly better than it was during the dark years of Taliban rule. Most infamously, the Taliban banned the education of girls, and punished Afghans - men and women - who bravely ran secret schools for girls in private homes. Recent Afghan Ministry of Education figures show that about 2.7 million girls have been attending schools, and around seven million children of both sexes. But these trends have stagnated recently and are in danger of reversing.
Under Mullah Omar's rule - Afghan women were imprisoned in their own homes, unable to leave without a male relative to accompany them. Outdoors, they could be whipped for "immodesty" or face extreme punishments like being stoned to death for the "offence" of adultery. Women have now re-entered political life. They made up 40 per cent of voters in last year's parliamentary elections - braving threats from the Taliban that anyone found with the indelible purple voting ink on their right index finger would have that finger cut off. But Afghan women are now facing a sustained backlash from a resurgent Taliban and other anti-women armed groups. Recently - high-profile women including senior police officers, MPs and teachers have been targeted with death threats. Several have been attacked and some murdered.
Attacks on schools have been a favourite tactic of the anti-government groups, with scores closed down last year after school buildings were rocketed by armed groups or Taliban death threats made teaching impossible. And Taliban "courts" have ordered horrific punishments like the stoning to death of a young couple who had eloped, the shooting of a women for "adultery" and the mutilation of an 18-year-old woman - who had her nose and ears cut off because she'd run away from her abusive in-laws.
Meanwhile the international community sends out mixed messages. On the one hand, British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that lasting peace will only be achieved through the "active involvement" of Afghan women. On the other, the UK has hosted a major international conference on Afghanistan's future that all but excluded Afghan women. Meanwhile, the 70-strong Afghan Peace Council - over which Burhanuddin Rabbani presided - has just nine women appointed to it.
This approach flies in the face of policies approved at the highest levels of international decision-making. The United Nations Security Council has declared, in its resolution 1325, that women must be given a meaningful role in any effort at peacemaking and reconciliation. It is shameful that the UK, the US and France - along with other NATO and International Security Assistance Force members - are now ignoring their own decisions so blatantly in Afghanistan.
If and when talks with the Taliban resume they must be unequivocal on the need for human rights for women and girls, as well as for all religious minorities and all ethnic groups. There must be no immunity from prosecution for leaders - whether Taliban or, ostensibly, pro-government - with the blood of civilians on their hands. And there must be guarantees that human rights defenders in Afghanistan - whether journalists, women's rights advocates or foreign aid workers - will be able to do their jobs free from fear. A decade ago, world leaders went to war in Afghanistan with resonant declarations on women's rights. There can be no lasting or meaningful peace, if these are now sacrificed – or, indeed, if the voices of half the population are disregarded.
Horia Mosadiq is Afghanistan researcher at Amnesty International
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