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The world must evacuate women police in Afghanistan

Afghani women police during a 2015 graduation ceremony (Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Afghani women police during a 2015 graduation ceremony (Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Published 23 Aug 2021 09:30   0 Comments

Women police have been among the victims of targeted killings as the Taliban expanded their territorial gains over the last year, along with women judges, journalists and human rights defenders. In recent months, some women who served in the Ministry of Interior Affairs or Afghan National Police have fled Afghanistan due to direct threats to their life.

I’ve seen some of these dangers first-hand. Only a few days after I arrived in Kabul in March this year to conduct an assessment of gender-responsive security sector reform, a woman police officer survived an assassination attempt, but her husband, also a police officer, did not.

Women police are at particular risk because they are often seen as transgressing gender norms and “moral” boundaries of what is acceptable within religious and conservative practices and norms. Women police are not only at risk of assassination, violence or reprisal from violent extremists, but also from the community and their own family members.

One-third of women police in Afghanistan are ethnic Hazaras, a persecuted minority group.

Zala Zazai, a pioneering Afghan policewoman, who had already fled to a bordering country, told me last week after the Taliban takeover: “My sister and I were often threatened with death by my father and uncles for being police officers”. Compounding her fears is that her father is now a Taliban member and other male family members are increasingly aligning themselves with the group. Her sisters and mother are trapped in Kabul and in hiding from male relatives with no way to support themselves.

One-third of women police in Afghanistan are ethnic Hazaras, a persecuted minority group. This representation is relatively high given ethnic Hazara people comprise only 9% of the population. Financial incentives have been paid to women to join the police and participate in training courses and other activities, such is the challenge to retain them in an insecure environment inside and outside the police institution itself. The precarious socio-economic status and marginalisation of ethnic Hazara women likely contributes to their uptake of policing due to the few economic opportunities available to them.

Crucially, there is evidence of progress in that local support for women to work for the army or police has risen slightly to 39% – which leaves 61% who believe otherwise.* Nonetheless, advancing the United Nations Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in Afghanistan has sometimes drawn criticism for being a Western agenda, rather than a local aspiration.

An Afghan policewoman conducts a search in Herat province during 2014 elections (Aref Karimi/AFP via Getty Images)

In early 2021, women police in Afghanistan reached a proportion of 2.6% – or just over 4000 of an estimated 157,000 strong force. It was the highest ratio since the international community pushed to embark on gender-responsive policing reforms over a decade earlier. It is a paltry figure given the massive investment from state donors and international agencies.

Like other critiques of the suitability of international interventions in Afghanistan, efforts to promote gender equality include its fair share of mistakes. Indeed, the 2021 report by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction on lessons learned concedes that a failure to appreciate the Afghan context “undercut” efforts to advance gender equality – a reflection that is equally relevant to policing.

Women police are not only at risk of assassination, violence or reprisal from violent extremists, but also from the community and their own family members.

Fifteen years ago, retired senior Canadian police officer, Tonita Murray, identified a knowledge gap among international deployments in Afghanistan with respect to police advisors who have tactical, rather than strategic knowledge, and gender advisors who lack understanding of police institutions and cultures. This contributed to security sector reform efforts that were detrimental to advancing women’s recruitment and retention, such as the design of the tashkeel, the staffing structure for the Afghan National Police.

In traditional and Islamic societies, policing roles that include community engagement are typically the areas where women excel, where they feel they can make a meaningful contribution to public safety, and grow in confidence to reach higher ranks in traditionally male-dominated organisations in heavily patriarchal societies. Crucially, this does not mean women should be limited in the breadth of roles they can undertake.

Indeed, recent research on Afghan women police cadets and serving officers found a clear preference for roles where they could support vulnerable populations and female victim-survivors of gender-based violence. Yet, the staffing and deployment structures that were established under the advice of international advisors failed to account for the needs and desires of Afghan women and better matched the environment and conditions of women and policing from the donor states.

While there has been important progress in relation to efforts towards gender-responsive policing reform, it had not sufficiently advanced since Murray’s assessment a decade-and-a-half ago. There remained an over-emphasis on unsuitable infrastructure and tactical training and an under-investment in “civilianisation” and community-oriented policing which undermined the effectiveness of expenditure in relation to women’s meaningful deployment and participation.

Separated from her family, police officer Zala Zazai urges those undertaking evacuations to not forget the aggravated risk women police currently face. She told me:

Police women are in serious danger – even their families are threatened. Will they be killed or stoned to death? Police women and their families must be relocated to safer places. Women police are a great asset of Afghanistan and the people. We want a safe place to live.

The international community cannot abandon women police who have quite literally put their lives on the line to protect and secure the safety of their communities.


* This article has been updated to reflect new information regarding public opinion surveys.


Afghanistan: the right time to leave

A US military helicopter is pictured flying above the US embassy in Kabul on 15 August (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
A US military helicopter is pictured flying above the US embassy in Kabul on 15 August (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Aug 2021 11:00   0 Comments

Joe Biden is right to get the United States out of Afghanistan. Even as Kabul has been taken over by the Taliban, the case remains strong that after 20 years, the United States has fought its war in the country.

It is sometimes easy to forget that the president is also commander-in-chief of the US military. Biden appears to be someone who wants to be certain that the strategic aim he sets for the military on operations is both achievable and worth the lives of those service men and women who may die because of the orders he gives. In Afghanistan he felt that the mission no longer justified that risk.

The speed with which the Afghan military and political class appear to have been overwhelmed by the Taliban surprised not only the White House but nearly all other coalition partners. But perhaps counter-intuitively it will also likely have confirmed to Biden that his decision was the correct one. If all there is to show after spending two decades building up the Afghan military is an institution that is unable or unwilling to defend its population against an enemy that it outnumbers and outguns, then it’s not going to get any better with another two decades’ worth of effort.

The statement Biden issued on Saturday could not have been clearer about his belief that Washington had given enough:

Over our country’s 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history. One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.

US President Joe Biden discusses the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on 8 July (White House/Flickr)

There have been some calls for the United States to remain, in one case citing the Korean peninsula as a model for a long-term US presence, while others spoke of the “low, sustainable cost” as justification for a continued coalition presence. The Korea comparison is too strange to even critique, while the “low cost” argument neglects to mention the fact that the lack of US casualties was partially to do with the months of negotiations with the Taliban, during which they avoided targeting US troops. Were Washington to renege on the deal, the cost in US lives would start to increase again.

Moreover, the argument that a continued US presence in Afghanistan entailed a low cost ignores the price paid by Afghans themselves. Between 2014­–19, Afghan security forces suffered 45,000 deaths, nearly 3,500 in 2020, and hundreds more each month in 2021. The exact totals are difficult to tell because no official figures are released.

There was no realistic way in which Washington could throw more resources into the fray.

With these type of casualty rates, it is easy to see why morale was low among Afghan security forces. And without a government that they felt worth fighting for, or a military leadership that was capable of planning and conducting a coherent defence or a fighting withdrawal, then the Biden administration would have realised it had two choices – to double-down or fold.

There was no realistic way in which Washington could throw more resources into the fray. There are parts of the Afghan military that fought well and to the end. But there were not enough of them to “turn the tide” without enormous and extended coalition support to back them.

The idea that the war in Afghanistan could continue to be “low cost” (not that it ever was) amounts to a fantasy. Had Biden declared America was staying, the Taliban would have redoubled efforts to target coalition troops. And the idea that the Afghan security forces could continue to sustain hundreds of deaths every month without eventually needing much greater external support is a misnomer.

Whether the mission was “worth it” will be left to historians to decide. There have been marked improvements in many social indicators across the past two decades. The sustainability of such progress is now seriously in doubt. Recognition of the Taliban government by the West could be contingent on their adherence to international human rights covenants. A small carrot for sure, but sovereignty is something that the Taliban will seek because of the legitimacy and international legal cover it provides them.

There is also the continuing terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda and Islamic State elements within the country, although the attitude of any future Taliban regime towards them is uncertain. These groups also pose risks in other countries and other ways of dealing with the threat than occupying a country. If eventual Taliban rule over Afghanistan is not formally recognised, it will allow the United States some flexibility in undertaking operations against terrorist targets there.

Ultimately, however, the US commander-in-chief believed the risk to his soldiers’ lives posed by a continued presence in Afghanistan was no longer in the national interest. It was undoubtedly a difficult decision to make, but a hard one to argue against.


Afghanistan: Russia faces its own risks and uncertainty

The remnants of a Russian tank in the Panjshir Valley after the area was seized by mujahideen during the Afghan war of 1979-1989, are a reminder of a futile decade-long conflict (Reza/Getty Images)
The remnants of a Russian tank in the Panjshir Valley after the area was seized by mujahideen during the Afghan war of 1979-1989, are a reminder of a futile decade-long conflict (Reza/Getty Images)
Published 10 Aug 2021 10:00   0 Comments

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan offers some opportunities to Russia – but exposes it to greater uncertainty and risk.

Russia has long been ambivalent about the US/NATO force presence in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Moscow recognised, and valued, the stabilising role they played in the country over the past 20 years, restraining extremist groups and bolstering the Afghan authorities – thereby protecting Russia’s southern approaches.

Yet Moscow found the US military presence unsettling, close by its sphere of influence in Central Asia, and suspected America might look to make its stay more permanent, entrenching itself as a player on the Eurasian chessboard.

While criticising the US withdrawal as hasty, Russia may draw satisfaction from the inconclusive outcome of America’s long struggle in Afghanistan ­– recalling its own humiliating withdrawal in 1989 after a futile decade-long conflict waged to support its client regime in the face of mujahideen assaults.

Of particular concern to Moscow are Islamist extremist factions now operating in northern and eastern Afghanistan, reportedly including Islamic State veterans from Syria and elsewhere.

Yet such schadenfreude will be tempered by unease about what the ensuing turmoil now engulfing Afghanistan portends.

Moscow seems concerned less about who wins and loses the emerging Afghan civil war and more about whichever authorities gain sway in Kabul being able to impose some order on the country.

This reflects Russia’s key interest in preventing any spillover of instability and Islamist extremism from Afghanistan into adjacent Central Asian countries – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – with potential flow-on terrorist risks for Russia itself.

Moreover, on-going conflict in Afghanistan risks substantial outflows of refugees across its borders, imposing further strains and tensions on its neighbours. Curbing the damaging flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan, through Central Asia and on to markets in Russia, is another priority for Moscow.

Of particular concern to Moscow are Islamist extremist factions now operating in northern and eastern Afghanistan, reportedly including Islamic State veterans from Syria and elsewhere. Russia fears that these elements might seek to infiltrate and foment unrest in neighbouring Central Asian states, exploiting porous borders and close ethnic ties.

Moscow appears to regard the Taliban as less worrying in this regard, judging the group’s objectives as primarily focused on gaining power and control within Afghanistan itself.

Indeed, Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov suggests that, to the extent that expansion and consolidation of Taliban control in Afghanistan limits the threat posed by other Islamist extremist factions, this serves Russia’s interests.

Leaders of the Taliban and negotiators Suhail Shaheen (L), Shahabuddin Delawar (C) and Abdul Latif Mansoor (R) walk to a press conference in Moscow on 9 July 2021. Russia says the Taliban controls about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border and urged all sides in Afghanistan to show restraint (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

How then is Russia approaching the situation as the US military presence winds down?

Moscow has no appetite to get involved on the ground again in Afghanistan – that much is clear. Russia has learned the bitter lessons of its past Afghan involvement.

Instead, Russia is focused on bolstering the security of its vulnerable Central Asian partners along Afghanistan’s northern borders – especially Tajikistan.

The Afghanistan conflict does provide Moscow with the opportunity to demonstrate, and consolidate, its implicit role as the primary security provider for the former Soviet republics along its southern periphery – although it has a full defence treaty relationship only with Tajikistan. (Uzbekistan suspended its Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) membership in 2012, while Turkmenistan asserts a neutral status.)

Tajikistan is particularly exposed: impoverished and brittle, with long-time strongman ruler Emomali Rahmon (who emerged as leader from the savage civil war that engulfed the country in the 1990s) now looking to secure a power transition to his son. Russia maintains a large military base near the Tajik capital Dushanbe, focused on border security.

Pakistan is of particular importance, given the close (and not always helpful) role it has long played in Afghan affairs.

Already, large numbers of Afghan government soldiers and refugees have fled across the border into Tajikistan from northern Afghanistan. Tajikistan has mobilised its reservists.

Moscow has intensified diplomatic efforts to secure a political settlement that promotes stability in Afghanistan. It has hosted talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban (with whom it has been quietly talking since 2018, despite its proscribed status in Russia). Russia has also engaged with other key players, notably China, Pakistan and the United States.

Pakistan is of particular importance, given the close (and not always helpful) role it has long played in Afghan affairs. Moscow has stepped up its contacts with Islamabad, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visiting in April this year  – his first visit in nearly a decade. Russia has undertaken to intensify security cooperation with Pakistan – although Moscow will be careful to manage sensitivities in neighbouring India.

Russia will also be watching China closely.

The two countries have a shared interest in cooperating to prevent spillover of Islamist extremist activity beyond Afghanistan’s borders – in China’s case, fearful of contamination to Uyghurs in neighbouring Xinjiang. But Moscow will be protective of its leading security role in Central Asia.

And both countries have long-term economic ambitions in Afghanistan. China is eyeing copper and rare earth mineral resources, and is working to upgrade transport links through the Wakhan Corridor. While Russia hopes planned construction of energy and transport infrastructure through Afghanistan will open up economic opportunities through to the subcontinent and Indian Ocean.

But this all depends on whether security in Afghanistan can be assured.

For Russia, then, much is riding on what happens next in Afghanistan.


Is Pakistan fuelling a Taliban takeover?

It is hard to separate fact from fiction at a time when information amounts to heavy artillery in a broader political battle for support (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
It is hard to separate fact from fiction at a time when information amounts to heavy artillery in a broader political battle for support (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Published 5 Aug 2021 10:00   0 Comments

As districts fall to the Taliban one after another without resistance, the government in Afghanistan has squarely put the blame on Pakistan for the mayhem in the country.

This is because the Afghan officials believe that without help from Pakistan, the Taliban could not possibly takeover Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani chose to spark a war of words between Kabul and Islamabad in recent weeks after declaring Pakistan has played a “negative role in the Afghan conflict”.

But this effort to continually blame Pakistan is not only contrary to the evidence available on the ground but also presents a misleading narrative that masks the failures of the Afghan government itself. Oft neglected is the role of rampant corruption that delegitimised the Afghan government in the districts, allowing for an easy takeover by the Taliban. Rather than solely relying on brute force, which would require financial or covert military support from Pakistan, instead the Taliban is by and large seizing territory swiftly and regularly via local political deals over which Pakistan has no possible control.

It was the United States by negotiating directly with the Taliban that provided the group with legitimacy as an important player in the future of Afghanistan.

In fact, contrary to the claims of the Afghan government, Pakistan has been helping the Afghan National Army. Dozens of Afghan soldiers have crossed the border into Pakistan to escape Taliban attacks. In each instance, Pakistan has provided haven to the Afghan soldiers and returned them to Afghan authorities with respect and dignity.

But it is hard to separate fact from fiction at a time when information amounts to heavy artillery in a broader political battle for support. Claims that Pakistan supports the Taliban in a “double game” is one such fiction that has persisted despite evidence to the contrary. It has severely damaged both the US war effort in Afghanistan and also Washington’s relations with Islamabad.

For the Ghani government, blaming Pakistan as the force behind the Taliban achieves twin political goals. It strips the Taliban of legitimacy as a local Afghan-led movement that aspires to share in governing Afghanistan, and shifts the burden of responsibility away from the Afghan government to its neighbour Pakistan as a reason for the US failures. Not only is this tactic disingenuous, dismissing all opposition as “Pakistani backed Taliban” and skating over the reasons why the Taliban continues to win support from the Afghan people themselves, it ignores support Pakistan has provided for Afghans, either as refugees or the hundreds of thousands that have studied and worked in Pakistan.

Moreover, it was the United States by negotiating directly with the Taliban that provided the group with legitimacy as an important player in the future of Afghanistan. The Ghani government had resisted dialogue with the Taliban, only to see the United States change its approach out of frustration with the Afghan leadership for its deep-rooted corruption and mismanagement, squandering the chance to govern and develop Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to maintain support.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, in talks with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, November 2020 (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Numerous reports from the US government and international organisations over the past decade have highlighted rampant corruption across all levels of Afghan state and society. Bribery at the district level by police, squandering foreign assistance by the Afghan political elite, and nepotism in hiring for positions all reflect a lack of will within the Afghan government to serve the public that is now turning to the Taliban.

This generated immense international frustration that was best articulated by retired US General John Allen, a former commanding officer for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) security mission in Afghanistan, who in 2014 testified during a congressional hearing that the corruption, not the Taliban, posed the biggest danger to the Afghan government and US war efforts in the country. “For too long we focused our attention solely on the Taliban as the existential threat to Afghanistan. They are an annoyance,” Allen said. “Wresting back the institutions of governance from corruption must be one of your highest priorities...Corruption is the dry rot of democracy.”

Corruption, however, is only a by-product. The Afghan elite has drawn America deeper into domestic politics, relying on foreign assistance and US military support for their own survival. Recognising how the United States was becoming trapped inside Afghanistan, Pakistan continued to advise the United States for a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, even as early as November 2001, that could afford the United States an exit from the region, understanding that a fragile and corrupt Afghan government would not be able to govern Afghanistan for long. It is essentially this encouragement by Pakistan to push the United States for a swift political settlement and peace in Afghanistan that includes all key stakeholders, including the Taliban, that led to the deepening of hostilities in Afghanistan towards Pakistan and accusations of a “double game”.

Therefore, blaming Pakistan for supposed support of the Taliban is a useful tool to shift the burden of responsibility away from the colossal governance blunders of the Afghan government. But as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has said, “the country that is going to be most affected by turmoil in Afghanistan is Pakistan”, so there is still space for a negotiated political settlement for long-term peace. The question is, will the spoilers let it happen?


Man on a mission: Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan

Biden views the costs of the war in Afghanistan as cumulative and has long advocated for a policy that would bring closure. A chinook lands in southeastern Afghanistan, Dec 2019 (Army Master Sgt Alejandro Licea/US Dept of Defense)
Biden views the costs of the war in Afghanistan as cumulative and has long advocated for a policy that would bring closure. A chinook lands in southeastern Afghanistan, Dec 2019 (Army Master Sgt Alejandro Licea/US Dept of Defense)
Published 3 Aug 2021 12:00   0 Comments

President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan in a short space of time aligns with the priorities of the Democratic party, but it would be a mistake to view the decision as ideological and impetuous. Since Biden’s opinion on American involvement in Afghanistan has been relatively fixed for a decade, it would instead be fair to characterise Biden’s approach as stubborn. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Ending the “forever wars” has been a rallying cry on the progressive left in the United States since George W. Bush’s presidency, but the war in Afghanistan is not currently a burning issue in the public psyche. Democrats are focused on passing key parts of Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda while they maintain a slim majority in the Senate.

Americans in general are not unanimously war-weary and clamouring for an exit. Recent and historical polling reflects ambivalence and uncertainty among Americans, suggesting that there was political space for Biden to delay the Afghanistan decision.

“What I see now, sadly, is the onset of what is going to be quite a brutal civil war, considerable ethnic and sectarian displacement, assassination of government officials, millions of refugees.” – David Petraeus

In his speech announcing the withdrawal of US combat forces in April, the president argued that the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban represented a binding commitment and that failure to adhere to it would lead the Taliban to target remaining American forces.

Critics of Biden’s decision suggest that there was room to move diplomatically since the Taliban had already abrogated that agreement. Whether true or not, the agreement simply provided Biden with the opportunity to carry out the withdrawal. It was not the source of his certainty about the policy.

General David Petraeus, who managed the war effort in Afghanistan as CENTCOM Commander and then as the Commander of US and allied forces on the ground, summed up the most compelling case for remaining in Afghanistan in a recent interview:

We had – what I would argue – is a way of managing this…You cannot win in Afghanistan…We did accomplish quite a bit during that period of additional forces: we halted the momentum of Taliban, we rolled it back in key areas…we accelerated the training of the Afghan national security forces, and we began the process of transition of tasks slowly from our forces to Afghan forces. And that worked well for a number of years.

We were at a point where we had 3,500 troops on the ground. Surely that is sustainable in terms of the expenditure of our blood and treasure. That brought us 8,000 coalition forces; it enabled all the contractors who enabled the Afghan Air Force…

What I see now, sadly, is the onset of what is going to be quite a brutal civil war, considerable ethnic and sectarian displacement, assassination of government officials, millions of refugees…We will see the return of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State though I don’t see an immediate domestic security threat for the US in that regard…And we will see the reestablishment of the kind of medieval ultra conservative Islamist regime that was the Taliban.

In the absence of intense domestic pressure and with the knowledge of what America’s departure would mean for the people of Afghanistan, what explains Biden’s insistence on a full withdrawal now?

In addition to the more than 7,000 American service members who died during military operations since 9/11, a total of 30,177 service members and veterans have taken their own lives. US President Joe Biden walks through Arlington National cemetary to honor fallen veterans of the Afghan conflict, 14 April 2021 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Looking closely at the case laid out by Petraeus, we can see that Biden’s rejection of the argument for staying reflects a fundamental disagreement over costs and benefits. In his public comments on Afghanistan, Biden emphasises his sheer exhaustion with the use of American military force to provide what he views as short-term stability to Afghanistan and second-tier security benefits to the United States. As he puts it: “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

But the key disagreement between Biden and Petraeus lies in how they interpret the costs in this moment. Biden views the costs as cumulative and, in the role that he has assumed as America’s healer-in-chief, is advocating for a policy that would bring closure to the war in Afghanistan.

Americans’ ambivalence about Afghanistan is partly a function of the extent to which America’s post-9/11 wars have not represented a shared sacrifice. The wars were funded through deficit spending and fought by the less than 1 per cent of Americans who serve in the armed forces. But Joe Biden’s child served in combat (as did Petraeus’ son), and Jill Biden spent years working with Michelle Obama on initiatives to support military families.

On 8 July, Biden made a rare formal appearance before the press to defend the Afghanistan withdrawal.

The high cost of America’s post-9/11 wars has become increasingly evident in recent years. For example, many who enlisted in the National Guard – a part-time reserve component of the US armed forces – after 9/11 were expecting and anxious to go to Afghanistan but not prepared to make multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan over a 20-year period.

The phenomenon of coming home and attempting to reintegrate into normal life, only to go deploy again, created an additional level of trauma for those who had been in combat zones facing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the possibility of a traumatic brain injury. Many returned after multiple tours injured, broke, divorced and/or otherwise unable to cope. The Costs of War project recently reported that in addition to the 7,057 American service members who died during military operations since 9/11, a total of 30,177 service members and veterans have committed suicide.

On 8 July, Biden made a rare formal appearance before the press to defend the Afghanistan withdrawal. He showed no signs of wavering on his policy despite news that the Taliban was rapidly gaining ground. Biden pushed back on the idea that a Taliban takeover was inevitable, but he acknowledged that the United States needed to expedite efforts to relocate Afghan translators and that Afghan women and girls had reason to be very concerned about their future.

In this brief session, the president didn’t directly answer questions about how Americans should feel about the end of the longest war: Was it all for nothing? How can we leave the Afghans to suffer? For those of us who don’t share Biden’s certainty, I think it’s because we can’t quite let go of the idea that a different ending was possible.


China’s Afghan conundrum

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, 28 July (Li Ran/Xinhua via Getty Images)
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, 28 July (Li Ran/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Published 30 Jul 2021 10:30   0 Comments

Beijing traditionally looked with discomfort at the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, urging Washington to withdraw. Now, as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, China has changed tack, criticising the US for the “abrupt” nature of its exit. While not baseless, such criticism is indicative of Beijing’s growing anxiety about Afghanistan’s trajectory.

Partly this concern is economic. Chinese firms have first dibs on developing some of Afghanistan’s impressive natural resources. This includes the world’s second-largest copper deposit. But China’s overall economic relationship with Afghanistan is relatively small. It has other reasons to worry about its neighbour.

Chinese strategists have long sought to avoid what they view as the mistakes of the West in becoming militarily and even politically – beyond a certain level – entangled in unstable developing countries

First and foremost is maintaining a stable border. China’s most pressing security threat in Afghanistan is regularly said to be the independence-seeking militant Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor.

The Taliban has traditionally had a close relationship with the ETIM. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This “transnational jihadi formation” may be difficult to preserve should the Taliban leadership adopt a “realpolitik” approach to cooperating with ETIM to allay China’s concerns.

Aside from the general stability of Central Asia, China is also alarmed at the potential for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the so-called “Pakistani Taliban”, to benefit from the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Though the relationship is complex, the Afghan Taliban has long provided sanctuary to the TTP, said to have even extended to joint operations.

The TTP has explicitly sought to target China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, the Pakistani leg of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure plans. Attacking CPEC targets may have been an impetus for the TTP’s reunification in August 2020. The TTP claimed an attack on a Baluchistan hotel hosting the China’s ambassador to Pakistan in April and may well have behind the recent attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, once known as the North-West Frontier Province.

The Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine being administered in Kabul, Afghanistan (Rahmatullah Alizadah/Xinhua via Getty Images)

So far, Beijing’s evolving Afghanistan strategy revolves around a growing panoply of diplomatic initiatives. Beijing has long cultivated ties with the Taliban, offering the armed group blandishments including “sizeable investments in energy and infrastructure projects” in exchange for peace. At face value, this strategy appears to be paying dividends. This month, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen promised – in what was an explicit reference to Xinjiang – to refrain from interference in China’s “internal affairs”. Visiting Tianjin this week, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China.

It is also an open question how China and the at best loosely aligned Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will succeed in brokering peace where the US and NATO, with actual assets on the ground, failed

Regionally, China has unveiled a five-point plan with Pakistan to align the two countries’ Afghanistan strategies as well as laying out a three-part roadmap at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes as members China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China’s nebulous initiatives both prioritise facilitating intra-Afghan negotiations and unspecified measures to combat terrorism. Beijing has also pledged to host peace talks, making it clear to Baradar that it expects the Taliban to meaningfully engage in intra-Afghan talks with the government in Kabul.

Beijing’s initiatives should not be dismissed out of hand. However, success is far from assured. There are obvious questions around the willingness of the Taliban to negotiate and the feasibility of sizeable Chinese investments in active war zones. It is also an open question how China and the at best loosely aligned Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will succeed in brokering peace where the US and NATO, with actual assets on the ground, failed.

Above all, experience has shown that the Taliban’s word doesn’t mean a great deal. Pakistan, for all its assumed influence, is yet to convince the Taliban to renounce the TTP. Nor has the Taliban honoured its promises to disavow al-Qaeda.

These realities are unlikely to be lost on China. Yet a military footprint is far from an attractive option. Chinese strategists have long sought to avoid what they view as the mistakes of the West in becoming militarily and even politically (beyond a certain level) entangled in unstable developing countries. Even in Pakistan, despite its extensive economic interests, China has begrudgingly relied on local forces.

However, if the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues its downward spiral, Beijing’s current approach may not be enough to protect its interests. Rising domestic nationalism and Beijing’s rhetorical claim to great power status, in the face of persistent doubts, may also push Beijing to assume a more assertive role. If so, history suggests Beijing will step into a quagmire.


Another proxy war in Afghanistan?

An Afghan cadet takes part in a firing exercise during a training programme at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai, India, in February (Arun Sankar/AFP with Getty Images)
An Afghan cadet takes part in a firing exercise during a training programme at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai, India, in February (Arun Sankar/AFP with Getty Images)
Published 26 Jul 2021 10:00   0 Comments

With the US in the process of withdrawing the last of its troops from Afghanistan, it has taken little time for fierce fighting to flare up in several parts of the country, as the Taliban seeks to wrest control from the elected government. Already, it has overrun large swathes of territory and is moving closer to the capital. Talks between the Ashraf Ghani-led government and the Taliban in Doha this month failed to produce a ceasefire agreement, and it is considered highly likely that the country is heading for another civil war.

This time, however, there is the very real potential that the conflict could bear the hallmarks of a proxy war between two of its closest allies, both nuclear-armed: India and Pakistan.

For its part, New Delhi is watching developments nervously, having invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan over the past decade, to the tune of around US$3 billion. With reports in recent days that 10,000 Pakistanis have crossed the border to fight alongside the Taliban – and with specific instructions to target Indian-delivered installations, India is rightly concerned that its work could be reduced to rubble, bringing with it the very fragile regional security across the entire region.

India and Afghanistan have historical ties, dating back centuries. The territory covered by modern-day Afghanistan was once part of India’s ancient Maurya Empire, and later, Mughals from the region travelled to India and taking control for centuries. More recently, Indian and Pashtun independence leaders lent support to one another in the 1940s, as India sought to break away from British rule and Pashtuns also worked to gain an autonomous state, while in 1950 the two signed a five-year Treaty of Friendship, signalling the start of official diplomatic ties.

In October 2011 the two countries agreed to a Strategic Partnership Agreement, which solidified their ties. It provided for assistance to help rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure and institutions, support education, encourage investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources, and to advocate for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan by the international community.

It is highly likely that India will be playing a larger role in Afghanistan’s internal security.

India has invested heavily in the Central Asian nation. Perhaps the biggest investment is the 218 kilometre Zaranj-Delaram Highway, near the border with Iran. The $150 million road connects to a ring road linking Kandahar in the south, Ghazni and Kabul in the east, Mazar-i-Sharaf in the north and Herat in the west, making it a particularly strategically important route.

In 2015 the Afghan parliament house was inaugurated, another of India’s projects. There is also the 42 megawatt Salma Dam in Herat, which the Taliban recently claimed to have taken under its control. India has also reconstructed a children’s hospital in Kabul, provided Jaipur Foot prosthetics to people who lost limbs in mines, has rebuilt various power infrastructure plants, restored the Stor Palace in Kabul, donated hundreds of buses, utility vehicles, military cars and ambulances, as well as three aircraft, among other projects. In all, India has undertaken more than 400 projects in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – and arguably, has invested more in its Central Asian neighbour than it plugs into its own underdeveloped regions.

The projects underscore just how vital a partner India sees Afghanistan to act as a bulwark against Islamic militancy, and in particular, the country that lies between them, Pakistan.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani in 2016 at the inauguration of the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam), in Herat (Omar Sobhani/AFP via Getty Images)

Each country has a lot to gain from shoring up its relationship with Afghanistan, and will go about it in different ways: India uses the soft power that results from its projects and investments, while Pakistan harnesses militant groups as proxies, which zigzag across its borders on both sides – including the Taliban.

For its part, Islamabad appears intent on destabilising the relationship of its two neighbours, clearly feeling vulnerable and threatened.

With the Taliban now asserting its might in the vacuum left by US troops, could there be the potential for Afghanistan to become the site of a proxy war played out by its antagonistic neighbours? Even if not, it is highly likely that India will be playing a larger role in the country’s internal security.

In recent weeks, the Taliban has launched multiple offensives against Afghan forces and the government of President Ghani, capturing entire districts and border crossings. However its claims to have taken more than 50 percent of Afghan territory (in some cases up to 85 per cent) are unconfirmed. The Taliban is said be moving closer to the capital and tightening its grip on the north. As a precaution, India has moved all of its Indian staff out of the Kandahar consulate. Kandahar, in the south, was the Taliban’s headquarters when it was in control of the country in the 1990s.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met with Ghani this month during a conference in Tashkent, along with US officials, to discuss the rapidly unravelling security situation in Afghanistan. And this week, Afghan Army Chief General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai is expected to visit India. It is this visit that will raise eyebrows: India does not have any of its troops in Afghanistan, maintaining that it doesn’t want to securitise its presence in the country. But Wali is likely to seek assistance during expected talks with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Indian army counterpart General MM Naravane.

According to a report in India’s Financial Express, Ahmadzai is expected to ask for military assistance such as aircraft technicians, along with technical equipment. Already, India has reportedly donated seven helicopters to Kabul and has been delivering military training to Afghan cadets. But as India supports an Afghan-led administration and installations that are owned and controlled domestically, it is highly unlikely that India will be keen to get boots on the ground.

But the screws are tightening, and not just between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The 26-year-old daughter of the Afghan Ambassador in Pakistan was abducted earlier this month and held for several hours in Islamabad. The ambassador and senior diplomats have since been recalled home. The incident also sparked a sharp exchange between officials from India and Pakistan. It’s a sign of a deterioration in ties between the neighbours, and an indication that Pakistan might be agitating to destabilise Afghanistan, in whatever way it can. It is all deeply concerning, as the last thing Kabul needs right now is a cross-border conflict to add into the mix.


Afghanistan, Australia and the visa conundrum

Since 2013, more than 1400 visas have been issued to Afghan support staff and their families allowing them to migrate to Australia (Defence Department)
Since 2013, more than 1400 visas have been issued to Afghan support staff and their families allowing them to migrate to Australia (Defence Department)
Published 13 Jul 2021 12:00   0 Comments

With the advance of the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan and the withdrawal of coalition forces, the question of how to help Afghans who worked intimately with Australian forces has become a significant media and political issue. Former Prime Minister John Howard, who dispatched Australian troops to the conflict in 2001, has thrown his support behind allowing visas for Afghans who worked with Australian agencies “where it is clearly the case that they could be in danger of retribution”.

Howard is right. There is no real disagreement that those Afghans who worked in close support of Australian troops during the conflict will likely be at risk from the Taliban and should be looked after. Since 2013, more than 1400 visas have been issued to Afghan support staff and their families, allowing them to migrate, and Australia should be justifiably proud of this achievement.

The more difficult question, though, is what responsibility the government has for those on the periphery of the Australian campaign in Afghanistan? This is the test of what constitutes, to borrow Howard’s words, “where it is clearly the case”.

Should locals in Afghanistan working for a foreign firm that won an Australian aid contract fulfilled years ago be considered for a visa, for example? Or should anyone working in any capacity as a contractor or sub-contractor for any organisation in Afghanistan funded by Australian aid dollars be automatically considered eligible to live in Australia along with their families?

To simply accept all claims would be a parody of good policy.

Anyone relying solely on the media for their opinion at present would be convinced that the Taliban had a ready database of any person who had taken a dollar from a firm with links to a foreign government and marked them for death as a consequence. Recent stories have warned of threats to an individual who claimed to have acted as an “informal interpreter” for an Australian-funded program years beforehand, critical of the decision to deny him protection. And the language surrounding the issue has been remarkable for its lack of subtlety. Locals working for development agencies are no longer simply contractors trying to earn a buck in a country where such opportunities were and are rare – instead they are “Afghanistan angels”. Any government decisions aren’t based on any reasoning; they are simply “dog acts”.

The unfair sub-text to these stories is plain – if the Australian government does not issue visas to anyone who claims a connection to the Australian effort, then the near-certain death of these Afghan nationals would be on Canberra’s conscience. But to simply accept all claims would be a parody of good policy.

Guarding a RAAF C-17 at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, November 2020 (Defence Department)

It is clear that the Taliban have on occasion attacked individuals working on foreign aid programs. As recently as last month, ten individuals working on a project to clear mines were shot and killed in their camp by unknown gunmen, which local authorities presumed to be Taliban although the group deny it. The Taliban wanted to isolate the country and to chase away foreign aid workers. It delivered threatening “night letters” and whipped up a climate of fear. The Taliban also had other tactical aims, including to take hostages in negotiations for the release of their own detainees or to receive ransom money.

Even among those who fall on the right side of whatever line is drawn, there will be some refused a visa for a range of security, criminal or other reasons.

But the veracity of claims about threats in the present must be tested. The Australian government has every right (and a responsibility) not to accept such claims uncritically. It must also carefully scrutinise everyone whose claim may be accepted. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has already noted, for example, the possibility that just because someone had once worked for Australians or been paid as part of an Australian-funded aid project didn’t mean that they hadn’t subsequently supported the Taliban.

All coalition partners are facing commensurate challenges. Washington is grappling with the mechanics of processing visa applications from Afghans who worked for US agencies. Germany is struggling with the difficulties of defining who should be provided with a visa and who shouldn’t. A cook for a catering firm with a contract at the German base, for example? And for all the criticism that Canberra’s approach to the issue has generated locally, a former commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan is urging Ottawa to follow Australia’s example in resettling Afghans.

A “senior government source” has been quoted saying the Morrison government will be “generous” in approving visa applications for Afghans . This is as it should be. But the government faces a difficult choice. It must draw a line somewhere lest the program become a visa free-for-all.

Even among those who fall on the right side of whatever line is drawn, there will be some refused a visa for a range of security, criminal or other reasons. The government will be unable to say exactly why for privacy reasons, and advocates may be unwilling to say why for fear of exposing claims to public scrutiny.

Regardless, it is likely that no matter how honourable and generous the government’s intentions are with respect to the visa program, it will be criticised for not doing enough to help the Afghan people. A bit like the Afghanistan campaign itself.


Abandoning Afghanistan won’t bring peace

Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, on 1 July 2021, just before it was abandoned by US forces (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, on 1 July 2021, just before it was abandoned by US forces (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 Jul 2021 06:00   0 Comments

Bagram airbase, the nerve centre of US and allied forces operations in Afghanistan, turned into a ghost town over the American Independence Day 4 July weekend. Reports indicate that US forces left in the dead of night on 2 July without informing their Afghan counterparts.

Afghans are stunned that the Americans packed up and left without the slightest courtesy of communicating their exit to an ally that lost at least 703 security forces personnel in June alone and over 64,100 troops since the war began in October 2001. The ensuing silence at Bagram airbase to many Afghans symbolises that their country has been abandoned and left to defend itself against the onslaught of the Taliban.

The departure of American and allied forces leaves behind an Afghan ally that is fighting for survival. US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021 – now flagged to be brought forward to 31 August – and bring “a responsible end” to America’s involvement in Afghanistan’s war will likely have the opposite effect. The departure of the American military and the loss of the strategic weight it characterised is likely to push the country closer to civil war.

Bagram airfield in the north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on 5 July 2021 (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The prospect of a civil war is increasingly real as thousands of civilians arm themselves to fight Taliban advances, a mobilisation the Afghan government does not control, which can metastasise into new challenges for a beleaguered administration in Kabul. Seeing the course of events, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan warned of “dire consequences”, and the outgoing US commander of Resolute Support cautioned of “civil war” as the Afghan government struggles to hold the line against Taliban advances.

While the US and NATO allies chose to fight but not win, the Taliban believed in fighting and winning and have remained focussed on achieving military victory by outlasting a superpower.

The likelihood of a civil war is not an exaggeration. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, noted that “the survival of Afghanistan is in danger”.

The Taliban have proclaimed victory against the US and are on course to declare a total victory should they displace Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The insurgents wagered they would win as the US gave up on defeating them long ago, claiming there was no military solution to the war in Afghanistan as far back as 2006. While the US and NATO allies chose to fight but not win, the Taliban believed in fighting and winning and have remained focussed on achieving military victory by outlasting a superpower. Already the Taliban have asserted victory as their shadow mayor in a Balkh district stated, “we have won the war and America has lost”. Such statements reflect the Taliban’s confidence in seizing power after the last remaining foreign forces have left the country.

As for the Doha peace talks, the Taliban will stay engaged so long as it boosts their legitimacy at the cost of Ghani’s. However, the Taliban have no incentive to make concessions to Ghani’s government they view as nearing defeat. This point is underscored by the fact that the Afghan government is not a party to the US-Taliban peace agreement. The Taliban will play along in the Doha talks because it has delivered them a political gift of appearing like a government-in-waiting or in exile. As the Taliban wave the Doha deal as a reason to force all international military personnel to withdraw, it seems the only visible outcome the Doha talks have produced is photo opportunities with the Taliban.

Abdul Salam Hanafi, member of the Taliban negotiating team, speaks to journalists at the start of the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar, September 2020 (Arne Immanuel Bänsch via Getty Images)

The Taliban are making a concerted push to capture northern provinces and districts, which in the mid-1990s posed significant resistance to a military takeover. The Taliban’s assault on the provincial capital Qala-i-Naw of Badghis province and numerous districts in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces demonstrate their aim to neuter any such resistance from emerging in the north. These northern provinces share international borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, which the Taliban seek to control to block any potential movement of militias, intelligence, or military support that might flow to anti-Taliban fighters or government forces.

The intensity of the fighting forced Afghan security forces to cross into Tajikistan for refuge where at least 1,600 retreated over the past fortnight after clashing with the Taliban. Although hundreds have been repatriated, such retreats raise questions about the cohesion of the Afghan security forces and whether they are at risk of disintegrating or melting away. While the cohesion of the military forces might be in doubt for some units, the Afghan National Army and its Special Forces have been actively fighting the Taliban to retake lost districts but have suffered heavy casualties.

The lightning speed with which the Taliban have gained territory risks triggering a mass refugee emergency in the millions, which is likely to precipitate if the Afghan government collapses.

As the fighting flares up, civilians are increasingly becoming caught in the crossfire, resulting in significant internal displacement. Taliban forces in the northern provinces have exacerbated the crisis by forcibly displacing civilians, looting and burning down homes, and retaliating against civilians for cooperating with the Afghan government. The lightning speed with which the Taliban have gained territory risks triggering a mass refugee emergency in the millions, which is likely to precipitate if the Afghan government collapses.

The Taliban have labelled the Afghan government an illegitimate puppet regime of the Americans worthy of dissolving in favour of their Islamic Emirate. This is a curious assertion to make given that the Pakistani military establishment runs the Taliban, its leadership is based in Pakistani cities, and are under the tutelage of a foreign power that provides strategic ballast to the insurgents to kill their own people. Moreover, the Taliban fail to recognise the paradox of calling an elected government illegitimate, having never endorsed or participated in any popular electoral franchise themselves, but believing in their absolute and uncontested rule.

The only actor the Taliban remains answerable or accountable to is not the Afghan people but the Pakistani military leadership in Rawalpindi. It is thus not a surprise that Afghans reject such an arrangement.

 
A policeman patrols in March this year at the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

 


Standing with Afghanistan: Inclusion and women’s rights in peace talks

Afghan women, young people, activists and elders rally in March to support peace talks and the government in Kabul, Afghanistan (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Afghan women, young people, activists and elders rally in March to support peace talks and the government in Kabul, Afghanistan (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Published 22 Jun 2021 13:00   0 Comments

The agreement signed by the United States and the Taliban in February 2020 sought to end America’s (and Australia’s) longest-running war. After nearly two decades of conflict, the US and NATO allies committed to withdrawing all foreign military personnel from Afghanistan. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to prevent terrorist groups from operating on Afghan territory and to participate in talks with Afghanistan’s government.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban imposed a strict Sharia interpretation of Islamic law that included amputation, stoning to death of alleged criminals and systematic violations against women and girls. The US-Taliban agreement did not address these violations or the protection of women’s rights, even though the US government argued the protection of women’s rights was a reason for its 2001 intervention. The closed-door talks and the wish of the US for a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan raised fears that women’s rights would be traded off for a peace agreement with the Taliban. The current intra-Afghan talks have yet to address these issues substantively.

An agreement with the Taliban must not undermine the achievements made by women over the past 20 years.

The intra-Afghan peace talks began in Doha in September 2020. The two sides are negotiating a permanent ceasefire and the Taliban’s future role in governing Afghanistan. However, Afghans, especially women and minority groups, are sceptical of the talks and fear a return to repression. To date, the peace process in Afghanistan has been oriented around a notion of “peace now-justice later”. The Taliban have not clearly articulated their position on reconciliation, power-sharing, and/or governance. Their statement on women’s and minorities’ rights is opaque, and the positions inside the Taliban vary greatly. By contrast, the Afghan government has called for an immediate ceasefire and the establishment of an inclusive government that respects the rights of women and minority groups.

Even with sustained international and national campaigning for women’s rights to be safeguarded in the peace negotiations, women and girls have encountered increasing levels of violence in Afghanistan, including the targeted assassination of women activists and civil society leaders. Fawzia Koofi, a politician, and one of the women delegates on the government’s negotiation team, survived a shooting just before negotiations in Doha began. Women’s civil society groups have led numerous campaigns in Afghanistan, including a current one calling for a ceasefire that is responsive to gender equality and that protects women’s rights.

In a statement at the UN Security Council on 26 July 2019, Jamila Afghani, the representative of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom-Afghanistan, emphasised how much has changed in Afghanistan since the Taliban ruled and the role of the international community in protecting and advocating for women’s rights and participation in the peace process:

Afghan women today are not the women of 30 or 40 years back. We know our rights granted by our faith and granted by the constitution of Afghanistan as well as required by the international conventions ratified by Afghanistan. The international community must stand with us at this crucial moment and ensure that our rights will not be compromised for a political peace deal.

Nevertheless, in March this year only one woman, Dr Habiba Sarabi, was invited to the Moscow conference on the Afghan peace negotiations that included delegations from the government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, and representatives from Russia, US, China and Pakistan. In the current Doha negotiation, women’s representation is not much better. There are only four women delegates on the Afghan government’s 21-person negotiation team – Habiba Sarabi, Fatima Gailani, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak and Fawzia Koofi – and no women delegates on the Taliban side.

Taliban delegation members at the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, September 2020 (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Dr Sarabi will speak this week at a Monash University-sponsored event on Women and International Peace and Security in Afghanistan on 24 June. Greater international recognition of the urgent challenge facing women in Afghanistan is crucial, and this event marks an effort to broaden that awareness, especially given Australia’s longstanding role in the conflict and in peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The conference will focus on women’s participation in the negotiations and the importance of protecting women’s human rights.

Growing research evidence demonstrates that inclusive processes result in peace agreements that are more likely to last and that incorporate provisions securing women’s substantive participation in the post-conflict society. To advance the goals of gender inclusion, the newly formed Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace (AMIP), a consortium of Afghan civil society representatives, has proposed creating a Specialised Gender Advisory Board comprising 20 women members to channel women’s voices to the peace negotiations.

Peace in Afghanistan is possible, as signalled by the intra-Afghan talks. But the hasty withdrawal of all foreign troops may also suggest a withering of international support for the peace process and the stability of Afghanistan. An agreement with the Taliban must not undermine the achievements made by women over the past 20 years.

International actors, including Australia, must continue to press all sides in the peace negotiations to protect women’s rights, including the 30% gender quota in the lower house of the Afghanistan parliament (Wolesi Jirga). Such protections should be made conditions of international aid. As it withdraws its military personnel and closes its embassy in Kabul, the Australian government must recommit to its foreign policy gender equality strategy: it must ensure that all aid to Afghanistan is in line with Australia’s commitments under the 2021-2031 National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in order to stand with Afghan women and girls.