After years of violence, an initial peace agreement in Afghanistan appears imminent. Nine rounds of talks between the Taliban and US officials have focused on the terms for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign troops, and counter-terrorism assurances by the Taliban.
But these talks are only a prelude to a much more difficult intra-Afghan dialogue on a permanent ceasefire and future political arrangements. It would, for the first time, bring together the Taliban, the Kabul government and other constituencies.
There is broad hope, in Afghanistan and around the world, that these talks will result in a lasting settlement. But this hope is coupled with concern about the price of peace. Many fear, with good reason, that the return of the Taliban could threaten the progress made by women over two decades to secure equal rights to education, employment, and political participation. Also at risk are the democratic institutions and practices the Afghans have put into place since the Taliban were overthrown after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Under Taliban rule, girls above the age of eight were barred from schools, and women were banned from working and forcibly confined to their homes. In public, women had to be completely shrouded and were not permitted to speak above a whisper. Women were also punished severely for any semblance of independent conduct.
As US secretary of state, I heard multiple accounts of such brutal treatment from Afghan women refugees who had fled to Pakistan. I called the Taliban’s behaviour then “despicable”. The question is: have they changed?
Afghanistan certainly has. Much has been done to ensure the rights that the Taliban radically suppressed. Today, millions of girls are in school and women are community leaders, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, police, teachers and entrepreneurs. Women have equal voting rights and more than 400 ran for elected office last year. Any peace agreement must protect these rights. Abigail Adams famously urged her husband, the future US president John Adams, to “remember the ladies” in the push for American independence. Afghan peace negotiators must not only “remember” but substantively include them in the process.
The negotiators should also affirm that democratic elections will be used to select the nation’s leaders. Afghans across the country — both men and women — are preparing to hold presidential elections at the end of September, a process which has already been postponed twice and which is essential to reaffirming the legitimacy of the country’s institutions.
The Taliban have called the balloting a “sham” and warned people to stay away from rallies and polls. Some 2,000 of 7,400 Afghan polling stations will be closed due to threats of violence. Will the Taliban’s views change if they are brought into the democratic process?
The legitimacy of the country’s elected government rests on a credible electoral process. As the presidential campaigns continue, it is vitally important that all candidates and their supporters help ensure a fair election. The conduct of their campaigns and their compliance with electoral laws will determine the Afghan people’s confidence in that process and its outcome.
Afghan citizens remain committed to exercising their democratic rights ahead of the elections. Candidates are campaigning across the country. Media, non-partisan observer groups, and women and youth groups are monitoring and reporting on election activities, even in the most remote areas.
Flaws and fraud in past polling have not dissuaded Afghans from seeing the right to vote as fundamental. To enable political stability, democratic institutions must be affirmed and strengthened as a core principle in any negotiation.
The current and prospective peace talks in Afghanistan are an enormously complex undertaking with important implications for the region. But the interests of the Afghan people must remain front and centre. They have fought, at great human and material cost, to safeguard their human and political rights.
Peace must not come at the expense of the important progress they have made. Peace must not be made on the backs of Afghan women. Both the work towards a peace agreement and democratic elections need to move forward — neither held back by the other.
To secure the path to peace, both processes need the full ownership of Afghans and the robust commitment and support of the international community.
The writer is a former US secretary of state. Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state, also contributed