After twenty years of “war on terror” the Taliban took power in Afghanistan on August 15th, 2021, following a hasty U.S. troop withdrawal and a chaotic evacuation. This raises multiple questions and concerns. Retrospectively, it questions the reasonableness and benefit of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, as well as the political peace process that culminated in the Doha agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban in February 2020. In terms of future developments, it also raises concerns about the maintenance of socio-cultural gains as well as human rights in general – and women’s rights in particular.
The military intervention of NATO allied armed forces in Afghanistan in 2001 had been initially legitimized by referring to collective self-defense as enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and to counterterrorism within the declared “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks. “Democratization” of the country and “liberation of women“ from the Taliban regime served as moral underpinning and legitimization for the military intervention. This is highlighted in Laura Bush’s famous radio speech on November 16th, 2001, stating that „the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women“. Linking the “war on terror” to the “liberation of women” from a misogynist Taliban, Laura Bush used Afghan women as symbols for the justification of war. The argumentative combination of ‘act of self-defense and counter-terrorism’ with the ‘liberation of women’ within the context of ‘war on terror’ reminds us of Gayatri Spivak’s concept of peacemaker masculinity, reflected in the saying “White men are saving brown women from brown men”.
The foreign intervention has certainly brought partial progress in terms of socio-cultural development for a limited period and for certain parts of the population. However, on the political level, after twenty years of war, with a total of at least 176.206 fatalities, the Taliban are again in power today. Afghan women, predominantly fighting by themselves for their rights, feel betrayed by both the U.S. and NATO mission on the one hand and by the newly established Islamic Emirate on the other. The withdrawal of foreign troops, the reduction of economic and humanitarian investment in the country, and the freezing of Afghanistan’s cash reserves additionally contribute to grounds for questioning the sustainability of the mission.
Women’s rights as subject of negotiation
Afghanistan’s conflict history shows that women’s rights and values have been neglected when geopolitical interests prevailed. In the 1970s and 80s, amidst the Cold War between the U.S and the former Soviet Union, the Mujaheddin, among them many conservative Islamists, were supported with the narrative of “liberation” of the country from Soviet occupiers. How far the situation of women and their rights would be affected by the support of conservative forces back then was completely neglected. Contextualizing women’s rights historically within Cold War scenarios reveals that women’s rights are not actively supported and can become subject to active instrumentalization. In such situations they are equally ignored and neglected when geopolitical interests are prioritized. On the whole, women’s rights seem to be increasingly vulnerable as subject of negotiation in contexts of armed conflict and different types of wars.
After 2001, the implementation of international conventions and declarations of the United Nations regulating the protection of women’s rights and their empowerment, inclusion and equality was supported. The Afghan Constitution of 2004 in its Article 22 states that “citizens of Afghanistan – whether men or women – have equal rights and duties before the law”. Manifold action and developments followed, such as the Afghan National Development Strategy stressing that “women will constitute an increasingly important voice in Afghan society and politics“, a National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan emphasizing “women’s empowerment and gender equality” or the National Action Plan of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda highlighting transparency, civic participation and accountability as well as “women empowerment”. However, while these certainly reflect important achievements on paper, they do not fully reflect in practice. As the following account reveals, putting these regulations into practice met with resistance from conservative forces within the former government that was supported internationally throughout the intervention. Many participants reported “backroom deals”, complaining that warlords and commanders dominated the process while women were silenced.
Women’s systemic exclusion and marginalization from high-level peace processes
Participation of women in peace processes exemplifies the missing implementation of these treaties. Starting with the first international Afghanistan conference that took place in Bonn in 2001, under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) to establish an interim government in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from power, out of an Afghan delegation of forty members only 10% were women, most of them Afghan women living in exile. The subsequent Emergency Loya Jirga, held in June 2002, was presented as “the most democratic process in Afghan history to date”; yet only about two hundred of the 1550 delegates who attended were women. These imbalanced gender distribution in decisive political processes, including presidential elections, continued until the withdrawal of the U.S. troops in 2021.
At the National Consultative Peace Council in 2010 in which the establishment of the High Peace Council (HPC) was decided, only nine female members compared to seventy male members were included. On the provincial and district level, smaller Provincial Peace Committees (PPC) included at least four women. This was the result of major campaigns led by women’s civil society organizations. At the auspicious peace talks held with the Taliban between 2018 and 2020 only one woman was present in the first Moscow talks, two in the second and third Moscow talks for instance, while their number decreased to zero in the final talks. No women were included in the Doha talks between 2018 and 2020, despite minimal, marginal intra-Afghan dialogue between the civil society and Taliban representatives.
These examples only offer a glimpse of the extent to which women were excluded or marginalized from high-level political peace processes and how the “discourse on women’s participation offered little consideration of the hopes and concerns of Afghan women themselves”. Putting into practice agreed-upon commitments were repeatedly neglected in national as well as international formats. The constant neglect towards women and women’s issues hence was not only a reality before and during the international intervention but continued during the evacuation process until today. A combination of international failure as well as religio-cultural barriers by conservative forces within the society and politics of Afghanistan beyond the Taliban to take women’s matters seriously explain the systematic exclusion and marginalization of women from high-level political peace processes and kept women at most engaged in peacebuilding on a low level.
Warnings by women human rights defenders
Months before the Taliban seized power over Kabul, women human rights defenders had already warned the international community about increasing violence and increasing power of the Taliban. A few examples of feminist civil society and human rights organisation show the process of the Taliban takeover in August 2021 came by no means as a surprise – but women were just not heard. Already in the beginning of 2021, Medica Mondiale, a German feminist human rights organisation, confirmed that human rights activists in the cities Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul felt that their lives were threatened. On April 13th 2021, the Women’s Regional Network warned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the absence of a secure Afghan state will cause increased human rights violations for women and girls. In May 2021, Amnesty International Afghanistan called on all sides of the peace negotiations to respect women’s rights and ensure meaningful participation in order to avoid a strong roll-back on women’s rights. On the 22nd of July 2021, the Afghanistan office of the feminist peace organization Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, wrote a letter to the United Nations Security Council titled, “Request for UNSC to perform its role in ensuring International Peace and Security. The need for a mission to Afghanistan.” This letter specifically addressed developments and violent attacks of the Taliban and the increasing danger for women peacebuilders. The letter specifically called to organize funds and visas for a safe evacuation of endangered women.
And still, the evacuation processes from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany failed to ensure a safe passage of women and endangered groups, as they were not prioritized as such. Reports from human rights organizations in Germany, such as from Medica Mondiale or Luftbrücke Kabul confirm severe challenges in protecting and assisting the evacuations up until today. Accordingly, without civil society and private initiatives, the rescue of many women could not have been achieved – indeed, many remain in life threatening situations in Afghanistan. Yet it is not only the limited infrastructure of western evacuation flights that dismissed women and other vulnerable groups. Problems occurred because of the western and liberal idea of the nuclear family, consisting of mother, father and child(ren) that has failed the security of many Afghan people, especially as relatives of local employees were left behind and did not count as family. Hence, deconstructing the meanings of social norms and meaningfully engaging with women human rights defenders is important at any time.
What about the women now?
The lack of political will by internal and external key actors as well as structural and cultural barriers to include women in significant decision-making processes leave the future role of women in the socio-political landscape of Afghanistan blurred. While demonstrations by women’s rights activists continued after the U.S. troop withdrawal to claim their rights and liberties, reports on the abduction of women’s rights activists by the Taliban circulated. The Taliban themselves denied an abduction of these activists. Many of the arrested activists have later been released. However, it remains contested who arrested them, why they were abducted, and why they have been released. Despite the known strict regulations as enacted by the Taliban towards women specifically, such as the wearing of the Hijab or the need for males to accompany women in public, other dimensions of conflict and violence further cement these challenges through structural violence mechanisms in the form of economic sanctions.
Since its troop withdrawal, the U.S. has frozen ten billion dollars of Afghanistan’s cash reserves, thus leaving Afghanistan and its people in one of the most devastating humanitarian crises. Poverty, lack of employment, hunger, restrictions in the health and education sectors as well as internal displacements and forced migration contribute to the continuation of structural violence that affect all citizens in Afghanistan and specifically women. However, these are mostly overlaid by reports on Taliban’s strict regulations and violence against women. While women have and still are affected most by multiple factors, such as war, exclusion from high-level political decision-making processes, cultural restrictions as well as structural violence in forms of economic sanctions, mass demonstrations against economic sanctions that affect major parts of the population and as imposed by the U.S. are barely found in Western broadcasting. Lack of transparency and unilateral dissemination of information about grievances of Afghans, male and female alike, are persisting. Again, Afghan women inside as well as outside of the country are portrayed as victims under a new oppressive regime. Oscillating between patriarchal and foreign hegemony, Afghan women tragically remain victims as well as their own saviors in systemic structures that are entrenched in different types of direct, structural, and cultural violence.
There is an urgent need for meaningful participating of Afghan women and women human rights defenders in and outside of Afghanistan to deconstruct prevailing narratives. Following the story of the conflict from the perspective of women human right’s defenders opens a new perspective of past years and especially highlights that listening to women’s voices can be an early indicator for conflict escalation. Women were not only active in advocating for human rights before the Taliban seized power the first time in 1996, but they were also engaged in peacebuilding actions after 2001 in several domains, raised their voices during the entire peace processes, and warned the international community of the Taliban seizing power quite early. Today, after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and display strict regulations up to domain specific eradication of women’s human rights, women are still raising their voices to maintain their rights. History has taught however that women’s rights cannot be gained by military means, foreign intervention, or exclusive male- and elite-dominated negotiations, but instead require an inclusive approach that available from within the country and includes Afghan women, women human rights defenders and Afghanistan’s civil society alike. While women’s rights issues remain contested between moderate and conservative interpretations within a Muslim country and need to be consistently fought for from within the country to prevent exclusively male-oriented socio-political and socio-cultural regulations within a society, structural restrictions in forms of economic sanctioning that further aggravate the situation of women need to be removed. If women’s rights and human rights are as highly valued as proclaimed, this needs to be done regardless of whether the newly established Islamic Emirate is acknowledged by the international community. With regard to the evacuation mission, it is obligatory to not forget Afghan women and their families, and grant those who feel or are actually threatened in Afghanistan appropriate asylum.