By Ali Ahmad
Afghanistan has been facing a combination of natural and man-made disasters for over the past four decades. These disasters include armed conflict, food insecurity, forced displacements and human rights violations. These crises have been aggravated by the Taliban’s takeover on the 15th of August last year.
According to a private humanitarian organization, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), 22,4 million people, more than half of Afghanistan’s population, are currently experiencing food insecurity with 3,7 million people at extreme risk. There has been a 30 percent reduction in the gross domestic product (GDP) and skyrocketing urban unemployment in just over seven months.
The crisis has produced over half a million newly internally displaced persons (IDPs) while also receiving over 20,000 returnees each day from Iran and Pakistan. In addition, strict gender segregation and gender-based violence is on the rise. The 20 years of social and political gains made by Afghan women vanished as the Taliban came to power last summer.
The Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC) in partnership with the DRC organized a public discussion at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on the 3rd of March to discuss the humanitarian crisis and the suppression of Afghan women since the Taliban’s takeover.
Two women from the Afghan diaspora, Heela Najibullah, author of “Reconciliation and Social Healing in Afghanistan” and a PhD Candidate at the Religious Studies Department of the University of Zurich, and Horia Mosadiq, a human rights activist based in London participated in the discussion. They were joined by Jared Rowell, the country director of DRC for Afghanistan via Zoom, who provided an overview of the humanitarian needs and challenges under the Taliban’s rule.
The panelists also reflected on why the West failed to institutionalize democracy in twenty years of its military engagement in Afghanistan and how the Taliban have suppressed human rights, women’s rights, and minorities in over seven months since their return to power. All three discussants presented some action points to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe as well as a way forward for a durable political solution.
Afghanistan is a collective failure
The Taliban and the Trump administration signed a peace agreement on the 29th of February 2020 after months of negotiations to end Americas’ longest war. The war ended with a disastrous withdrawal by the U.S. forces at the end of August 2021. With the power of the gun, the Taliban toppled the U.S. – backed Afghan government during the so-called peace process on the 15th of August, reported Najibullah.
She argued that the focus of the Doha peace agreement was not to find a durable political solution, but rather it focused on a speedy withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The concept of the reduction of violence replaced the concept of ceasefires, which are key concepts in any peace process. The peace deal implied that the Taliban could continue their brutal insurgency if they agreed to talk with the Americans in Qatar.
The foreign policy during the 20 years of U.S. and NATO military engagement in Afghanistan was never about the promotion of peace. “The promotion of war instead of peace continued in the sense that funding was given for weapons,” said Najibullah.
Najibullah believes the whole peace process failed because it was never people centric. She argued that, as one of the lessons learnt during the past four decades of the Afghan war, the countries involved in Afghan politics must stop the regime change policy, which was commonly done by the Russians and Americans during their decades of invasions.
The Doha deal was not about democracy or the universal values of human rights as were boasted in the 20 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The two decades of hard-gained achievements such as building democratic institutions, women’s rights and internationally recognized government started to fall apart as a result of failed peace process. The deal also aimed to replace one group versus the other, claimed Najibullah. The notion of violent Jihad was promoted during the Cold War, and it continues, she said.
On the 26th of January, several Taliban leaders travelled to Oslo, Norway to discuss the worst humanitarian crisis that Afghanistan had faced since the Taliban came to power after 20 years of successful insurgency against the U.S. forces while backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Apart from humanitarian catastrophe since August, both Taliban and Western diplomats also discussed the human rights situation particularly women’s rights.
The Taliban have imposed a harsh interpretation of ‘Sharia Law’ under their de facto rule after they ousted the U.S.-backed government of Ashraf Ghani in August. They have excluded women from public sector employment and have suppressed any women who demanded ‘food, work and freedom’.
Gender apartheid Taliban
An Afghan human rights activist, Horia Mosadiq, described the Taliban government as a “gender apartheid regime”. The 20 years of hard-gained achievements of Afghan women under the auspices of international community vanished overnight after the U.S. withdrew its military and political support from Afghanistan. Mosadiq recalled that a day before the Taliban takeover, the Afghan women were ministers, ambassadors, journalists, entrepreneurs, judges, etc. On the 15th of August, women lost their jobs and “identities”, and were seen as “no-one”.
„The Taliban regime is a gender apartheid regime. They do not recognize women as human beings. We are dealing with a government that simply does not recognize anyone who opposes their way of understanding of the Islamic law”, Mosadiq addressed a large audience present at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. “The Taliban do not recognize anyone besides their own followers,” she claimed.
The struggle in 20 years to get their fundamental rights and access to education, work and healthcare was never easy, but Mosadiq never expected losing all those gains in such a short period of time. She blamed the international community and the former Afghan government to have paved the ground for what she called a “collective failure”.
She expressed her frustration over the ‘depressing situation’ for the Afghan women under the Taliban. Female activists have disappeared, they have been tortured, beaten up, and put in detention for demanding their rights to access education and work. Najibullah shared similar views on the suppression of Afghan women under the Taliban’s oppressive rule since August.
Mosadiq was forced to leave Afghanistan during the civil war and moved to Pakistan as a refugee in 1990s. She was forced to leave her home country for the second time because of the Taliban regaining power. She did not anticipate her children being the second generation of refugees in the United Kingdom.
Pakistan’s aggression on Afghanistan
According to Mosadiq, the Western nations were united to condemn the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine which they were right about it. They were extremely quick to impose sanctions on Russia for its aggression on Ukraine that began on the 24th of February. She raised questions over the same policy of Western nations on Pakistan’s long aggression on Afghanistan.
Najibullah stated that the relationship of the Taliban with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda remains strong. The narrative of a Jihad by the Taliban has emboldened other terrorist groups and Islamic movements in other parts of the world, which Najibullah finds is dangerous for any peaceful society.
Mosadiq believed that several terrorist organizations that are under international sanctions are freely operating in Pakistan while the West has been silent about it. She asked “why?” „Pakistan is allied to the E.U. and U.S., so nothing happensagainst Pakistan,” replied Mosadiq.
During the Afghan Women’s Day at the European Parliament on the 1st until 2nd February, Mosadiq asked the E.U. Members of Parliament why the European countries extended an invitation to Taliban in Oslo, Norway and Geneva, Switzerland in January.
She addressed the E.U. parliamentarians saying that when she or other Afghan human rights defenders travel to Europe, they must go through robust security clearance checks to ensure they are not part of any terrorist organization or have not committed any acts of genocide and war crimes. “What did the Taliban write in their visa applications to allow them into Europe,” asked Mosadiq.
“This is a disgrace to see that we as human rights defenders have to answer all those questions, but you are extending a red carpet for a group that is known not only for their terrorist activities and being a gender apartheid, but also more than half of their cabinet members are on the U.N. sanctions’ list,” she said. “I want an answer from the members of the parliament,” emphasized Mosadiq.
Some Members of European Parliament in private conversations with Mosadiq argued that Norway is not a member state of E.U., but is associated through its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), recalled Mosadiq during her talk at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. She did not comprehend the logic of E.U. parliamentarians that Norway is not member state of EU parliament as they are still a European country.
Alternatives to the Taliban and the way forward
A new generation of educated and globally connected Afghans emerged between 2001 and 2021, most of whom are not corrupt and gained extensive experience by working for the former government, civil society, and international organizations. These, Najibullah believes, are the real alternative to the Taliban.
Najibullah raised a key question on whether the Afghans and the international community want peace in Afghanistan or a continuation of war. If peace is the choice, she suggested multiple simultaneous processes at local, regional, and international level. One of the key components’ of Najibullah’s solution is consultative process by convening a traditional grand assembly known as a Loya Jirga. This can act as a political decision-making body for a duration of two years that should lead to elections.
She suggested neutrality as a way out of the never-ending crisis in her country. Afghanistan, stated Najibullah, has suffered from foreign invasions and internal conflicts for more than 40 years. Various powers have instigated their proxies to inflame the Afghan conflict. The only period that Afghanistan was in peace is when the country adopted the neutrality path.
To avoid the rivalry of hostile superpowers, Afghanistan should be declared as neutral state while the consultative process that includes all segments of Afghan society such as the Taliban, civil society actors, women, political parties, and anti-Taliban movements could join.
Najibullah requested the international community to not to forget Afghanistan during the Russia-Ukraine war. „We as Afghans have internal issues and we have hurt each other as a family, but if we don’t want our children to suffer the way we did. We need to be able to hold each other’s hands and ask ourselves what the best way out of this is,” concluded Najibullah.
DRC’s Jared Rowell insisted that that humanitarian aid community is doing everything in its power to make sure there is no starvation at a mass scale in Afghanistan. Like Najibullah, he requested the international community to keep Afghanistan on their minds as the country is going through a precarious situation.
On the women’s front, Mosediq is determined to stand and fight the Taliban for women’s rights. She said that it was not easy in the presence of foreign troops to achieve what Afghan women achieved amidst war in the past 20 years.
“Regardless of whether the Taliban gives us the right or not, women will always be there. We will stand, fight, and continue our struggle. It wasn’t rosy in the past, but we managed to get so much done in the wake of everything that was happening in Afghanistan. We will survive and we will be there,” promised resilient Mosadiq.
Note: This article was initially posted on Diplomatic Aspects.