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Part One: The Role of Women in the Afghan Peace Negotiations

Women's History Month Series: Women and the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks

Allegra Berg, Connie Farrell, Aimee Hanstein, Faye Lax, Ben Levitt; CENTCOM, Extremism

March 15, 2021


Following the defeat of the Taliban by the United States in 2001, conflicts and disputes about women's rights continued. Afghan women, however, emerged from political isolation and succeeded in taking part in public, social, economic and cultural life. Women slowly regained access to education and employment and, to a certain extent, shared in decision making and in the peace and reconstruction of the country. In order for the future of women’s progress to continue and expand, women need to be more fully integrated into the ongoing peace talks. While the United States has said that US-Afghan relations will only remain positive through inclusivity, there are potentials for the Taliban to no longer have concerns of US interests once they become a legitimate party and have increased power. If the peace talks fail, or if women and their rights are used as a negotiating tactic to ensure peace, progress in Afghanistan will falter. While women are involved in some capacity, greater inclusion and representation are necessary.

Secretary Pompeo Meets with the Taliban Delegation[1]

In 2020, Afghanistan President Ghani created the High Council for National Reconciliation, a higher supervisory body to monitor and direct the negotiating team for the peace talks. Out of the 46 appointed members, only nine are women, with former warlords and older male powerbrokers dominating the list; reflecting a 2001 Afghanistan power structure that was dominated by warlords and tribal elders.[2] The list of the 46 members continues to be contested between the factions of President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah (President Ghani’s chief political rival and the head of the High Council). Many Afghan commentators widely interpreted this as marginalizing Afghan women and only giving them representation in reserved seats, which raises concerns for the future of women's rights in Afghanistan.



Women have been part of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban since September 2020, overall working as part of peace talks since 2010.[3] It is crucial to include women in the negotiations as they can promote equality for women, advance education reform for the whole country, and represent a new age for Afghanistan that includes peace, security, and equality for all. While women have been given a small role in peace talks, since 2005, close to 80 percent of peace talks in Afghanistan excluded women, with women only participating in 15 out of 67 meetings and negotiations.[4] The Afghan government has created a team of 21 members to participate in the negotiations, but only four of these members are Afghan women: Habiba Sarabi, Fatima Gailani, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak and Fawzia Koofi.[5] These numbers highlight that even when women are given a seat at the negotiating table, they are in small, non-inclusive numbers.


The lack of intersectionality is also of importance. Fawzia Koofi, 45, is the youngest of the four, but they all have reputable backgrounds including higher education, degrees, and well-respected careers.[6] In both the High Council for National Reconciliation and the negotiating team, the women come from urban areas, yet are meant to represent all women in Afghanistan.[7] Afghan women from rural and urban areas are likely to have different perspectives and visions for women’s rights in Afghanistan. A commitment to women’s rights must include women from all backgrounds and demographics, to ensure a representative and inclusive outcome. However, this inclusivity goes beyond women just being present but requires active participation by everyone to listen and respect the women’s input, opinions, experience, and suggestions. Despite the role of these four women in the negotiating team, they were not included in the Doha meetings in February; and subsequently, women’s rights were left out of the conversation.[8] This incident reflects a core issue faced by Afghan women in the peace process. Although women may have a seat at the table they still face invisible barriers which persist as a result of centuries-old patriarchal systems and political and social misogyny which has traditionally excluded women’s voices. Therefore, although women may be visibly present–albeit in small numbers–their voices remain unheard and uninfluential. To change this, there needs to be a concerted effort to shift social norms and encourage society to see women’s rights not only as a women’s issue but as important for society as a whole.



The Doha Agreement, which has been in effect since February 2020, focused primarily on removing US forces from Afghanistan and preventing the country from allowing terrorist groups to grow, evolve, and cause further violence to the US.[9] Although this agreement was signed by former President Donald Trump, many are calling on President Biden to continue with the troop withdrawal and effectively reduce US presence in the country to political rather than military. Despite this agreement having a deadline of May 1, 2021, the deal is focused on reducing military personnel from the country but does not ensure equal rights or stability once US forces leave.[10] Taliban leaders, while insistent upon President Biden staying true to the deal, have continued launching attacks in the region and have persistently targeted any women who maintain a notable presence or influence in the country. Although President Biden risks putting peace in jeopardy by not removing US troops or changing any part of the deal, peace cannot exist unless it exists for everyone. If Biden is willing to sacrifice human rights and equality for a ceasefire, then Afghanistan will not succeed as a country. For lasting peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, equal rights need to be guaranteed, and women need to be included in the conversations and negotiations surrounding what happens for their country.


The post-Taliban constitution in 2004 gave Afghan women various rights while “any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan were prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan–whether man or woman–have equal rights and duties before the law.”[11] The constitution reserves 25 percent of the seats in the Afghan Congress for female delegates, twice as many seats as had been stipulated by the draft, and 17 percent in the Afghan Senate.[12] The Afghan government must ensure these parts of the constitution are not erased if the Taliban becomes part of the government and agencies, organizations, and companies (AOCs) play an integral role in keeping this as part of the final deal. This deal can be modeled after the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act that focused on women’s participation in negotiation and mediation processes. While the US and President Biden have little to leverage as troops withdraw from the country, in order to maintain peace, they must be sure to not overstep their power and authority. Biden and his negotiators must not push the Taliban too far in the opposite direction but rather create a deal in which all parties can appear successful internally and externally.



In order to establish equality in the region or increased voices for women, their engagement within the peace talks with the Taliban — a group that is notorious for their very strict gender roles — is necessary for the future of an Afghanistan that involves the Taliban. Women have been gaining rights in Afghanistan with millions partaking in voting, a massive increase in women teachers, as well as large numbers of female journalists.[13] The United States has been trying to give women new opportunities in Afghanistan, but due to the main desire to end the war and remove troops in the region, the negotiations focus on peace and disarmament rather than long-term prosperity and equal rights.


By including women into the peace talks from their initiation, there is an increased likelihood of them being able to remain part of the conversation, especially with groups like the Taliban, who promote strict roles and religious interpretation. If women can be guaranteed equal rights and equal protection under the law, generally the new investment may result and bring long-term prosperity and growth into a struggling country as people may want to invest in a developing but stable country. This, combined with girls being allowed to attend school, will set Afghanistan on the right path to maintain peace and security without foreign influence or aid and encourage cooperation with foreign powers who want to invest in a developing country.



There is much theoretical and practical evidence to support the involvement of women in peacebuilding and security as it can bring about a more stable resolution and outlook.[14] This has been demonstrated in peacebuilding initiatives such as in Sierra Leone and Liberia.[15] In Afghanistan, peacebuilding efforts have primarily focused on central authorities such as the government or military; women’s inclusion in these institutions is often measured by the reaching of gender quotas yet overlooks the invisible barriers women face once within these roles. In this way, women’s inclusion acts as indicators of progress to prove to international partners of their commitment to engaging women in peacebuilding in return for external support or legitimization for the peace process and risks politicization of women’s rights. However, there is considerable evidence across numerous post-conflict contexts such as those mentioned above, which prove that more sustainable and long-term peace is better achieved through meaningfully engaging women at national, local, and community levels in ways that complement central authorities.[16]


Nevertheless, it remains the case that attempts to mainstream gender inclusivity in peacebuilding are often underpinned by essentialist notions of women as inherently inclined towards peace as a biological fact. This supposes that there is a natural incompatibility with a woman in her role as a mother and child-bearer and violence, and, therefore, it is assumed that women have a disposition inclined towards peace. This feminized, reductionist mindset falsely conflates sex and gender, and denies women agency by undermining the importance of their lived experience in shaping responses to peace. The constructivist mindset, on the other hand, explains women’s peacebuilding potential as a result of the socialization of gender roles and therefore makes the important distinction between gender and sex.[17] This approach acknowledges that women are not a homogenous group with a shared, invariable response to war and peace. Both men and women experience war, yet their lived experiences and memory of war is highly gendered. Although more men die during war, women suffer far more non-lethal abuses and are forced to survive with a very different memory of the conflict.[18] Although there still persists an element of discursive, gendered view of women in this approach, it nevertheless incorporates women in a more nuanced way by allowing individuals’ own experience and memory to guide their inclusion in peacebuilding and promotes a more intersectional peacebuilding effort.


The inference that a woman’s experience of war underpins their proclivity for supporting peace overlooks those women who favor militarization. The image of women as always being peaceful–either as a result of biology or socialization–is untrue. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in female terrorists and women committing extreme violence both in Afghanistan and globally.[19] It also neglects those women whose experiences have led to distrust and indifference to peace processes.[20] For instance, in a survey of Afghan people for 2020-2021, 34.4 percent of respondents did not think that peace is achievable in Afghanistan in the next two years; and females are more likely than males to say that peace is not achievable.[21] Those who distrust a peace process are arguably less inclined to engage in it, and this is true of both men and women.


If women perceive their inclusion in peace as meaningful and capable of creating change rather than as a political tool for gaining international legitimacy or recognition, greater engagement could be achieved. There also remains the concern that thousands of years of history and the cultural role of women in Afghanistan do not marry with the role of women in more active and inclusive roles in the public sphere. However, this clash of civilizations rhetoric written upon the bodies of Afghan women which suggests nations such as Afghanistan with strong Muslim and tribal identities are incompatible with modernization are outdated. Furthermore, they have no factual basis as has been demonstrated by women’s empowerment in many aspects of Afghan life already, as well as numerous other Muslim majority communities globally.



While the US has historically had a strong and positive presence in Afghanistan, its role in the past has attempted to impose women's rights from a Western perspective. While this has had some positive impact, it was done in a self-interested manner in order to help legitimize its presence in the country, and women's progress was not done in its own right. During the Obama Administration, US President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the preconditions for US negotiations with the Taliban included the Taliban’s renunciation of al-Qaida and their commitment to uphold the Afghan constitution and protect women’s rights. These preconditions may also be seen as forcing western culture; what the US sees as women’s rights, other cultures may not. Ensuring that a more diverse group of women are included in the peace process will help mitigate the threat to all women, regardless of the peace process outcome as compromises may be made. US withdrawal without securing women's rights also reflects how this was not a priority for the US.



Secretary Clinton Meets with Afghan Female Politicians in 2011[22]


It is important to recognize that some women are crediting the Taliban for providing security, and some even actively support the Taliban,[23] and hence, cannot only be viewed as victims of the Taliban’s rule. There has been a growing number of women recruits in many extremist groups and the same goes for the Taliban. The Taliban had a secret service that employed between 15,000 to 30,000 official spies and over 100,000 paid informers, some of which were women.[24] Although some women may receive protection from the Taliban and support them, the US Embassy in Kabul has warned that extremists, including the Taliban, continue to target women in their attacks, particularly against those in fields that promote equality such as government work, teachers, and human rights activists.[25] Understanding what the women on the ground desire, the differences between rural and urban women, without imposing Western assumptions about women’s rights, is crucial.



Women should be included not simply as progress indicators or political tools. If women’s inclusion and progress are seen in these ways, then it is not being pursued purely for the sake of equality and women’s rights, and can therefore be compromised or discredited in negotiations. Moving forward, the US and the international community can play an integral part in protecting women without pushing a Western perspective. By having conversations with both rural and urban women in Afghanistan to understand what these women feel is acceptable in order to obtain peace. The international community can then work with the Afghan government and the Taliban to help ensure that a more diverse group of women are included in the peace process which will help mitigate the threat to all women, regardless of the peace process outcome as compromises may be made. Because of the varying opinions regarding the usefulness of the Taliban, and the resources and security they can potentially provide, it is important that the peace negotiators consider compromising on how much control the Taliban has in certain provinces versus how much control the Afghan government has in those provinces. Since there are already Taliban-controlled provinces in Afghanistan, it is possible this could in fact happen and be beneficial to not only women in Afghanistan, but all Afghan citizens.


It is clear that the involvement of the United States within the region has bolstered the status of women within the country, seeing their status improving. For their equality to continue and be sustained, it is imperative that these changes occur from within and without Western influence. While Western countries can certainly support such rights, the style of involvement by Western countries may impose their cultural values on individuals who do not share the same perspectives and therefore cannot make changes that reflect those of countries such as the US. When aspects such as religion and thousands of years of culture are involved, the methods for change cannot and will not be the same, and Western states cannot assume as much.



By promoting methods such as education to inform women of what is available to provide them with the knowledge to engage in high levels discussions, as well as encouraging states like Afghanistan to provide a place for women in the conversation — such as by stating that agreements will only occur with such involvement — which promotes both women’s equality and engagement while allowing the states to support women and find their way on their own without directly imposing values on them. Standing firm in such requests, such as in the Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations and including women, is paramount. A future of a country that will include a group of individuals who have strict interpretations of religious law and continue to not promote equality will be challenging, but change is necessary from within. With the United States attempting to pull out from the region, there are limited reasons as to why the Afghan government and the Taliban should listen to the suggestions or requests from the US. However, when the international community begins to clearly define the requirements of women's involvement — such as to have future cooperation between countries, women must be present — this returns the responsibility to Afghanistan to promote women’s equality and places future struggles due to lack of responding to such demands upon them as well.



The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that the parties of the peace talks recognize and reference women as peacebuilders, listen to women and their desires for peace, and include women in the physical peace process. CTG also recommends that there be a possible incentive provided for the Taliban to include women in the peace talks and keep the current place of women’s rights and status in Afghanistan. This possible incentive could be a small percentage of seats in government or continuing the process towards the Taliban being a legitimate political party. Women being part of the negotiations signals a turning point for Afghanistan but the Taliban will likely want to appear as if they 'won' the negotiations in some way. If the Taliban believes that they have lost, they will very likely back out or continue to conduct attacks. CTG’s CENTCOM and Extremism teams will continue to monitor the Taliban and attacks within Afghanistan including attacks against women and girls. CTG will continue to monitor the peace process in Afghanistan including the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s potential upcoming role in the peace negotiations. This report is part of a series and will be followed by intelligence reports on what women and girls’ access to education will look like post peace talks, with or without a government including the Taliban, and the role of women in the Afghan government post peace talks.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)


[1] Secretary Pompeo Meets With the Taliban Delegation by U.S. Department of State, licensed under Public Domain


[2] The fate of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Brookings, September 2020,


https://www.brookings.edu/essay/the-fate-of-womens-rights-in-afghanistan/


[3] Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace, United States Institute for Peace, March 2019, https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/03/afghanistan-talks-no-women-no-peace


[4] Nearly 80% of Afghanistan’s peace tables exclude women, Oxfam International, September 2020, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/nearly-80-afghanistans-peace-tables-exclude-women


[5] Who are the Afghan women negotiating peace with the Taliban?, Al Jazeera, October 2020,


https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/7/who-are-the-afghan-women-negotiating-peace-with-taliban


[6] Ibid.


[7] The fate of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Brookings, September 2020,


https://www.brookings.edu/essay/the-fate-of-womens-rights-in-afghanistan/


[8] Nearly 80% of Afghanistan’s peace tables exclude women, Oxfam International, September 2020, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/nearly-80-afghanistans-peace-tables-exclude-women


[9] Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan …, U.S. Department of State, February 2020, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf


[10] With clock ticking before exit deadline, U.S. appears poised to postpone troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, MSN, March 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/with-clock-ticking-before-exit-deadline-us-appears-poised-to-postpone-troop-withdrawal-from-afghanistan/ar-BB1ex6YH?ocid=uxbndlbing


[11] Afghan Constitution a Partial Victory for Women, Women's ENews, January 2004, https://womensenews.org/2004/01/afghan-constitution-partial-victory-women/


[12] Ibid.


[13] Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace, United States Institute of Peace, March 2019, https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/03/afghanistan-talks-no-women-no-peace


[14] Cook, J. “A Woman's Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11,” Oxford University Press, 2019


[15] A Country of their Own: Women and Peacebuilding, Conflict Management and Peace Science, November 2011 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0738894211418412#articleCitationDownloadContainer


[16] Ibid.


[17] Political Gender Equality and State Human Rights Abuse, Journal of Peace Research, March 2005 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022343305050688


[18] Duncanson, C. “Gender and Peacebuilding,” Polity Press, 2016


[19] Afghan Women and Violent Extremism Colluding, Perpetrating, or Preventing?, United States Institute of Peace, November 2016 https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR396-Afghan-Women-and-Violent-Extremism.pdf


[20] “The Women and Peace Hypothesis in Peacebuilding Settings: Attitudes of Women in the Wake of the Rwandan Genocide,” Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2014


https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/676918?seq=1


[21] Afghanistan Flash Surveys on Perceptions of Peace, COVID-19, and the Economy: Wave 1 Findings, The Asia Foundation, 2020


https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Afghanistan-Flash-Survey-Wave-1_fullreport.pdf


[22] Secretary Clinton Meets with Afghan Female Politicians in 2011 by US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan, licensed under Public Domain


[23] What Will Peace Talks Bode for Afghan Women?, International Crisis Group, April 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/what-will-peace-talks-bode-afghan-women


[24] Afghan Women and the Taliban: An Exploratory Assessment, ICCT, April 2014. https://www.icct.nl/app/uploads/download/file/ICCT-Leede-Afghan-Women-and-the-Taliban-April-2014.pdf


[25] US warns Afghan women of increased risk of extremist attack, The Guardian, September 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/sep/18/us-warns-afghan-women-of-increased-risk-of-extremist-attack




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