The Afghan government has announced a road map for peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States has backed President Ghani’s proposal for peace and called upon the group to enter negotiations with the Afghan government. Over the last 17 years, the Afghan society has made some achievements, among them freedom of speech, political participation, and women’s rights. These achievements are nowhere near perfect, but they are positive steps in the right direction. While it is too early to tell what topics part of the negotiations between the Taliban and the governments of Afghanistan and the US will be, it is hoped that the achievements of the last decade and half should not be compromised.
Under the Taliban rule, Afghanistan was one of the most isolated states on earth. Only two countries, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had recognized the regime. Afghans knew little about freedom of speech; or if they knew, they could not exercise it. There was no such thing as public protest. All forms of entertainment and free speech were banned, including television, print, and radio, except for the Taliban radio called, “The Voice of Sharia.” Today, there are dozens of private and public television channels, over a hundred radio stations, and hundreds of press titles in the country. Educated Afghans have established a civil society and have rights to peaceful protests— even-though in the midst of grave insecurity.
Since 2001, Afghanistan has held three presidential and two parliamentary elections in which millions of Afghan men and women have participated. These elections have been imperfect, plagued with rigging, outcomes of which were fiercely contested. Nonetheless the process has led to the first peaceful transfer of power in 2014 from one president to another. Over half of the populations support democracy. Meanwhile, the Taliban perceive elections as a Western phenomenon and have not yet indicated whether the group would be interested in participating in elections or not.
Most importantly, women’s rights under the current Afghan constitution are guaranteed. Under the Taliban regime women were barred from attending schools or work. Today, Afghan women are visible in every layer of the society. They are doctors, engineers, politicians, athletes, police officers, radio and TV presenters, and more. Even so, this improvement in gender parity is minimal. The country is still one of the worst places for women and scored the lowest in the 2017/18 Women Peace and Security Index. There are many obstacles on the way to improving women’s status in the country. A compromise to appease the ultra-conservatives can halt the marginal progress that has been made in this area. And it can create more challenges to achieving gender equality in the country.
These hard-earned achievements have come at an immense cost. Thousands of Afghan military personnel, as well as allied forces, have given their lives fighting the Taliban and other terrorist groups operating in the country. In 2017 alone, 6,700 Afghan security forces were killed and 12,000 wounded. The death toll for the coalition forces is 3,546—among them 2,408 Americans. Thousands of Afghan civilians, too, have lost their lives— from just 2009 to 2017, 28,000 civilians died and more than 50,000 were injured. Additionally, billions of dollars were also spent— the U.S. alone has spent more money on the war in Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan for reconstruction of post World War II Europe.
After years of conflict, the Afghan people want peace, even if it’s with a group that they fear greatly, but this should not come at the expense of the hard-earned gains – especially not at the cost of freedom of speech, political participation and women’s rights. Instead stakeholders should seek ways to improve the shortcomings of the current system, including the issues of corruption and narcotics which have sustained the conflict. A viable solution could be an inclusive peace process that can represent the interests of rural and urban populations and has the genuine support of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the international community.
*Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Follow at @Saberibrahimi