While coverage of current events is common amongst major news sites, the media tends to ignore the actual or potential impacts that such major events have on the local population or those living in affected areas. In the United States, owing to the widely publicized “War on Terror,” it is known that there are American troops in Afghanistan who have been there for a long time. In my previous article, “The United States and Afghanistan Work Towards Peace,” I discussed the peace negotiations that are currently in the works between the US, the Taliban, and the Afghan government, and the position each party has. But what are the potential repercussions of a peace agreement for Afghan civilians? As they have been the ones most impacted by the violence, their stakes in the conflict and the peace process should be making headlines. It is also important to note that any discussion of local impacts is never entirely complete, as individual opinions and perspectives naturally vary and Afghanistan is not a monolith, but a diverse nation that cannot be reduced to the narrative of conflict.
The Exhausting Nature of Conflict
While it can be difficult for some Western journalists to have discussions with people who are living in conflict zones, there have been reports and articles from journalists on the ground who have spoken with Afghan citizens that have shed some light on some local perspectives on the peace talks. A common sentiment expressed by non-combatants – those who have not fought in the war – is exhaustion towards the conflict and a strong desire for the violence to come to an end. As COVID-19 has proven to the rest of the world, living in uncertainty is all but pleasant, and even more so when you are living in a state of continual violence. But uncertainty is a feeling that has been prevalent in Afghanistan for decades, and many citizens that have been spoken to have supported a peace deal as it would finally bring their perpetual uncertainty to an end.
In regards to the withdrawal of American troops, local opinions vary. Some civilians believe that once the US is out of the picture, the Taliban will completely disregard their commitments to peace and reclaim the country by force. However, one potential alternative is that once the Taliban see American troops leaving Afghanistan – an acknowledgement of one of the group’s long-standing goals – they will stop the fighting. Civilians who shared this view also said that they see the US as the cause of the relentless violence and believe that the Afghan government and Taliban genuinely want the war to end; America’s departure would allow this to happen. The contrasting views generally varied based on where the civilians lived and whether they were living in contested regions or not. Those living under Taliban rule have received little benefits from the US’ presence and thus tend to regard them solely as aggressors.
The Impacts on Women
Afghanistan is said to be one of the toughest environments in the world for women, making the peace deal so important for Afghan women’s future livelihoods. The female literacy rate in the country is only 29.8%, with 33% of girls enrolled in primary schools and 39% enrolled in secondary schools as of 2017. A female’s average life expectancy is 66 years old, which is below the world average of 74.8 years old. Further, Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with 638 out of 100,000 women dying in childbirth.
Moreover, the Taliban has been internationally condemned for their abysmal treatment of women. When ruling the country from 1996-2001, they denied women the right to education, health care, work, and the freedom of mobility. Additionally, some Afghan women reported facing punishments for minor mishaps, such as showing an inch of skin or for trying to study. Since the US invasion in 2001, the Taliban have continued to exert misogynistic power in regions they controlled. In recent years the Afghan government has lacked strong support for women’s rights in the country, further worrying Afghan women as to what the future may hold.
Unfortunately, Afghan women face abuse from both sides. Preliminary investigations by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into alleged war crimes committed by all actors in the conflict began in 2006. In 2016, the ICC released a report that brought up concerns over US troops and the CIA committing war crimes against Afghan civilians, including the rape of Afghan women. This was followed by a request for a full investigation into these allegations in 2017. Originally, this request was rejected but in March 2020, the ICC Appeals Chamber voted unanimously to allow a full investigation into the alleged war crimes committed by the US military and CIA in Afghanistan since 2003.
While some women report seeing the peace deal as a hopeful sign for the future of their rights, evidence shows many are also worried that the situation Afghan women face may return to bitter discrimination. According to a 2019 report, many women living in Taliban-controlled areas did in fact share a desire to live under Sharia law – Islam’s legal system. It is important to note that women’s views of living under sharia law in Afghanistan today still allow them rights and security, especially the right to an education, which contradicts the Taliban’s general understanding of sharia. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, they went so far as to confine women to their homes, only permitting them to leave with a male accompanying them. The clear disparities between the Taliban’s understanding of Sharia law and that of many Afghan women is in part due to differences in interpretation, as the Taliban chooses to interpret Sharia in its most literal and extreme form. What’s more, rather than Sharia law or religious texts being inherently to blame for the oppression of women, scholars like Amira Mashour have pointed to the patriarchal nature of many “Islamic” countries instead. Ultimately, no matter what legal system women wanted to be implemented post-conflict, a common theme in those living under Taliban rule was their desire for their rights to be restored.
At first, the Afghan government disregarded female activists’ demands to be included in the peace negotiations. But currently, the government has four female members as a part of their twenty-one-person negotiating team: Habiba Sarabi, Fatima Gailani, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak and Fawzia Koofi. These incredible women have lived through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and now the US invasion. The enduring devotion to women’s rights in Afghanistan has brought them together to represent Afghan women in the peace talks and specifically fight for the right to education.
The perspectives described in this article touch only the surface of the diverse range of perspectives Afghan individuals hold. Everyone has lived through their own set of experiences that shape their beliefs and opinions. However, it is important that as negotiations continue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, local voices are heard, reflected, and reported on, as it is their lives that will be the most affected by the results of the talks.