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Don't Share a Table With the Taliban

Lauryn Oates

Globe & Mail

3 November 2006

Afghanistan is spiralling into further chaos as donor governments, which have poured millions into the country, are scratching their heads in bewilderment. Some critics have called for alternative responses to the conflict that has taken the lives of more than 40 Canadian soldiers. One of the propositions gaining traction is the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, bringing them to the table for peace talks and giving them a place in the country's fledgling government.

Unfortunately, in negotiations dominated by men, women's rights are often the first thing to become a bargaining chip -- usually meaning they are negotiated right out of any discussions. This is particularly true with groups having a proven track record for human-rights abuses against women and girls, such as the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Misogyny is not peripheral to the Taliban's agenda. Rather, it is a central tenet of their platform. We have already had the chance to see the Taliban in power, and know that their policy of subjugating women is not mere rhetoric but bona fide practice. Their warped interpretation of Islam swiftly became the law of the land, and was brutally enforced during their horrifying rule in the late 1990s.

The evidence we have of what happened to women under the Taliban is not light stuff. Their edicts meant torture, rape, the amputation of nail-polished fingers, women whipped in the streets for an exposed ankle, and girls killed for studying secretly. The haunting stories of women stoned to death inside crowded soccer stadiums are not urban myths, but actual events in the very recent history of Afghanistan. Have Canadians so soon forgotten our shock and fury at hearing about the hell Afghan women faced for more than five years?

The treatment of Afghan women under the Taliban was so excessive in its brutality that it has been dubbed "gendercide" or "gender apartheid."

Today, the Taliban are busy torching schools, decapitating teachers and threatening civilians with regular deposits of "night letters," messages left en masse in public areas that say things like, "This is a warning to all dishonourable people, including ulema and teachers, not to teach girls. Based on information given to us, we strongly ask those people whose names have been particularly reported to us, not to commit this act of evil. Otherwise it is they who will bear all the responsibilities. They have no right to claim that they have not been informed."

The Taliban, alongside their insurgency against NATO and the Afghan government, are waging another war, an assault against the education sector, and particularly against girls' education. There have been 204 schools burned down between January, 2005, and June, 2006. Thousands more girls' schools have closed due to security threats. All this suggests that it is unlikely Taliban policies toward women have changed, or that Taliban leadership has undergone any enlightenment around relying on violence and intimidation as their main tool of governance.

The Taliban have been consistent with their patriarchal values and use of violence, but the Taliban as a political institution are somewhat more ambiguous. Allegiances rotate regularly in Afghanistan, with men and boys slipping in and out of the Taliban. Some join political parties, align with warlords or join the Afghan national army. The fluid nature of the Taliban begs the question, who exactly to negotiate with? What are the objectives of their movement?

Taliban members who are "committed" may be staying on for the paycheque, rumoured to be $12 (U.S.) a day, while the Afghan army pays around $70 (U.S.) a month. Hunger is a major preoccupation for citizens of the world's fourth-poorest country. Waging a war against poverty and better meeting Afghanistan's development needs is one tactic to cut off the supply of Taliban recruits. Unfortunately, this obvious correlation is not reflected in Canada's disproportionate focus on defence spending over development spending, nor in the massive misspending and corruption rampant in the donor-led aid system.

Opting for negotiating with the Taliban at this stage shows an incredible lack of creativity when thinking about how to approach peace-building in Afghanistan. It is also hypocrisy of the worst kind. When the Taliban were removed from power in late 2001, protecting the rights of Afghan women quickly became another banner under which the coalition forces went in, and eventually other Western governments, including Canada. Most observers knew that defending Afghan women was, at the most, a secondary motive after retaliation for the attacks of 9/11. However, as the Taliban had operated unimpeded, if not recognized diplomatically, since 1996, the publics of those Western nations demanded accountability for the suffering Afghan women had experienced.

Those calling for negotiations with the Taliban have generally stopped at that, without articulating who will represent the Taliban from among their disparate leadership. No one has thought about what the Taliban might walk away with, and what giving them legitimate power will mean for Afghan governance and democracy over the long run. Not asking these questions leaves space for frightening possibilities, including consequences for the country's stability.

Negotiating with the Taliban as a fall-back measure is a poor excuse for a failure so far to provide real security and development for Afghans. The Taliban were birthed from a previous failure of the international community, in the aftermath of Afghanistan's use as a pawn between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. Allowing the Taliban to have any role in the governance of Afghanistan is a victory to the forces that brought Afghanistan to its knees in the first place. It also signals that women's rights were merely convenient for the public relations of the intervention, but can be negotiated away when the going gets tough.

Can we really, without shame, ask Afghan women to accept the Taliban back into their lives as legitimate players in this game?

Lauryn Oates is vice-president of the Calgary-based Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, and managed the CIDA-funded Women's Rights in Afghanistan Fund from 2002 to 2006.


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