Friends of Afghanistan Urge NATO and EU to Continue Support for Afghanistan

In a letter signed by prominent leaders and individuals worldwide, friends and supporters of Afghanistan urged NATO and the European Union that as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, “we must not abandon the Afghan people and their democratic republic.”

The letter signed by former foreign ministers, former ambassadors to Afghanistan, diplomats, along with a range of civil society groups and leaders states that while NATO armed forces are leaving Afghanistan, “it is the obligation of all NATO and European countries to continue to strongly stand by our Afghan partners.” The letter urges NATO and the EU to continue the financial support to the Afghan state, protect the human rights of Afghan women and girls, and continue to provide “robust financial” support to the Afghan national security forces.

The letter calls for support in six major areas, including to protecting women’s rights and human rights and providing a robust and sustainable support to the Afghan state. It asks to reaffirm robust financial support to the Afghan national security forces, continue development assistance to key Afghan institutions, support a strong UN role in the Intra-Afghan peace talks, and reaffirm support to civil society and human rights groups.

The endorsees remind NATO and the European Union that the world has a “responsibility” to Afghanistan and that it “must come together in their support to the Afghan National Security Forces who are fighting to protect Afghan lives from terrorists as well as work towards our shared security interests.”

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation signed the letter, reiterating the importance of continued support to Afghanistan at this critical moment.

“We cannot stop our support and funding to the Afghan people, especially to the women and girls of Afghanistan. They need our assistance now more than ever as they try to defend their country and protect their people,” she said. Smeal has advocated for the human rights of Afghan women and girls for 25 years and believes that despite many challenges, “the Afghan people, especially women and girls, have achieved amazing gains in education, employment, leadership, health care and provide hope for an equal and prosperous society. Their tremendous efforts deserve our support.”

The U.S. has pledged to continue to provide support for the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls, and minorities through development and humanitarian aid as well as the continued provision of security assistance to support Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. While such support and messaging from allies and partners is critical, it is important to stand with Afghanistan for years to come.

The letter highlights the current high levels of violence perpetrated by the Taliban and their affiliates “who are using violence to silence and oppress the Afghan people.” For over a year, the Taliban offensive attacks have been at its peak, targeting school girls, women leaders, journalists, judges, doctors, charity workers, teachers, government officials, minorities and even religious scholars.

The letter states that the “Afghan people, just as our other allies, deserve peace, justice, liberty and dignity” and that the “killing and destruction of the people and institutions that uphold our shared values is not only a threat to the Afghan people who have been our allies for twenty years, but also to our core principles, legitimacy and global security.”

Biden Pledges Support to Afghanistan Despite the US Troop Withdrawal

On June 25th in a state visit by the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, President Biden pledged to continue to support Afghanistan, assuring the Afghan delegation that the United States will “maintain their military, as well as economic and political support.”

While vowing to continue the support to the Afghan people, President Biden also stressed that “Afghans are going to have to decide their future.” Biden stressed that the senseless killing of Afghans must stop but admitted that it is “going to be very difficult.”

The Afghan president and its delegation’s trip comes at a crucial time as U.S. and NATO troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan. The country is facing unprecedented levels of violence by the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and their affiliates, targeting civilians, infrastructure and leaders. During a two day-visit, the Afghan delegation including four prominent Afghan women leaders, also met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.

Of the four women, Fatima Gailani, former head of the Afghan Red Crescent and Habiba Sarabi, former governor of Bamiyan province also met with the Democratic Women’s Caucus. In a press release by the Caucus, the leadership stated that they are aware of the difficult reality in Afghanistan right now and reiterated their support to women and girls in Afghanistan.

“We are committed to continuing to work with our President to provide humanitarian and security assistance to the Afghan people so that women and girls have adequate access to education, health care, economic security, and opportunity.” The Caucus leadership, Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said that advancing the human rights of Afghan women and girls is “vital to making our world a more equitable and safe place for all.” 

Fatima Gailani and Habiba Sarabi have been negotiating on behalf of the Afghan government with the Taliban since September of 2020. Two other women leaders who accompanied Ashraf Ghani and the delegation were Shaharzad Akbar, Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Adela Raz, the Afghan Ambassador to the United Nations.

Habiba Sarabi and Fatima Gailani have been vocal on protecting the human rights of women and minorities and that these rights are non-negotiable. The women negotiators are firm in their belief that human rights must be protected and a democratic system of one-person-one-vote should remain to ensure equality in the country. Gailani and Sarabi told Members of the Democratic Women’s Caucus the Afghanistan-US relationship is important and that they hope members of Congress “will continue to speak for the human rights of our people, democracy in our country and the values and principles that we all share as humans.”

The Afghan delegation came to DC to ask for a continued U.S. support and partnership with the Afghan state to fight terrorism and defend human rights and democracy. A key member of the delegation, Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs the High Council for Peace in Afghanistan, met with President Biden as well. He emphasized that Al- Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to be a threat to the security of the world. In an interview with the Associated Press, Abdullah said, “If Afghanistan is abandoned completely, without support, without engagement, there’s a danger that Afghanistan can turn once again into a haven for terrorist groups.”

Early this month, in a conversation with NPR reporter Renee Montagne the Afghan women negotiators reiterated that women have achieved a great deal over the past 20 years and do not want to go back to the time when they had no rights under the Taliban. Fatima Gailani, one of the women negotiators as well as a member of the delegation who visited DC told Montagne that it is important for the Taliban to understand that this is not the Afghanistan of 1990s when they ruled. “This is the Afghanistan where everyone is a part of it. Every ethnic group, every gender, every language, every sect in Islam—we are all together.”

Taliban Responsible for Great Majority of Attacks on Afghans, Says the U.N.

Signs of the Taliban reducing violence and committing to genuine and serious peace talks are far from sight, suggests a new report by the U.N. sounding the alarm that “unprecedented” level of violence from 2020 has carried onto 2021 and is likely to increase more this year. According to the report, the group “continues to strengthen its military position as leverage.”

According to the report, 2020 was the “most violent year ever recorded” by the U.N. in Afghanistan and attacks have increased 60 percent in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. The group uses violence as their main leverage in the peace talks, claims victory for defeating the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and views the elected government of Afghanistan a “puppet” of the West. 

The U.N. report highlights an important point: Violence has been unprecedented and the Taliban are behind a great majority of the attacks on the people. As the report suggests, these attacks “appear to be undertaken with the objective of weakening the capacity of the government and intimidating civil society.” Members of civil society, journalists and women professionals have been at the top of these attacks, creating panic and fear in the Afghan civil society.

“The Taliban’s messaging remains uncompromising, and it shows no sign of reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan to facilitate peace negotiations with the government of Afghanistan and other Afghan stakeholders,” reads the U.N. report.

The report affirms the Taliban remains close to Al-Qaeda and that it will return “to power by force if necessary.” It offers a grim view for the Afghan people post U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan as well. The report compiled by the U.N. Monitoring Team covers a period of between May 2020 and April 2021, when the Taliban had entered an agreement with the U.S. in which they promised to cut their ties with Al-Qaeda, engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and reduce violence. According to the U.N. report, the Taliban has violated all of the above.

Over the past year since the intra-Afghan talks begin in September, violence against the Afghan people has been at the highest level and although major blasts have been less, the tactics to intimidate and kill people have changed. Targeted assassinations have been at the highest level—against members of civil society, judges, doctors, students, on- and off- duty public servants, and journalists.

In the last few years, religious scholars who are vocal critics against Taliban terrorism and leaders of government-initiated religious councils have been on the hit list as well. In the month of June alone, a woman journalist, Mina Khairi, her mother and sister, as well as a few other civilians were murdered in Kabul. The next day, a religious scholar was murdered in Herat, the west of Afghanistan. Following that attack, in another province, Badghis, a roadside bomb struck a passenger bus and killed 12 of them; four women and three children were among the dead.

In May, a girls’ school was targeted in which 90 people were killed—a majority of them school girls between the ages of 11 and 17. The school is located in a Hazara and Shia majority part of Kabul which has experienced similar major attacks in the past.

This report, along with experts, warn the Taliban has not changed; their ambition to return to power holds stronger than ever; the group has remained vague about human rights, women’s rights and the structure of government; continues to terrorize people and targets ethnic and religious minorities; and the production and trafficking of poppy remains their “largest single source of income.”

Even still, the U.S. and NATO forces are set to withdraw unconditionally by this summer. The high level of violence, an emboldened Taliban by the U.S., and the ongoing uncertainty around the peace talks have created an environment of panic and distress among the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women.

Hillary Clinton Warns of “Huge Consequences” on Biden’s Decision to Withdraw from Afghanistan

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Secretary Hillary Clinton appeared critical of President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and stated that the U.S. “has to focus on two huge consequences” for Afghanistan. “This is what we call a wicked problem. “There are consequences both foreseen and unintended of staying and of leaving,” she told CNN.

The “potential collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban” as well as “a resumption of activities by global terrorists, most particularly by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State” are two of the major consequences she warned. Similarly, she warned of a “civil war” in some parts of the country and “a government largely run by the Taliban in the not too distant future.” Clinton also warned of a “huge refugee outflow”

On April 13th, President Biden announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 9/11/2021, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan amidst the ongoing peace talks as well as without any conditions publicly placed on the Taliban has garnered criticism from experts, suggesting that the U.S. gave away one of the main levers in the ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Since the announcement of the decision by Biden, the Taliban leaders in Doha have not participated in negotiations with the Afghan government.

Clinton asked, “how do we help and protect the many thousands of Afghans,” those who worked and spoke up for women’s rights and human rights, and those who worked with the U.S. and NATO? In reference to the Special Immigrant Visa, she said she hopes “the Administration in concert with the Congress will set up a very large visa program.” The Special Immigrant Visa helps only those who worked with U.S. and NATO and does not include families or siblings above 18. Many hope that the Administration will expand and expedite the program to cover families as well.

Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is part of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed by the Trump Administration in February 2020. The agreement required the U.S. to withdraw by May 1. As part of the deal, the US stopped attacking Taliban hideouts by air or night raids. The Taliban in return, did not attack U.S. and allies forces and interests in Afghanistan, and that the group will enter negotiation with the Afghan government, and will reduce violence. While the Taliban did not attack U.S. and allies interests, the group increased its attacks against the Afghan forces and engaged in a large campaign of assassinating those who spoke up against the group. In a recent wave of violence, just this week, in a bomb attack in Logar province near Kabul, 30 people were killed and as many as 100 were injured. Many of the killed and wounded were students.

Afghans and their allies hoped that the Biden Administration would put pressure on the Taliban and would not leave at a time when the security situation in the country has deteriorated because of the increased attacks. The decision came as a shock and many Afghan feel abandoned by their allies once again, fearing a repeat of the history of the 1990s.

BBC 5/1/2021, CNN 5/3/2021

Senators on Both Sides of the Aisle Express Concern About Women’s Rights Post- US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week, senators from across the political spectrum expressed concerns about the security situation in Afghanistan post- U.S. and NATO withdrawal this year. Members also appeared tense in their questioning of the U.S. government’s special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. Committee members repeatedly expressed their concerns on U.S. counter-terrorism operations as well the future of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan. Some senators in the committee expressed their support for President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. intervention in the country.

In her statement, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) tried to put faces to some of the names of the women who have been assassinated by the Taliban just in the past year since the signing of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. Shaheen brought a board with photos of the seven women, all ranging in careers and ages, including a journalist, physician, human rights activist, and civil servants of the Afghan government. In her testimony, she said, “these seven women didn’t deserve to die. We owe it to them and the generations that will come after them to do everything we can to prevent any more Afghan women [suffering] from the same fate.”

As the only woman sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Shaheen has been a champion for defending and speaking for Afghan women’s human rights. She stated, “This is not a women’s issue; it is a human rights issue, and it is the security issue for the future of Afghanistan.”

In a rather frustrated voice, she said that she has been “disappointed” with the lack of consideration for women’s rights from the previous administration and stated that the current administration hasn’t “sufficiently” answered her concerns either. Referring to what the Taliban’s values are, the current level of violence, and what the future holds for Afghan women, Shaheen repeatedly said, “I want to put a face to all that.” Pointing to the photos of the seven women, “they were murdered for choosing to live their lives outside the narrow confinements of what the Taliban and other extremist groups deem acceptable for women.”

Shaheen did not ask questions and used her time to address the issue of human rights and women’s rights. She said, “These are the Taliban who we are being asked to join at the negotiating table to support. I will not support any efforts that will allow them to continue to commit these horrific acts without any accountability for their behavior.”

As part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the U.S. and NATO forces will withdraw starting May 1st. Many Afghans and allies were hoping that the deteriorating security situation since the signing of the agreement and the violations of human rights by extremists would compel the U.S. and NATO to stay in the country to help with some stability. President Biden’s announcement came as a shock that the U.S. will withdraw all U.S. forces by 9/11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Senator Shaheen warned that, “What we do over the next four months will impact the lives of women for generations to come. We cannot let those two decades of work be ignored in peace talks.”

In a more tense exchange between Khalilzad and Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the provision of NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) to report to the Committee, he said, “if I don’t get the report, there will be no authorization coming from this committee.” The Senator referred to a requirement from the State Department to report on the Taliban’s compliance with the February 29/2020 agreement, signed between the U.S. and the Taliban under the Trump Administration.

Senator Menendez criticized the Biden Administration for a “limited” messaging on the withdrawal and what the future holds and urged the development of a “contingency plan” should the situation go out of control.

“I have deep concerns for the administration’s rush for the exit from Afghanistan,” said Senator James Risch (R-ID), ranking member of the Committee. The Senator agrees to withdraw from Afghanistan but that it “should only occur that safeguards U.S. national security, preserves the hard-fought gains, and protects the homeland.” All along, this is what the Afghan people have demanded as well. The Afghan people do not want the U.S. and NATO to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely but that allies should leave when the time is right.

While Khalilzad remained positive in his statement and spoke of “change” in the Taliban behavior and that the group does not intend to “return to the pariah status,” members appeared to be skeptical of his optimism. In response to much of the optimism shared by Khalilzad, Senator Menendez said, “I hope that your optimism is rewarded,” Menendez said. But “I fear that at some point in the future, we may be having a hearing that that isn’t the ultimate reality.” Khalilzad did not share the concerns of a collapse of the state of the Afghan government and mildly agreed to the high level of violence.

Afghan Women Negotiators Warn of “State Collapse” Should the US Leave Too Soon

In a hearing held by the Women, Peace, and Security Caucus, Afghan women negotiators emphasized that the United States’ support is critical to the peace process and democracy and that the U.S. “leaving should not result in state collapse and collapse of institutions.” The Afghan women negotiators cautioned that the Afghan peace process requires patience, that democracy, human rights and women’s rights, and a constitutional order must be protected. The four women are the only women negotiators representing the Afghan state in negotiating peace with the Taliban.

The Afghan women have high hopes that their international allies, those in the U.S. and especially in the U.S. Congress who stood with them for nearly two decades will support the Afghan people for obtaining a sustainable peace. The Afghan women were clear in their message to Congress: that the Afghan people need the U.S. support, that they value this partnership, and share the same values of equal rights for all and a democracy in which all Afghans thrive and have equal opportunities.

Fawzia Kofi, one of the negotiators and a former Member of the Afghan Parliament warned that the United States “should not simply hand over power to a few to make it easier to leave. If the U.S. leaves now, it will not result in peace and the U.S. might have to come back to fix the crisis.” In a clear reference on the possible repercussion of leaving too soon, she told the members that the U.S. decision will not only harm Afghans, but that “without proper patience and considerations, it will damage us all and that it will lead to a proxy war.”

The four negotiators were clear on the need for continuing the negotiations. “We are serious about peace. We want peace, but what kind of peace?” asked Fatima Gaillani, who also served as President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society for 13 years. “We have to achieve the peace that the people of Afghanistan want and deserve.”

In her opening statement, Gaillani reminded the Members of Congress of the youth of Afghanistan, stating that 70% of the Afghan population is under the age of 35 and that they support the gains and the values of the past 20 years. “The aspirations and the desires of the young people in Afghanistan are not any different than the young people in your country,” she told the U.S. Members of Congress.

Gaillani continued that, “in order to achieve the peace that young Afghans want and deserve, we have to be extremely careful. I would like you to know that the withdrawal of U.S. troops has to be extremely careful. It should not end up in chaos. It should not end up in the collapse of the state and the institutions.”

Habiba Sarabi, another negotiator and former governor of Bamiyan province, warned of the hasty withdrawal of the U.S. troops too and reminded the audience of the United States’ end of support to the Afghan people after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s. “We do not want another civil war and millions of Afghans leaving the country again,” she told the members.

The four negotiators also delivered strong messages on the importance of the U.S.-Afghanistan long-term strategic partnership and demanded “clarity” and “assurances” on any possible deal with the Taliban. “We have been in this for 20 years. It is a strategic partnership that we value and we would like to continue,” Said Kofi. Gaillani added, “The Afghan people want to be included in every step forward. Clarity about peace, about the peace process, assurance about the future, and an Afghanistan that countries like yours will be happy to help and partner.”

While being optimistic about the need to continue the negotiations with the Taliban, the four Afghan women demanded “assurances” on the Taliban claims about changes in their views on women’s rights. Sharifa Zurmati, another negotiator and a former Member of the Afghan Parliament stated that women’s rights cannot be “ignored.” She told the Members that the Taliban’s claim that they will allow women to study is not enough, “access to education is not the only right Afghan women should have. It does not encompass all rights. We need international support in getting assurances from the Taliban on women’s equal rights.”

She added that “Afghan women are worried if the international community will stand with them at this time of peace process and if international allies will fulfill their responsibilities when our rights are up for negotiations.” Zurmati continued that, “Afghan women are worried that will they be able to work in all areas as they have for the past 20 years? She told the Members that women’s equal rights and access to equal opportunities is not only critical for human rights but that it is needed for the country to progress in the right direction. Zurmati said, “Women are more than 50% of the country. How can they be ignored?”

The four negotiators asked for a prominent role for women in any future political settlement and reiterated that without guaranteed positions and quotas for women in any agreement, women’s rights and status cannot be preserved. Habiba Sarabi referred to the latest peace proposal to Afghanistan from the Biden Administration and shared her concerns on the creation of the High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence in the judiciary system as proposed by the U.S. State Department. “We know from experience that men will fill these positions. We know they are getting ready for these positions now. If there is no quota allocated for Afghan women, they will be prevented from joining any of these institutions,” Sarabi said.

Since the intra-Afghan talks began in September of 2020 in Doha, violence has been increasing inside Afghanistan. Fatima Gaillani expressed her concerns on the ongoing violence in the country and stated, “While we negotiate for peace in Doha, every day, everyday men, women, and children are killed in my country. Some are even chased to their homes to be killed.” She asked, “this has to stop.”

Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban, the Taliban stopped attacking American and NATO forces. In contrast, the group intensified their attacks on the Afghan forces and the Afghan people. As a result, the assassination of the young and educated Afghans as well as those who speak up have been at its peak.

Both Democrats and Republicans who participated in the hearing expressed their support for human rights, women’s rights, and democracy in Afghanistan and shared their concerns on losing the gains of the past two decades. Congressman Michael Waltz (R) of Florida who co-chairs the WPS Caucus shared his dismay at the latest peace proposal from the State Department that dismantling an elected government in Afghanistan is not the right thing to do. “I have serious concerns about the power sharing agreement that our State department is propagating in the peace negotiations,” he told the audience.

Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-FL) who co-chairs the WPS Caucus stated that, “Women are important players in security, prosperity of their communities, and in their countries, as mothers, as sisters, as wives, at home, at work, in the battlefield, and negotiations at the table.” While recognizing the courage and bravery of Afghan women in fighting for their equal rights, she assured them that, “We do not want to go backwards. There are many of us in the U.S. Congress who share your concerns. We will make sure that the progress made in human rights, especially women’s rights continue in Afghanistan.”

Afghan Women Reject US Peace Proposal: “Is This What American Democracy Looks Like?”

In response to the new US-proposed agreement for peace in Afghanistan, Afghan women’s groups and their leaders shared their dismay and stated that the agreement is proposed “without consulting Afghans and particularly Afghan women, who have made the greatest sacrifices over these four decades of war.” Their statement comes days after mounting frustrations among the Afghan people on the letter sent to their president by the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Soon after the letter to President Ghani was leaked, a proposed agreement was also made public outlining a proposal for a “political settlement” among Afghan leaders. 

The new US proposal calls for Afghanistan’s currently elected and legitimate government to be replaced with temporary leaders for a transitional period. Moreover, the proposal suggests that the Afghan Constitution be rewritten and that upon signing the agreement, a ceasefire will be brokered.

The coalition of the Afghan women’s groups wrote that the new proposal would “only dismantle our existing constitutional order, which so many Afghans and Americans fought and died to create, in favor of an unelected interim government that hands positions of power to the Taliban at the national and sub-national levels without forcing them to face their own people at the polls.” The Afghan women ask: “Is this what American democracy looks like?”

The statement emphasizes that since the beginning of the peace process that resulted in the February 29, 2020 US-Taliban agreement, the views of the Afghan people in general and women more specifically have been left out. The Afghan government was excluded from the agreement and in the process of negotiations and only a select number of “Afghan politicians outside of the government were engaged on a limited basis.”

In the statement, Afghan women demand “a more inclusive peace process, as aligned with international obligations under UNSCR 1325 and U.S. obligations under the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017.”

Afghan politicians and the Afghan people were aware of President Biden’s previous “forever wars” statements on Afghanistan, however, since the Trump administration was perceived more favorable to the Taliban, Afghans had high hopes that the new administration will bring more accountability to their peace process. Afghan women in particular had high hopes for the Biden administration that the United States would choose a path forward that would be in consultation with the Afghan people, would stand for the human rights of Afghan women and would support the republic, and a system that the United States once established and supported.

In contrast to Afghans’ hopes, the latest shift shared through Sec. Blinken’s letter and his proposed agreement has created an overwhelming level of frustration, disappointment, and fear of a rushed process that will lack long-term outcomes. The women’s groups share their fears of a Taliban comeback that could roll back much of the progress made over the last two decades.

Soon after the Biden administration announced that it will review the US-Taliban deal, negotiated by the Trump administration, and will do a “thorough assessment” of the past year, the Taliban negotiators, in protest, traveled to Pakistan, Iran, Moscow, and Turkey courting support and legitimacy.

Although the review is still believed to be ongoing, the latest development has been perceived as a sign of growing impatience and expediting the so-called peace process. Despite expert warnings on rushing the peace process as well as removing US and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 1, Blinken’s letter states that “all options” are on table, including the withdrawal of US troops.

The US, under the Trump leadership, signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020. As part of that agreement, the Taliban promised to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government and that the group will reduce violence. Despite these commitments, the violence and targeted killings have been at their peak for the past year, since the signing of the US-Taliban deal, and their leaders have remained disengaged from the peace process.

The intra-Afghan peace talks started with high hopes that at last peace might be within reach. However, the process proved to be slow, the Taliban remained disengaged, demanding more concession, leading to many doubts on the success of the peace process. The Taliban also continues to use violence as their main leverage at the negotiation table. The first round of talks ended in early December of last year and were scheduled to restart in January. However, the talks have been on hold.

Washington Post, March 2021, Tolonews March 2021, Afghan Women’s Groups statement, March 15, 2021

Afghanistan: Afghan Women Journalists Facing Rising Violence

A new report by the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reveals that in the past 6 months, there has been an 18% reduction in the number of women working for the media in Afghanistan. This decline comes amidst the ongoing violence and increased level of threats targeted at journalists and those working with the media. Women receive the highest level of threats and have been the biggest victims in losing their careers and safety. The report’s finding suggests that in the past few months, over 300 women journalists and media workers left their jobs because of safety and security concerns. Prior to the decline, there were 1,678 women who worked as journalists and media workers in Afghanistan. The number now stands at 1,377. 

In the past six months, 12 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan. Many more have been threatened, leading to an exodus of journalists from their jobs, and even from their country, for their own safety. This month alone, three young women who worked for a local TV and radio network in the east of the country, Jalalabad city, were shot dead on their way home from work. A fourth colleague of theirs was injured. A well-known presenter of the same network, Malalai Maiwand, also a woman, was gunned down in December 2020 on her way to work. 

On January 1st this year, Bismillah Adel, a well-known journalist and human rights advocate in the west of the country, Badghis, was killed shortly after he arrived in town to visit his family. He had moved to Kabul to a safe house for journalists after receiving threats. Two months after his death, unknown gunmen stormed his family house, killed three members of the family, kidnapped three and injured four. In addition to journalists and media workers being targeted directly, the tragedy of families becoming collateral in this war in Afghanistan is not new. 

For the past two decades, the media and a free press have been one of the major achievements of the international community’s engagement in Afghanistan. Afghan journalists took risks in creating a thriving media scene, one that up until recently, was unprecedented in Afghanistan and in the surrounding region. It grew from just one Taliban propaganda radio station to hundreds of radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, and journals. 

Free press is a key pillar of strengthening and promoting a democracy, a vision strongly shared by the Afghan journalists. Despite the many challenges, they remain committed to their duty to deliver information, to strengthen and promote their nascent democracy. 

Tolonews 3/8/2021, Pajhwok 3/8/2021, Atlantic Council 3/8/2021, BBC 3/3/2021, CNN 12/10/2020

Women Targeted in the Escalating Violence in Afghanistan

In a wave of assassinations in Afghanistan, this week four women media professionals and a gynecologist alongside her daughter were attacked in Jalalabad, an eastern city in Afghanistan. Mursal Wahidi, 25, Sadia Sadat, 20, and Shahnaz Raofi, 20, were shot dead on their way home from work. Their fourth colleague, also a woman, was wounded. The four women worked for a local radio and TV network. In December 2020, a well-known journalist and presenter, Malalai Maiwand, 26, who worked for the same radio and TV network was gunned down on her way to work. These are only a few of the Afghan women gone too soon. 

Since the signing of the peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban in February of 2020, a new chapter of violence has opened in Afghanistan. The nature of violence has changed from mass suicide attacks to unprecedented levels of targeted killings of media professionals, journalists, civil servants, members of civil society, NGO workers, health workers and advocates of human rights. Many of these attacks are unclaimed and the Afghan government has been unable to stop the assassinations and to bring those to justice who commit such crimes. 

Major suicide attacks and bomb explosions continue to terrorize Afghans but to a lesser extent. The Afghan people could often avoid places assumed to be the targets for suicide attacks but with the new tactic in place by the terrorist groups, Afghans cannot predict who would be next, leading to much fear and uncertainty among Afghans. 

In response to the latest attacks on women and human rights defenders, Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation stated that, “The high level of violence is not only against the spirit of peace talks, but is obviosly being used as leveage at the bargaining table by the Taliban. For peace to be achieved, the violence must stop.”

Although the government does not provide an exact list of the assassinations, according to the New York Times tally, more than 136 civilians and 168 Afghan security forces have been murdered in such killings over the past year. The 168 Afghan security forces were either targeted off duty or on their way to work. 

Based on a recent UNAMA report that records civilian casualties, the level of violence increased when the intra-Afghan peace talks began in September of last year. The report indicated that the overall level of violence in 2020 was down compared to 2019, but the level of violence was the highest between the months of September and December than it has ever been. 

With the start of the Afghan peace process, Afghans were hopeful that, at last, peace will prevail and that Afghan leaders will come to a compromise that will best serve their country and the nation. However, the high level of violence for the past year has resulted in a lack of trust in the peace process and a deteriorating hope for a lasting peace in the country. 

The U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 under the Trump leadership, in which the Taliban committed to not attack Americans or their interests in Afghanistan. The agreement did not include the same protections for the Afghan people. The US-Taliban deal has been viewed significantly flawed by many and is currently under review by the Biden administration. While all await the result of the review, the Afghan people hope that the Biden administration will do right by them, that it will use its leverage in the ongoing talks for a just, practical, inclusive and real peace in Afghanistan. 

More Afghans Killed During Peace Talks

A new report released by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reveals that the Taliban attacks increased when the intra-Afghan peace talks began in September of 2020. The report also indicates that the overall number of Afghans being killed in 2020 had decreased by 15% compared to 2019. In contrast to the past 12 years since UNAMA began recording the death toll in the country, the attacks intensified this past winter with the formal opening of the Afghan peace talks.

UNAMA has recorded a total of 8,820 civilian deaths and injuries, 1,146 of which are women and 2,619 are children in 2020. Based on the report, the Taliban and Islamic State, known as ISKP in Afghanistan, are responsible for 62% of the casualties. The remaining 25% are caused by the Afghan government, United States and NATO forces as well as other armed groups supporting the Afghan government. According to UNAMA’s 12 years of records, the total number of civilians killed and injured since 2009 now stands at 110,893, of which 35,559 were killed. This report does not include the military’s casualties resulting from insurgent attacks.

Although there is a 15% decrease in the overall killings of Afghans in 2020, there was a sharp increase in the targeted assassinations of civilians, including public servants, lawyers and judges, health workers, professors, leaders and members of civil society, journalists, NGO workers, human rights defenders, and anyone who spoke against violence and terror in the country. Civilian family members of the police and army were disproportionately targeted as well. Attackers used explosive devices, magnetic bombs attached to vehicles, and targeted killings. The report shows that there was a 69% increase in casualties resulting from explosive devices and a 62% increase in targeted killings compared to the same period in 2019. October and November were the deadliest months since UNAMA began recording in 2009.

The Taliban and other groups did not take responsibility for much of the attacks, but the UNAMA report suggests that the Taliban was responsible for two-thirds of the targeted attacks. The targeted attacks and the resulting casualties, while it might be perceived as small in number compared to 2019, the impact of these attacks were significant and created an “environment of fear and paralyzed many parts of society.”

The signing of the agreement between Afghanistan and the United States under President Trump’s leadership and the Taliban had given hopes to the Afghan people that it would lead to a quiet period and peace in the country. However, the agreement, as it was later revealed, only prevented the killing of Americans by the Taliban and vice versa. In the agreement, the Taliban side was not obligated to refrain from attacking the Afghan people and the Afghan forces, giving them the opportunity to use violence as the major leverage at hand during the intra-Afghan peace talks.

According to several reports, the Afghan people believe that negotiations with the Taliban are the only way to end the conflict in Afghanistan. However, they warn that the Taliban must know that they cannot return to power like they did prior to 2001. Afghans want to live under a republic in which they have equal rights, have the right to express themselves and hold authorities accountable – none of which the Taliban has shown to believe in these basic democratic values.

Source: UNAMA Feb. 2021

Afghanistan Study Group Warns Against U.S. Troop Withdrawal

A new report released by the Afghanistan Study Group has concluded that removing U.S. troops will lead to a civil war in Afghanistan. The group suggests changing the date, currently set for May 1 this year.  “A precipitous U.S. withdrawal is likely to exacerbate the conflict, provoking a wider civil war,” the report reads. It also warns that “A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors, including the Taliban.”

The Afghanistan Study Group is mandated by the U.S. Congress and led by former Senator Kelly Ayote and General Joseph Dunford. The group of experts and former U.S. leaders were charged with the examination the Doha Agreement, signed by the U.S. and Taliban leadership in Doha in February of 2020. Over a period of ten months, the group examined the situation in Afghanistan and concluded that the “possibility of civil war is high in the wake of a precipitous troop withdrawal.” 

At the launch of the report, co-chair of the group, General Joseph Dunford said, “We believe that the U.S. withdrawal will provide an opportunity to the terrorists to reconstitute and in our judgement that reconstitution will take about 18-36 months.” The group suggests that the withdrawal be linked to Taliban adherence to the agreements and a reduction in violence, not a deadline set in the Doha Agreement. 

General Dunford stated that, “We don’t believe that the Taliban are meeting the conditionality of the Feb. 2020 agreement.” He said that the group examined the conditionality in three areas, “One, the progress towards a peace agreement; secondly, a genuine broad reduction in violence; third, to demonstrate the will and capacity to prevent Al-Qaeda and ISIS from using Afghanistan as a platform for terrorism.” 

The third point has been supported by reports from the UN and a recent US Treasury report that highlighted the continued relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the benefits that the Taliban derives from that relationship. The Treasury Department wrote in their report that “Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban protection.” 

The Study Group advocated strongly for a renewed diplomatic engagement in Afghanistan, highlighting regional roles, and saying that “a responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops will demonstrate America’s fidelity to its foreign policy objectives and the benefits of diplomatic engagement.” 

While the intra-Afghan peace talks have been on hold for the past month, on several occasions the Taliban has warned that if U.S. troops are not withdrawn by May 1, they will further increase the violence inside the country and renew attacks on the U.S. and NATO troops as well. Based on the agreement between the US and the Taliban, the Taliban avoided targeting international troops but has increased its attacks on the Afghan security forces as well as the Afghan people. 

In speaking with members of civil society and the media, the Afghan government and its delegation in Doha criticized the Taliban for not attending the peace talks. Since news of the review of the agreement was announced by the Biden administration, Taliban leaders have traveled to Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and have been meeting with the leadership of these countries. The Afghan government’s delegation says they have been waiting for the Taliban negotiators to return to Doha to resume the process. 

In January, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Biden administration will review and assess the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. While the review is underway, intra-Afghan peace talks are on hold in Doha. Many Afghans and allies await a renewed direction in the Afghan peace talks. 


Biden Administration to Review US-Taliban Agreement

In a conversation with Afghan National Security advisor Hamdullah Mohib, President Biden’s National Security advisor Jake Sullivan once again relayed that the Biden administration will review and assess the Doha Agreement, signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban. Sullivan also ensured US support “for protecting the extraordinary gains made by Afghan women, girls, and minority groups.” 

A White House statement about Sullivan’s call with Hamdullah Mohib says that Sullivan “made clear the United States’ intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

The review of the agreement and the Biden’s administration’s intention of “consulting closely” with the government of Afghanistan, NATO allies, and regional partners has been welcomed by Afghan women’s human rights groups, Afghan politicians, and the media at large.

In a cabinet meeting, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the Biden administration’s review and called it “a new chapter”  in the US and the Afghan government’s relationship. President Ghani and his government were sidelined under the Trump administration and were not part of the negotiations between the US and the Taliban. While welcoming the news, Ghani said, “Our relations will be at the level of government-to-government.”

During his confirmation hearing last Tuesday, Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he will review the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban and emphasized protecting and supporting the hard-won gains of Afghan women.

The Doha Agreement was signed by Taliban leadership and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in February of 2020. The agreement was followed by negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as part of the deal between the US and the Taliban. 

The Intra-Afghan talks began September 12th of 2020 and lasted for 84 days. During that period, the two sides only agreed on procedural matters. The Afghan government’s negotiators as well as the Taliban are back in Doha since January 7th to resume the second round of talks. However, the teams have not met over the last two weeks.


Antony Blinken: Taliban Cannot Be Trusted with US Security and Gains Must be Protected

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Antony Blinken promised to protect the hard-won gains of Afghan women and girls if confirmed as Secretary of State. He stated that the Taliban cannot be trusted with US national security, policing Al-Qaeda and ISIS attacks on the US, and that a further withdrawal of US troops will be conditions based.

“Any agreement that trusts the Taliban to police Al-Qaeda and ISIS without us having any say in that would be a bad deal,” Blinken said in response to Senator Lindsey Graham’s questions. 

In response to questions from Senator Jeanne Shaheen Blinken stated that, “I don’t believe that any outcome that they might achieve, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, is sustainable without protecting the gains that has been made by the women and girls of Afghanistan over the last 20 years, when it comes to access to education, healthcare, and to employment.” 

Blinken affirmed that “I think we have a strong interest, if there is an agreement, if it is going to hold up, to do what we can to make sure that those rights are preserved.”

While acknowledging the challenges ahead, he promised to review the agreement between the US and the Taliban and assess what promises were made and met so far. Blinken told the senators that, “we have to look carefully at what has been negotiated. I haven’t been privy to it yet, particularly with the agreement that was first reached between the US and the Taliban to understand fully what commitments were made or not made by the Taliban and then to see where they get with their negotiations with the government of Afghanistan.”

Recently, in an interview with the BBC, the first Vice President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, called the Taliban “terrorists” and stated that they cannot be trusted. “The Taliban were terrorists. They are terrorists today. They are killing women, activists, civil rights activists. You [US] want to negotiate with terrorism, it’s your choice. But we are telling you, don’t be deceived,” he said.

Under the Trump administration the US and the Taliban signed an agreement, also referred to as the Doha agreement, in February 2020. Although the Afghan government was not a party to the agreement between the US and the Taliban, the Afghan government was forced by US officials to release more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners, as part of the deal that the US had agreed to with the Taliban.

“The US delegation came to us and swore on every Holy Scripture that if you release these 5,000 Taliban prisoners there will be no violence. We told them at the highest level that our intelligence indicated otherwise, and if we do this violence will spike. Violence has spiked,” Mr. Saleh added. In the last two months alone, many members of civil society, women’s rights activists, and several journalists were murdered in targeted killings.

The first round of the Intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban ended early December 2020 for a month-long break, after 84 days of negotiations in Doha. In the first round of talks, the negotiators agreed on the procedures of the process only. The second round of talks has been on hold, awaiting a decision from the Biden Administration. It will focus on substantive issues, at the top of which are the future of the Afghan government and a ceasefire. 

Two Female Afghan Supreme Court Judges Assassinated as Violent Terrorist Attacks Increase

On Sunday, in yet another targeted attack by the Taliban, two women judges on the Supreme Court of Afghanistan were shot and killed in Kabul. Two other employees of the Court were wounded in the same attack. The judges, along with their colleagues, were on their way to work in the morning when two gunmen killed and wounded the judges. Targeted assassinations have been at peak levels for the past three months in Afghanistan. Journalists, human rights activists, Afghan women leaders, Afghan government leaders, religious scholars and young human rights activists have been the target of these attacks.

The US and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 in which the US committed to a possible complete withdrawal of troops by May 1st of this year if certain conditions are met. One of the conditions was that the Taliban would reduce violence and stop attacking US and allied troops and interests. Although the Taliban avoided attacking US troops, the group increased its attacks against the Afghan people and the Afghan government. For the past 20 years, the US has supported the Afghan government and has been an ally and a reliable partner. However, the Taliban has refused to acknowledge the Afghan government and increased its attacks on the Afghan people and the Afghan government. 

The US has entered several agreements with the government of Afghanistan, including the U.S.–Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement signed by former President Obama, in which the Afghan government is viewed as an ally and partner. Both of these agreements are legally binding and obligate the US to a longer commitment to Afghanistan, especially to the security of Afghanistan as well as supporting the economy of Afghanistan “until 2024 and beyond.”

This month, Afghanistan’s national director of intelligence, Ahmad Zia Siraj, told Afghan parliamentarians that the Taliban had carried out more than 18,000 attacks against the Afghan people in 2020, while they were negotiating peace in Doha. 

The Afghan government and women’s rights groups have been voicing their concerns that the Taliban has not met the conditions of ceasing or “reducing” violence. Multiple officials of the Afghan government said the Taliban and its affiliates are behind the attacks, however, the Taliban has denied their role in the targeted killings of the Afghan civil servants and prominent human rights advocates. 

Many Afghan officials believe that the Taliban denial is a new strategy they are employing while engaging in the peace talks. For the first time since the peace talks, US armed forces spokesman in Afghanistan Colonel Sonny Leggett blamed the Taliban for the increased attacks too. He tweeted that, “The Taliban’s campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must … cease for peace to succeed.”

Negotiators from the Afghan government’s team as well as the Taliban, are back in Doha to resume the peace talks. According to Reuters, the second round has been slow as both sides wait for a decision by the incoming Biden Administration on Afghanistan. While the teams await a decision, they have met a few times to discuss an agenda and to keep the process active. President-elect Biden and his team have largely remained silent on their Afghan strategy.

Strong Bipartisan Support in Stopping US Troop Reduction in Afghanistan

With overwhelmingly bipartisan support, Congress overturned President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2021. It states emphatically that the president alone cannot decide to reduce the number troops in Afghanistan. The Act also includes that the human rights of women and girls and minority populations must be protected in Afghanistan.  The House voted 322 – 87 and the Senate voted 81 – 13 in favor of overriding the President’s veto of the bill. The NDAA was enacted into law on new year’s day despite Trump’s veto.

Section 1213 of the Act states that “it is in the national security interests of the United States to deny terrorists safe haven in Afghanistan, protect the United States homeland, uphold the United States partnership with the Government of Afghanistan and cooperation with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and protect the hard-fought rights of women, girls, and other vulnerable populations in Afghanistan.”

For Afghan women’s rights groups, the overriding of President Trump’s veto of the bill is a step towards ensuring that the ongoing efforts for peace are not rushed and that the US troops will not leave prematurely. The US and the Taliban signed an agreement in February of 2020 which obligates the Taliban to reduce violence in Afghanistan. The Taliban, however, has increased violence against the Afghan people and the Afghan government. Targeted killings have been at its peak, killing members of civil society, journalists, and women’s rights leaders. In the last two months alone, 11 journalists have been assassinated throughout the country. This bill comes at an important time to assess the level of violence perpetrated by the Taliban and to hold the terrorist group accountable for indiscriminately killing members of a vibrant civil society.

The provisions in the NDAA authorize Congress to withhold funding for further troop reductions until reports from several agencies indicate, among several other issues, how a withdrawal will not “compromise” the US counterterrorism mission as well as not “increase the risk of the expansion of existing” or new terrorist groups. According to the Act, these reports come from offices of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander of United States Central Command, the Commander of United States Forces, Afghanistan; and the United States Permanent Representative to NATO is submitted to the four different committees of the House and Senate.  

The overriding of President Trump’s veto of NDAA 2021 by Congress was received with sigh of relief by many, including Afghan women rights leaders and groups who were concerned that the troop reduction was too early and too severe given the level of violence in Afghanistan perpetrated by the Taliban. In December, Trump announced that he was going to further reduce the troops before leaving office to fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan. The Act orders that the current number of troops may not be reduced from 8,000 or the number of troops at the time of the enactment of the Act or below 4,000. Currently, there are about 4,500 US security forces serving in Afghanistan. 

Malala Maiwand: Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist Assassinated

Today, on World Human Rights Day, journalist and women’s rights activist Malala Maiwand was assassinated on her way to work in Jalalabad city in Afghanistan. Malala worked at a private tv and radio network and her driver, Tahir, was assassinated in the attack as well. 

In addition to her full-time journalism job, Malala worked on promoting women’s rights too. She worked on women’s access to education, employment and information. Her mother, a local leader, was assassinated 12 years ago. This report, Forgotten Heroes, highlighting some of the assassinations of activist and leader women, including Malala’s mother, Belqis Mazlomyar, quoted Malala for following in the footsteps of her mother to continuing her legacy of activism. As the eldest child of her late mother, Malala was left to raise her four siblings, all of whom she made sure were educated. Her father was assassinated by the Taliban too. No one has claimed responsibility for her assassination yet. 

Since the beginning of the so-called Inter-Afghan peace talks, targeted assassinations have been at their peak. Malala is the third journalist and human rights activist to have been killed by armed men in daylight in the past month and a half. In an interview with Tolonews, she had mentioned receiving death threats for her work. 

While leaders continue to condemn each attack on civilians, the Afghan people are losing hope on what the peace process means for them, unprecedented killings of the civilian people. In continuing with condemnations from global allies and Afghan leaders on the increased violence, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in support of the Afghan people, calling out Taliban violence and a commitment to supporting Afghan’s human rights. 

Sources: Twitter 12/10/2020, Relief Web 12/12/2012, Tolonews 12/10/2020

U.S. House Committee Hearing Warns Against Troop Reduction in Afghanistan

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the Hill last Friday at which a panel of three foreign policy experts, and most members of the Committee, expressed their concerns about the ongoing peace process and the impending Trump-backed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The three experts called it a “mistake,” “dangerous” and changing “the balance of power in favor of the Taliban and other terrorist groups.”

On the panel, former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who also served as ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, testified alongside Dr. Stephen Biddle, Professor at Columbia University and Dr. Seth Jones, Director of Transnational Threats Project at Center for Strategic & International Studies. All three unanimously told the Committee that without U.S. military support, the Afghan forces will not win the war against the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the country.

Ambassador Crocker stated that the troop reduction sends the Taliban a signal that “you win – we lose. Let’s dress this up the best way we can.” Ambassador Crocker called the ongoing negotiations “surrender talks,” agreeing to the Taliban’s long-time demand to speak with them and not include the Afghan government. He argued that with a continued U.S. engagement and strategic patience “with an educated population and girls and women playing the role they deserve is the best way to ensure our long-term security.”

Dr. Biddle called President Trump’s announcement of a 50% troop reduction a “mistake” and said, “our interests are best served by no further withdrawal.” He believes that “we should not give away more concessions without being requited” by the Taliban. He referred to the Taliban slowing down the peace talks in hope that the U.S. will make further concessions. He asked, “Why should the Taliban make any concessions when the U.S. keeps giving away what they want for free, step by step, gradually over time?”

Dr. Jones argued that “absent a peace deal and the further withdrawal of U.S. forces will likely continue to shift the balance of power in favor of the Taliban and other militant groups including Al-Qaeda and their supporters which include Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and other countries and outside actors.” Dr. Jones recommended that the U.S. continue to build “political consensus, support peace talks, and to at least prevent the overthrow of the Afghan government by the Taliban.”

The experts also stated that the Taliban group continues to threaten human and civil rights in Afghanistan. Ambassador Crocker warned, “they have not become kinder and gentler”, while Dr. Jones made clear references to the “deeply troubling” treatment of women today in areas under their control. In his latest research paper, published the same day of the hearing in the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, he writes that the “Taliban’s persecution of women is particularly concerning. Women who are victims of domestic violence have little recourse to justice in Taliban courts, and the Taliban discourages women from working [employment outside the house], denies women access to modern healthcare, prohibits women from participating in politics [or entering politics], and supports such punishments against women as stoning and public lashing.” He also highlighted the fact that the Taliban’s negotiating team includes no women.

Dr. Jones told the lawmakers that, “Congress has a very important role to keep this as a front burner issue. There has been a major progress on women’s issues in the past 20 years and a Taliban takeover will eliminate that virtually immediately.”

The hearing took place just a few days after President Trump announced that he will reduce the current number of troops to 2,500 from 4,500 by mid-January. The announcement drew criticism domestically and globally, including from Trump’s own party and allies, calling it a “mistake” and “dangerous.”

Sources: House Armed Services Committee 11/20/2020; West Point 11/20/2020; Academy of Diplomacy 11/20/22; CSIS 11/20/2020; Columbia University 11/20/2020; Feminist Newswire 11/18/2020

Trump’s Order to Withdraw from Afghanistan Draws Ire Domestically and Abroad

On Tuesday, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of more troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Leaders within his party, as well as global allies, shared their concerns that leaving “too soon” could have a high cost.

In a statement to CNN, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that, “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.” He stated that global security continues to be at risk from international terrorist groups who might organize attacks from Afghanistan.

Trump’s announcement has been met with opposition from his strong supporters in the Republican party as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “mistake” and warned against “any earth-shaking changes in regards to defense and foreign policy.” Another top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry also voiced his opposition to the move, calling the troop reduction “unjustified” and that it ignores “dangers on the ground.” 

Stoltenberg went on to say that NATO went into Afghanistan to support the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorist groups again. He also called on NATO allies to honor their commitment to withdraw at the right time saying, “We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way.” He asked his NATO allies to “live up to this commitment, for our own security.”

Despite several warnings from security experts and allies, including from his own party, Trump is set to further reduce U.S. troops from Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500. While withdrawing from Afghanistan was one of Trump’s campaign strategies, on his way out from office he is insisting on withdrawing more troops without regard to the reality on the ground.

In a memo to the White House, recent former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also objected to the U.S. troop withdrawl. He warned that it was the “unanimous recommendation of the chain of command” that the U.S. does not reduce or withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Several sources have indicated that this might have been the reason for Esper’s removal from office by Trump. Soon after Trump fired Esper in a tweet, he installed his apparent loyalists in the Department of Defense.

The Afghan people, especially Afghan women, do not want the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan  “forever”. Women’s rights groups and civil society as well as the Afghan government do not want the U.S. to leave now. They demand that the U.S. leave when things improve domestically and in a timely order.

The Afghan government has also expressed their concerns about the existence of several terrorist groups and that they “need help from the U.S. to defeat them.” Since the intra-Afghan peace talks began in September, violence has been at its peak in the country. The Taliban, while still engaging in the peace talks, increased their attacks on the Afghan people. The group has specifically targeted what is referred to as “soft targets,” including women leaders, members of civil society, public servants, and journalists.

The Taliban use of violence as leverage at the peace talks has been condemned by Afghans and global allies, including the U.S. However, the U.S. has not been able to convince the group to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire or reduction in violence. The two sides have yet to agree on the ground rules of the negotiations. The talks have been frozen for weeks.

The Taliban demands to use the U.S.-Taliban agreement as the base for their political negotiations and the Hanafi Jurisprudences as the base for Islamic issues. The Afghan government refuses to accept the U.S.-Taliban agreement on the grounds of not being party to the agreement. The Afghan government also disagrees with only basing Islamic issues on the Hanafi Jurisprudence while ignoring all other religious minorities in the country.

In February of this year, the Taliban and the U.S. signed a peace deal in which the Taliban agreed to not attack the U.S. and allied troops but refused to agree to not attack the Afghan people and the Afghan army.

Sources: CNN 11/17/2020; CNN 11/13/2020; WashingtonPost 11/14/2020; BBC 11/18/2020; Twitter 11/09/2020; Tolonews 11/18/2020; U.S. News 11/17/2020

Despite Warnings, Trump Pushes for Afghanistan Withdrawal

Soon after President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a tweet, he appointed his apparent loyalists and strong opponents of US presence in Afghanistan; Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor has been appointed as the senior advisor to the new acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, who has been against US troops’ presence in Afghanistan. Macgregor has advocated for a complete withdrawal of the US troops and even the removal of the US Embassy in Kabul. Along with the firing of Mark Esper, three other senior civilian officials either resigned or were fired.

The changes in the leadership of the Defense Department worried many in the US and Afghanistan. These changes also come at a time that many top generals and security officials have repeatedly warned against a rushed and a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. A number of current and former both security and civilian officials have repeatedly called a complete withdrawal “reckless” and dangerous. US security officials have also repeatedly warned of the existence of terrorist groups and leaving a security vacuum in Afghanistan.

Sources close to CNN have told the TV station that the changes in the Defense Department were prompted by Esper disagreeing with Trump on a “premature” and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Esper and his aides advocated for two major conditions to be met before the US withdrew its troops from the country: the Taliban cutting its ties with Al-Qaeda, and agreeing to come to an agreement with the Afghan government. Both conditions are not met. Several reports of the UN and other sources indicate that the Taliban continues to enjoy strong support from Al-Qaeda, and the group has been vocal on not recognizing the Afghan government or making any progress in the ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

Despite the lack of progress in peace talks and the deteriorating security situation on the ground across Afghanistan, the Trump Administration continues to push for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, something that has worried many Afghans and allies across the world. France’s Foreign Minister recently said that in an upcoming meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he will make it clear to Pompeo to not withdraw from Afghanistan or Iraq because of the continued presence of terrorist groups, threatening global security. NATO Secretary-General made similar statements, on considering the reality on the ground.

Afghans and experts on Afghanistan hope that with the departure of Trump, there will be a change, more clarity, and accountability on Afghanistan in the Biden Administration. Afghan negotiator and a former Member of Parliament, Fawzia Kofi, hopes that the new administration will consider the reality on the ground and will have better clarity so that the Afghan government can be better prepared for any reduction in numbers of troops. Biden and his team have yet to announce a strategy on Afghanistan, but there is hope that he will not create a complete security vacuum in Afghanistan or the Middle East.

On the other hand, the Taliban has increased its attacks on the Afghan people and uses the increased violence as leverage in the peace talks. The group warned that if the new administration in the US does not abide by the Doha agreement, signed between the US and the Taliban in February of this year, they will further intensify their war against the Afghan people. In the last two months since the negotiations began on September 12 in Doha, the Taliban has increasingly targeted women leaders, members of civil society, students in educational centers and a university, and recently assassinated two well-known journalists.

There is no progress reported on the Afghan government and the Taliban peace talks in Doha. The Taliban argues to base their negotiations on the agreement signed between the group and the US. However, the Afghan government was not a part of the Doha agreement, is not a signatory to the agreement, and refuses to accept the Doha agreement as the base for the negotiations. The Afghan government has suggested to the Taliban to respect the will of the Afghan people and the several bilateral agreements between the Afghan government and its international allies, including the US.

Sources: CNN 11/12/2020, Reuters 11/13/2020, Tolonews 11/13/2020, Politico 11/12/2020, Twitter 11/09/2020, BBC 10/29/2020, Tolonews, 11/12/2020, , BBC 11/08/2020, AP 11/12/2020

Taliban Uses Increasing Violence as Leverage in Peace Talks

In a series of targeted killings across Afghanistan, Afghan journalists and members of civil society have become the biggest targets. Today, in yet another violent attack, Afghanistan lost a beloved and experienced journalist and a member of the civil society in Helmand, the southern part of the country. The killing of Elyas Dayee comes a day after the Afghan vice president warned that intelligence reports revealed that members of civil society are being targeted. 

Elyas Dayee was a regional reporter for one of the highly respected radio station, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, supported by the US. Dayee, at age 33, was recently awarded the Courageous Journalist Award of the year and is survived by a toddler daughter and his wife. He worked as a journalist for 12 years in several of the frontlines across the country. His assasination has been condemned by many, including US officials in Kabul.

The killing of Dayee comes only a few days after another highly respected journalist, Yama Siawash, was assassinated in Kabul. On Saturday, three people, including former TOLO News news anchor and journalist Yama Siawash, were killed in an explosion on their way to work. Siawash was in his late 20s, led a major news program that was critical of the Taliban, other terrorist groups, and at times had heated debates with Afghan officials too. He had received threats, leading him to leave his job for his own security, but was still assassinated.

Afghan journalists and members of the civil society call it a “systematic murders of Afghan journalists” who are reporting on realities from the ground. Many of the latest assassinations happened through exploding a magnetic IED attached to the vehicles of these targets. No groups have taken responsibility for the targeted assassinations but Afghan officials and members of the Afghan civil society believe that the Taliban is responsible for these attacks. The Taliban leadership, residing in Doha, Qatar, often claims that they are the only group behind attacks and violence.

In less than one month, the Taliban group has launched major attacks against what are called “soft targets” across the country. In October, the group targeted an educational center in the West of Kabul, killing 43 high school students who were taking additional classes to prepare for university exams. Later that week, the group attacked Kabul University, killing 22 students all between the ages of 17 and 23.

The Taliban group has increased violence in Afghanistan despite continuing to be part of the peace talks in Doha. The group says they use violence as leverage at the negotiating table. The US and the Taliban entered a peace deal in February of this year, in which the Taliban agreed to not attack US and allied forces. However, the Taliban has intensified their attacks against the Afghan people more than ever before. The Afghan people, especially women’s rights groups, have repeatedly asked the Taliban for “a comprehensive ceasefire,” a demand the group refuses to agree to. While the US officials often condemn the attacks and the rising level of violence, they have not been able to push the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire or to not target Afghan civilians.

Sources: Radio Free Europe 11/12/20; Tolo News 11/12/20


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