Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, third from left, greets Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban's political office, after talks in Moscow last week. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu

The recent round of talks between the US government and Taliban leaders in Qatar has renewed hopes for peace in Afghanistan, a country plagued by nearly four decades of war.

However, peace talks with the militant group also raised concerns among Afghan citizens with regard to the political and social achievements of the last 18 years, made after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

In talks held last week the US’ special envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leaders reportedly agreed to an initial framework of the eventual peace negotiations — these meetings are being referred to as “talks of talks” within Afghan political circles.

While there are several unverified accounts in the Afghan and international media with regards to this framework, the withdrawal of US troops is certain to be among them. “We made progress on vital issues in our discussions and agreed to agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues,” Khalilzad told the media in Kabul on Monday. He arrived in the Afghan capital to inform President Ashraf Ghani of the new developments.

“There is a lot more work to be done before we can say we have succeeded in our efforts but I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress,” Khalilzad said.

Due to strong resistance from the Taliban, the Afghan government is not yet fully involved in the talks. Lack of Afghan government participation has left many Afghans perturbed about their interests being represented in the eventual peace deal that will be agreed upon.

Cost of peace for Afghans

Shkula Zadran, a social activist from Kabul, told Asia Times: “We have sacrificed a lot in the past 18 years for women’s rights, human rights, education, democracy and to build an army. Now it seems that the US and Taliban want peace among themselves and couldn’t care less about our values and sacrifices.” She added: “Peace is the demand of every single Afghan but it must be clear, at what cost are we getting it?”

Afghans are also concerned about the role played by their neighbor Pakistan in pressuring the Taliban to take part in the talks.

“The Taliban don’t feel the urge to talk to the government and seem to have an upper hand in the talks, (and) that’s because the US (are) rushing into this deal,” explained Hekmat Azamy, deputy director at Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.

“I condemn this hasty negotiation. This is not how it should be. The situation in Afghanistan should also not be used as President Donald Trump’s agenda for the next US elections,” he said.

US in a rush

The US administration has admitted to the haste and in a statement issued on Monday said the hurry was “for the sake of the Afghan people to end the violence as soon as we can”.

However, rights organizations are worried that this rush might compromise the rights and freedom of vulnerable groups, notably Afghan women who suffered great mistreatment when the Taliban were in power. The Taliban severely restricted women’s rights and freedom under their extremist rule in the late 1990s.

“The US actors involved seem to feel a need to move quickly. It’s no secret that there is real fatigue in the US with its involvement in the Afghan war, not least by President Trump. The US negotiators may be fearing that their efforts will be cut off abruptly by a presidential tweet, so that certainly encourages haste,” explained Heather Barr, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Women fearful

Zadran, like many Afghan women, has serious fears about losing her rights and progress stalled in a Taliban-controlled government.

“I am scared that once Taliban come to power, [the women] will get locked at home behind closed doors; we won’t be allowed to wear what we want. We will be beaten up for showing our ankles and the scariest part for me is to see Afghan girls not being allowed to go to schools and universities,” she said, the frustration evident in her voice.

“Afghan women had a lot achievement over the last two decades, from politics to economy, education, sport, etc. In case of peace with Taliban, will all these achievements be lost? Or will they allow it?” This is a prime concern among vulnerable groups in Afghanistan now.

Moment of truth

Human Rights Watch has issued an appeal that all parties involved in the talks ensure and safeguard rights of vulnerable communities. “The US officials should do what UN Security Council resolution 1325 has called for the last 20 years – ensure that women are full participants in all peace processes,” Barr said.

“This is the moment of truth! And because research shows that there is a greater likelihood of reaching a peace deal, and that deal [will be] successfully implemented if women are at the table, all Afghans have a crucial interest in the US getting this right,” she said.

“Afghans need peace now – the human cost every day that the war continues is devastating. But for a deal to be accepted and feel safe to everyone, including women, there is a need for people to know what the deal looks like and have people representing their interests be part of shaping it,” she urged.

Zardan raised another key concern – the role of Pakistan in the negotiations – warning: “We should learn from history and shouldn’t blindly trust the US and Pakistan.”

The Pakistan administration has been criticized for supporting and hosting the Taliban leaders, a contention held strongly by Afghans. As a result, Afghan analysts such as Azamy are also worried about the influence the neighboring state might exert on the talks.

He also referred to recent claims by the Pakistan army spokesperson over their success in facilitating recent talks in Qatar: “The Taliban claim to be independent, but there’s no denying that the Pakistani army controls them. They are even announcing it out loud now and taking credit for bringing Taliban to the talks with the US. The Taliban isn’t denying this either”.

“As an Afghan, any deal made with Pakistani overlooking [controlling] Taliban will make me very insecure; such a deal will not be in our national interest,” Azamy insisted, adding that the involvement of all international stakeholders must be limited and that the eventual deal should be an intra-Afghan dialogue.

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