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Amid Push for Talks With Taliban, Where Do Rights of Afghan Women Fit In?

June 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Three Afghan women, influential figures in politics, business and non-governmental organizations, were in Washington last week meeting with senior members of the Obama administration and Congress on the topic of negotiating peace with the Taliban. Margaret Warner gets their views on the situation in their country.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight, Afghanistan, where both the U.S. and Afghan governments are exploring new negotiations with the Taliban.

Margaret Warner sat down with three Afghan women who have a significant amount at stake in the outcome.

WOMAN: We don’t see the real inclusion. We don’t see the real sort of participation of us.

MARGARET WARNER: These women are influential figures in Afghanistan in politics, business and non-governmental organizations. That’s a far cry from the subordinate role women held in Taliban era Afghanistan, barred from schools and most jobs and brutalized for social infractions.

They were in Washington last week meeting with senior members of the administration and Congress. Their message? Women’s voices must be heard as the U.S. and Afghan governments chart the course ahead. Their visit came at a crucial time. The summer fighting season against the Taliban has reached a fever pitch.

Yet the administration and President Hamid Karzai’s government are stepping up efforts to talk to the Taliban, including figures reportedly close to Mullah Omar, seeking a negotiated end to the 10-year-old war. What’s more, President Obama is on the verge of announcing how many U.S. troops he will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan next month.

At a White House meeting, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the president’s point man on Afghanistan, told the women the troop decision will be made in a thoughtful manner.

LT. GEN. DOUGLAS LUTE, U.S. Deputy National Security adviser: I want to first reassure you that this is not — this will be — this will be a responsible, deliberate adjustment of U.S. force posture, and not a rush to the exit, as some people have suggested.

MARGARET WARNER: I spoke with three of these women right after that session.

Afghan-American entrepreneur Rangina Hamidi set up a business for local women producing embroidered goods in Kandahar. I began by asking her how she feels about talking to the Taliban, who still terrorize her city.

RANGINA HAMIDI, Kandahar Treasure: I live in a region where death is part of life in a way that is not understood in a lot of parts of the world.

Death is so close to us, where every second and every minute of our life, we consider and accept that we might not be here the next minute. And so, if talking to the Taliban would mean bringing peace and stability to the level where I don’t have to think about death every second of my life, then I’m for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Quhramaana Kakar, a gender adviser to President Karzai’s negotiating team, supports the talks, but she also worries about where they might lead.

QUHRAMAANA KAKAR, Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program: As a woman, I do have concerns with other women in the country, and that the — a peace deal with the Taliban might affect human rights or the rights of women which they have right now in the country.

However, I would say that the government has to ensure that the rights of all citizens are protected and that, when negotiations take place, all the conditions on the rights of women or human rights in general should be taken into account.

MARGARET WARNER: Thirty-year-old Wazhma Frogh advocates for women’s causes in Afghanistan. She supports the talks too, despite vivid memories of the fear she felt as a refugee in Pakistan returning for visits home in the Taliban days.

WAZHMA FROGH, Afghan Women’s Network: From a matter of principle, I am for it, even with the Taliban and other elements. But I also believe that Taliban are not the only threats to the women of Afghanistan or to the people of Afghanistan.

I have seen warlords who have raped women on the streets. We have seen people who have taken our lands. We have seen people who have done more damage.

MARGARET WARNER: Do any of you know anyone personally who identifies himself as Taliban?

WAZHMA FROGH: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think he or they have changed their attitudes about the role of women in society?

WAZHMA FROGH: These couple of the commanders that I came to know and I know, like, they are very, very traditional people. Their mentality — they grew up in a home where they didn’t see their own mother, for example, literally.

They were trained and brought up in camps across the nation where they didn’t see the love of a mother, the love of a father, of a family, so that they can be included in a society as a normal human being. So, when you take these elements or this background into consideration, you can be hopeful that they’re human beings that they will change, because to be a human being, we’re constantly changing.

Then you have commanders who are very ideologically driven, and they are very politically driven. Their ideas is that, for example, there should not — should be no school in this village, no clinic, no sort of progress, no government presence.

With them, it’s much more difficult. These are the people who behead, for example, schoolteachers. These are the people who burn down schools. And it’s very difficult to reconcile with that sort of element.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you want to add something?

QUHRAMAANA KAKAR: I could also not imagine if I could — if I would ever be able to talk with a Talib commander or with people who have been at the leadership level of the Taliban.

But I wouldn’t name anyone. But, right now, I sit with them. They were former Talibans, but they have joined the government. They discuss with me political situations, the situation of women. They give some very good recommendations in order to improve the situation of women in the country.

WAZHMA FROGH: I think what is missing from the current conversation on Afghanistan, that the Afghan government is a part of the problem.

The reasons that it has driven people towards insurgency and the brand of Taliban is the Afghan government. It has no capacity in providing people with those access to justice. So, a 13-year-old girl raped with 13 police, 13 men which — police officers among them, what do you expect people — like, the father of that girl says, I will blow myself up in a suicide attack, blowing up a government entity.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that is really what is driving the insurgency?

RANGINA HAMIDI: Young men, they absolutely no opportunity.

I went to Uruzgan in 2005 and saw streets full of young men just sitting in the sun, just bathing in the sun because there was nothing to do, no schools, no jobs, no factories, no skill-producing activities for them to be involved with.

MARGARET WARNER: If Taliban return to the government, do you think they will start pushing a more conservative social agenda about the role and rights of women?

QUHRAMAANA KAKAR: It depends. If they come in and join the government with accepting the constitution and special articles related to human rights in general and women’s rights, I think they will be obliged then, according to the constitution, to allow women to participate in all — in all sectors, whether it’s social or political.

However, the risk is there, of course.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the Karzai government listening to these concerns, is it committed to these concerns as it embarks on these talks?

WAZHMA FROGH: I don’t think so. He does listen us at times, just the way the international community listens to us, but never does what we ask him for.

Similarly, the president, too, listens to us. We have relationships. We have conversations. But, in action, because it’s not the priority for them, it’s the — that the threat has to be mitigated, and that we are not the threat. We are — the women of this country are not the threat. So, literally, what they are doing is to mitigate the threat, and we will talk about women’s issues later.

RANGINA HAMIDI: But the reason we are supporting peace first and most importantly is that, when there is peace, at least the threat to our life will hopefully be, you know, kind of taken care of, and then we can work on all these issues, which will make many, many years.

I’m 33 years old. I don’t foresee a very dramatic positive change in the lives of women in my lifetime, if I live another 33 years. So, that’s a reality picture that I have painted for myself. But if we can bring — if my work can lead — can be the root of change for my daughter and my grandchildren’s life, that’s the change and the hope that I am living with today.

What our fear is, that we don’t want the reputation of what the past decades have showed us. And so our being in Washington and talking to you is one way to get the message across to do not — to, please, do not let Afghanistan fall back to the years of civil war, to the years of injustice and inhuman acts against all sectors of society, most especially women.

So, for once, let’s listen to the women and take their suggestions seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: Right now, the president is considering how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and how quickly. What is your thought on that? Do you — would you like to see U.S. troops begin to leave and in substantial numbers?

QUHRAMAANA KAKAR: It all depends on the reconciliation process.

I would say we should wait a little bit more to see how this process goes further. But we don’t — we cannot have a deadline for the reconciliation process, because it takes a long time. It’s a social process.

RANGINA HAMIDI: But, on the Afghan side, I think it’s also important to start seeing the reduction of troops for the purpose of proving to Afghanistan that America’s not here to occupy, because that is a propaganda that insurgents are using to control the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens, that America is here to occupy you.

And so — but I do want to stress that we cannot — and I’m sure the American government is not naive in pulling out the entire troop, you know, overnight, but that a gradual troop reduction on the ground will mean to the Afghan people and to the Afghanistan government that America is not going to be in Afghanistan forever.

Therefore, we’re going to be forced to sit and make a deal with each other, be it tribal, be it community or regional-wise, to make peace, literally, because you are not going to have this international protection for much longer.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you say to Americans who are growing very war-weary? If they were to listen to this conversation and conclude, it’s just hopeless, we ought to just leave, what would you say to them?

WAZHMA FROGH: I would say that, if the situation of Afghanistan is hopeless today, America has — has contributed to that as well, as part of the international community.

So, there has to be the issue of accountability. Why did you go in 2001 if the country — and have you achieved the objective? That is the major question that we, as Afghans, are asking — as Afghans, are asking the American government.

RANGINA HAMIDI: I would like to remind America that, when we pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, we ended up going back in 2001. I hope that we do not repeat that mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you all very much.

QUHRAMAANA KAKAR: You’re welcome.

RANGINA HAMIDI: Thank you for having us.

WAZHMA FROGH: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama will announce his plan on Wednesday for beginning to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan, according to a White House official.