Memo from Afghan government to the Taleban: 'We need to talk about women's rights'

OK, apologies first off, for yet another poor attempt to pun on the title of a popular film*. But talks with the Taleban are reportedly back on, so I couldn't resist the cheesy opening.

The Afghan government's ill-starred efforts to negotiate some kind of peace deal with the Taleban is now a long-running saga. There’s a whole issue here about who to talk to, with the murder of Afghanistan’s chief peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani in September underlining how difficult it actually is to talk to armed groups who may use any contact to carry out further killings.

In the end, though, it's what they're talking about that really matters. As far as I'm aware, there's never been any clarity about this. The Taleban talks, whether happening in specially brokered settings in Qatar or in safe houses somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, must be amongst the most secretive peace negotiations in history.

As with situations like Northern Ireland, it can obviously be necessary to have such dangerous and fraught encounters behind closed doors, but what's worrying many people is the total absence of transparency here. What are they discussing? What deals are being struck? Will there be immunity from prosecution for Taleban leaders? Will the Taleban be able to rewrite the laws on women's rights or religious freedoms?

As regular readers of this blog will know, Amnesty has been warning of a trade-off where women's rights are "exchanged" for guarantees from the armed groups that they'll lay down their weapons (figuratively, of course, I can't imagine it's going to be easy to disarm this heavily-armed country).

The trade-off is a real danger. I've blogged before about worrying signs of Hamid Karzai's government's "flexibity" on women's rights. On the other hand, next month's international conference in Bonn to discuss Afghanistan has a healthy contingent, I’m hearing, of 13 women from a 40-strong Afghan delegation travelling to Germany.

Meanwhile, in Parliament last night 81 parliamentarians attended a “kite” event in support of Afghan women. (The kite being a symbol of women’s rights: in Afghanistan women and girls make kites but are usually unable to enjoy flying them because of cultural attitudes that – like so many things – make it unacceptable for them to do so). This solidarity campaign has so far seen thousands of paper kites made by people in the UK to express solidarity with Afghan women. Cross-party political support last night came from the likes of Alan Duncan, Richard Ottaway, James Arbuthnot, Baroness Northover, Baroness Verma, Caroline Lucas and Rushnara Ali. Good to see.

So politicians in this country – and others – do seem to be getting the message that women's rights aren't negotiable in Afghanistan. At the same time the ten-year Afghan conflict is a horrifically bloody and seemingly unwinnable one, which has already cost the lives of thousands of Afghan civilians, 389 UK soldiers (another 540 have been seriously wounded), and some 580 others from other nations. In other words, the temptation will be there for political leaders to accede to a questionable deal if it means troop withdrawal and a ceasefire of some sort.

Final word to General Sir David Richards, the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, the top Top Brass. In an interview in today’s Times (£) he predicts that in ten years’ time “The British Armed forces [will be] held in huge respect around the world for doing the right thing” in Afghanistan. Maybe. But if women and girls are suffering renewed human rights abuse after shabby deals to secure a shabby peace, maybe not.

(*'We Need To Talk About Kevin'. Filmmakers must love it when this happens. "Let's think of a title that will get everyone copying us", they must say to themselves...)

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