Afghan Women Negotiators Warn of “State Collapse” Should the U.S. Leave Too Soon

“We need international support in getting assurances from the Taliban on women’s equal rights.”

—Sharifa Zurmati Wardak, former Afghan Parliament member and one of four women negotiators representing Afghanistan in peace talks with the Taliban.

Afghan Women Negotiators Warn of “State Collapse” Should the U.S. Leave Too Soon
Four women—Fawzia Koofi (left), Habiba Sarabi (right), Fatima Gailani and Sharifa Zurmati Wardak—are the only women negotiators representing the Afghan state in negotiating peace with the Taliban. (Wikimedia Commons + Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. support in Afghanistan is critical to the peace process, Afghan women negotiators emphasized in a recent hearing held by the Women, Peace and Security Caucus. They urged a premature U.S. exit would “result in state collapse and collapse of institutions.”

Four women—Habiba Sarabi, Fatima Gailani, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak and Fawzia Koofi—are the only women negotiators representing the Afghan state in negotiating peace with the Taliban. They cautioned the Afghan peace process requires patience and that democracy, human rights and women’s rights, and constitutional order must be protected.

Sarabi, Gailani, Wardak and Koofi have high hopes their international allies—particularly those in the U.S. Congress—who stood with them for nearly two decades will support the Afghan people in obtaining a sustainable peace. The message from the Afghan women to Congress was clear: Afghan people need U.S. support, they value this partnership and they share the same values of equal rights for all. Their goal is a democracy in which all Afghans thrive and have equal opportunities.

The United States “should not simply hand over power to a few to make it easier to leave,” Koofi, a former member of the Afghan Parliament, warned. “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, Koofi said 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,” said Gaillani, who also served as president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society for 13 years, “but what kind of peace? We have to achieve the peace that the people of Afghanistan want and deserve.”

In her opening statement, Gaillani also reminded the members of Congress about the young population of Afghanistan: Seventy percent 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. “In order to achieve the peace that young Afghans want and deserve … 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.”

Sarabi, another negotiator and former governor of Bamiyan province, also 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.”

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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,” said Koofi. “It is a strategic partnership that we value and we would like to continue.”

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 optimistic about continuing the negotiations with the Taliban, the four Afghan women demanded “assurances” on the Taliban claims about changes in their views on women’s rights.

Zurmati, another negotiator and a former member of the Afghan Parliament, said women’s rights cannot be “ignored.” She said the Taliban’s claim 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, “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. Afghan women are worried that will they be able to work in all areas as they have for the past 20 years.”

Zurmati also told the members of Congress 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 asked, “Women are more than 50 percent 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 only with guaranteed positions and quotas for women in any agreement will women’s rights and status be preserved.

Sarabi referred to the latest peace proposal 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 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 steadily increasing inside Afghanistan. Gaillani expressed her concerns on the ongoing violence in the country, “While we negotiate for peace in Doha, everyday, every-day, men, women and children are killed in my country. Some are even chased to their homes to be killed. 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, assassinations of young and educated Afghans, as well as those who speak up, have spiked.

Bipartisan members of Congress 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. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), co-chair of the WPS Caucus, shared his dismay at the latest peace proposal from the State Department, and suggested 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.

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), another co-chair of the WPS Caucus, said, “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, Rep. Frankel assured them, “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.”

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Makhfi Azizi is the director of the Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She has been working with the foundation in this capacity for two years and works on issues of human rights, peace and security. Makhfi is dedicated to women’s equality, peace and democracy.