The United States' chief negotiator for Afghanistan left Washington on Friday for stops around the globe to rally support for his talks with the Taliban before a seventh round of meetings with the militant group's leaders. But there's one constituency that's consistently voiced their concerns about the U.S. talks and is ringing the alarm again.
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In interviews, several prominent female Afghan leaders said these talks are an issue of life and death for Afghan women, and they will not allow their country to return to the dark days of oppression and abuse under a potential peace agreement with the Taliban. They're calling on U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad to do more to ensure women have a place at the negotiating table.
"We want to support the peace process. We are not against the peace. But ignoring the women of Afghanistan, ignoring the majority of the population, is not acceptable," said Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center. "At this moment, we need that support from the United States and from the international allies. They've walked besides us for the last 18 years -- they should be beside us now."
Since last October, the U.S. negotiating team, under orders from President Donald Trump to secure a deal that withdraws U.S. troops, has met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, where they have an office. Six rounds of talks have led to agreements in principle on two issues: the U.S. withdrawing troops and the Taliban agreeing to not support or provide safe haven to terror groups including al Qaeda and ISIS.
In addition to settling those two issues, two others remain outstanding, according to Khalilzad: a nationwide ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks. Khalilzad has said nothing is finalized to until all four issued are settled, but the Taliban so far has refused a ceasefire or any meeting with the Afghan government, which it considers a puppet of the U.S.
That rejection of the government has unnerved its leaders, who have expressed their anger at the U.S. at being sidelined. The U.S. counters that after every meeting with the Taliban, Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan and served as U.S. ambassador to the country, has briefed President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders. The U.S. also said its own talks with the militant group are just laying the groundwork for an Afghan peace process, led by the Afghan people.
But for women in particular, there is concern that the deal the U.S. may ink with the Taliban will set back their rights and protections. Some even think U.S. talks already have empowered the militants.
"Taliban are kind of calling the shots," said Mahbouba Seraj, a women's rights activist and host of the radio program "Our Beloved Afghanistan by Mahbouba Seraj." "They want to get anything and everything the way they want to. Amongst them, of course, is our freedom, whatever we have so far and what we have worked so hard with the help of the world to get for the last 18, 19 years."
"After years of struggle, after years of working, still the women of Afghanistan could not find their place, and we were not recognized by the United States, especially by the team of Mr. Khalilzad at the beginning," added Akrami.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the U.S. approach in Senate testimony in April, saying it was on Afghan women to "make their voices heard."
"I hope the women of Afghanistan will demand that of their leaders," he said. "We've always done our part there."
But several female Afghan leaders said the U.S. has the diplomatic and military power to force the Taliban's hand on respecting the Afghan constitution and its protections like for women's rights. Instead, it seems the U.S. is rushing for the exit as Trump has called for a withdrawal of American troops.
"Women already don't have a lot of protection in this constitution, and so what could [the Taliban] want to change more than that? What more restrictions could they put on this?" said Roya Mahboob, CEO of the Afghan Citadel Software Company. In the U.S.-Taliban talks, she added, "Women's rights are very important to be discussed."
The Afghan people have also demanded that women being protected is part of any deal, according to Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan's first female ambassador to the U.S. The country recently held a special meeting of nationwide leaders called a loya jirga, where nearly a third of representatives were women and women were elected to leadership positions -- as 40% of deputies and over 50% of secretaries.
"Particularly women have been concerned -- what would a peace deal with the Taliban mean for them and their livelihood," Rahmani said. "If you continue to have a dialogue with the Taliban, whatever the outcome would be, should it not include the people of Afghanistan, it cannot be a durable settlement."
A State Department official told ABC News, "At every opportunity, we assert that civil rights must be protected in any peace agreement, and that women must be an integral part of intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations."
The U.S. has also made clear that any future relations with the U.S. and the rest of the international community "will rest in part on what [Afghanistan] does to maintain the civil rights of women," the official added.
While the U.S. hopes the future Afghan government includes elements of the current government and its constitution, women fear a return to darker days if the Taliban gains power without first committing to change their views. Girls were not allowed to go to school past 8 years old, women could not work and were forced to wear full facial coverings and the Taliban conducted public flogging or executions of women who violated their rules when the militant group held power from 1996 to 2001.
Khalilzad said in February that some factions of the Taliban have improved their treatment of women: "They said they made a mistake in how they dealt with women” when they ruled the country.
But several female leaders cautioned against that, saying the Taliban's words are empty and it's their actions that always matter.
"It's the same Taliban," Mahbouba said. "If Khalilzad says that the Taliban have changed, of course the Taliban have changed, but which group of Taliban have changed? The one sitting in Qatar -- they have changed. Their lives have changed. Now they have a lot of money. Now they live the lives of luxury over there. ... But that doesn't mean that their whole ideology toward the women of Afghanistan has changed because it's a game of power. They want to have power."
Even now, as the militant group gains more territorial control in the country, it seems violence against women and girls has increased. Attacks on schools, for example, tripled between 2017 and 2018, skyrocketing from 68 to 192, UNICEF reported last Monday. The rate of children out of school increased last year for the first time since 2002, with girls accounting for 60% of that total, UNICEF said.
"Taliban says it has changed its views on women, but unfortunately, we see that in some of the women's experiences from some provinces and communities where insurgents continue, such attacks have climbed," said Mahboob, who also heads the celebrated Afghan girls' robotics team. "The Taliban say we want the girls [to] go to school, but only if the infrastructure is ready. If you destroy the infrastructure, how can the girls go to school and get an education?"
It's not just the Taliban either. Afghanistan remains a male-dominated society, and some women expressed concern that the Afghan government is not doing enough or that powerful warlords, also responsible for years of violence, were involved in the peace process before them.
"We would expect from the United States that they should be besides us, but unfortunately during the talks, they've said this is an Afghan issue, women should fight for themselves and their rights. Yes, we have fought for years, and now the situation is totally different, but when they come and give that legitimacy to all those warlords or to the Taliban, why not to the women of Afghanistan?" said Akrami.
It's not that there are no women in the room. Khalilzad's deputy is an experienced American diplomat -- Molly Phee, who served as ambassador to South Sudan. But including more women in the peace process will make the final peace deal more durable, according to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
"It's not just about upholding those American values that say women have human rights and equal rights to all the opportunities that men have, but we know from data that peace is 35% more likely to succeed when women are at the negotiating table," Shaheen, the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told ABC News.
In the face of these challenges, however, all of the women expressed optimism about the future, calling on all Afghan leaders, regardless of gender, to unite to support one another.
"We need to make sure that working together and ensuring that the gains made by all of Afghanistan, but especially women, are not negotiated away," Mahboob said.
Added Seraj: "We will give our lives and our blood for this cause, and we have so far -- and we will from now on also."