Over the last few weeks, I've written, talked and tweeted about whether the US is right to leave Afghanistan, why the country is now collapsing, what the Biden administration did wrong, how Russia and China are responding, Afghanistan's economic prospects, the likely political fallout for Biden, and the odds of a refugee crisis.
Just as important is the fate of Afghan women and girls, whose oppression during the last Taliban rule has been well documented. Will the massive gains made since 2001 be reversed?
To answer this question, I spoke on the phone with Rina Amiri, an Afghan-American policy expert and mediation advisor who has been working on Afghanistan and women’s rights activism for more than two decades. A former US government and UN official, Rina is also a founding member of the Women Waging Peace Network, a coalition of more than 2,000 women peace activists. Her answers have been edited for clarity and length.
You were born in Afghanistan and went into exile with your parents as a child fleeing political violence, eventually settling in America. How has the last week been for you?
It's absolutely heartbreaking. All my family, over the course of this four decades of conflict, has left. Every phase of the conflict has met more family members leaving Afghanistan. But in the last 20 years people for the first time started going back. To see it happen again after so much hope, after so much investment in the last two decades… At a very personal level, I am losing my homeland for the second time in my life.
You’ve been in constant contact with women and human rights activists on the ground. What are you hearing, and how do you see your role now?
Just a month ago, we were talking about sustaining the gains. And now it's all about survival, all about not getting killed. That's the conversations I'm having with the people that I talk to. And it's not just women, it's women and men. I am being flooded with desperate pleas from everyone I know, saying that they need to find a way out because they're afraid that they're going to get killed. Advocates that are abroad worry that their parents are going to be punished for their advocacy.
I'm in a position where I no longer have family members in Afghanistan, and I want to use my voice to speak on behalf of those that cannot. I used to do this 20 years ago, speaking on behalf of Afghans inside who couldn't speak up. And then for the last 20 years, it was just such a source of pride that it was Afghan women themselves inside the country speaking on their own behalf. And people like me slipped into the background to support them. Now I have to come to the fore and do what I can because they are under such tremendous threat inside the country.
The Taliban have claimed that they don’t want to go back to the brutal oppression they practiced in the 1990s. Just recently they announced women's rights will be respected "within the framework of Islam" (whatever that means). Reportedly, they’ve even invited women to join their government. Do you buy any of it? Do Afghans?
I desperately hope that the Taliban are genuine at least to some extent, that they are going to do things differently. I actually even believe that some of their leaders who are sitting in Doha may believe that this time they're going to be doing things differently. But what is happening on the ground does not reflect that in any way. If anything, what it reflects is a more vengeful and more brutal and more dangerous Taliban. They’ve staged this fantastic strategic communication effort that the West has bought into for the last couple of years because it gave them an exit. The Taliban are very organized and they speak from the same script everywhere they take over. But people in Afghanistan aren't buying it. They certainly aren't seeing evidence of it wherever the Taliban has taken over. What they have seen certainly shows not a rehabilitated Taliban, but a more brutal and systematic Taliban. They take over provinces and start knocking on doors, looking for people on their lists to interrogate them and their family members. This is happening all over the country. I have been in touch with women, not just in Kabul but throughout the country. This not based on secondary information. This is based on calls with people as provinces have fallen to the Taliban.
Now, as a policy expert and not just an Afghan, do you have any hope that the Taliban might eventually make a tactical choice to moderate when it comes to women’s rights, not because their ideology has changed since 1996, but in order to gain legitimacy, to make allies, and ultimately to strengthen their hold on power?
I think what you have to bear in mind is the Taliban constituencies, the stakeholders that they take into account. We tend to overemphasize the international community and the degree to which the Taliban believe international recognition enhances their legitimacy with the international community. Certainly they’ve learned to pay enough lip service to human rights to appease Europeans and the West. They don’t want to entirely decouple from the West. Then there's Russia and China and the Gulf states, which are actually more important to them and care less about these issues. And even more important, there are their foot soldiers and their fighters who they have mobilized and inspired for decades promising the establishment of an emirate. And in our desperate desire to exit and to find a way to accept the Taliban, we sort of detach them from the broader Islamic extremist movements all over the world. But they have that audience right now. They have achieved what ISIS didn't achieve. They have achieved what al-Qaeda wasn't able to achieve. They have become the heroes of the entire movement. And they will likely want to reflect their adherence to the extremist ideology.
And so this is why they have not been able to say anything definitive in terms of supporting women's rights, they have to use code. They say “within the context of Islam” or “as aligned with Islamic Sharia”, which is the same thing they used to say in the nineties. Afghanistan is already an Islamic republic. It's enshrined in the constitution. The fact that they cannot make clear how their interpretation of Sharia has changed diminishes my confidence in they having changed, because their rhetoric is not so different than when they had a pretty brutal regime. I do believe that they will bring some women that align with them into government. I can tell you, they're recruiting diaspora women to speak on their behalf. So they're extremely strategic. They're very cognizant of what they need to do to get the West to buy into the fact that things have changed. But at the same time, as I said, it's not materializing on the ground.
Do I hope? Absolutely, passionately. I want to believe that the Taliban can move towards a place where there's going to be a moderation in the way that they rule Afghanistan. But beyond their rhetoric, they have not broken ties with al-Qaeda. Everything that they've done to date has shown them to be at any remarkably strategic actor who knows how to play to the West’s weaknesses. And they've never been held to account because the West has so fervently wanted the Taliban to be something that fits their narrative so that they could leave. Now the West has left. And it is incumbent on the West that whatever leverage remains, they use to hold the Taliban accountable. There should be no recognition for the Taliban just because they're saying the right things.
How much leverage do you think the US and other Western powers really have over the Taliban at this point?
There’s some leverage left. The US and the West still have political power, the power of recognition. The fact that diplomatically the Taliban is now seen as a respected actor, and that Europeans and Americans have been lining up behind their door, has been an enormous coup for them. You know, one of the things that used to enrage the Taliban is that they were a pariah, they felt that they were unjustly made into a pariah. And now they are being courted by the international community. So that’s leverage. Are you going to continue having high-level meetings at the state level with the Taliban? Are you going to shift them those optics? Are you going to recognize them?
Then of course there’s funding. The degree to which aid conditionality is going to matter is an open question, for two reasons. First, the Gulf states, China and others may provide the aid that they don’t get from the West. Second, they may be fine with sanctions that starve the population if such sanctions are poorly targeted. The leverage lies in aiming sanctions very narrowly on individual leaders and the ones that are carrying out atrocities.
So there’s some leverage, but it’s very diminished. And whatever leverage there is has to be used strategically, in a way that hasn’t been seen in the last two years.
What do you see as the top geopolitical risk from the Taliban takeover?
Right now, Afghanistan is not just at risk of being ruled by a totalitarian, repressive regime. Maybe an equally big, if not a greater, risk, is the prospect of a civil war, which we are just inches away from. A civil war will create enormous human rights abuses and destabilization in the region. Extremism will flourish. It's a threat to Afghanistan and its people who don't deserve this. It's a threat to the region. And it's a threat to the international community more broadly, from a security perspective. What the US needs to do is put its power behind working with the region and with the United Nations to make sure that doesn’t happen. Their mode of operation right now is to cut bilateral deals with the Taliban to protect their interests, rather than doing something that brings the region together with a coherent message and a coherent approach. President Biden may well decide that Afghanistan is not important anymore, but this is a region with at least four nuclear powers—it's a powder keg. Are you just going to turn your back when this explosion could happen? If you look at history, no one has ever let Afghanistan explode and come out unscathed.
What do you wish the United States would do to help at-risk populations on the ground now?
On the humanitarian side, the Biden administration absolutely needs to do more than it’s done so far, which has been insufficient and ad hoc. The visa program has been a disaster. There’s an immediate need for a senior human humanitarian and refugee coordinator in the government, to take a whole-of-government approach to quickly mobilize what is required to make this program effective and meaningful to the desperate people who are trying to get visas. Right now, it’s enormously hard for people to get out of the country. You’ve witnessed the chaos at the airport. These people are putting their lives at risk when they go to the airport. These are the people who bought into what you said in terms of values and support for the last 20 years. So offer up what is required. They should be creating a humanitarian corridor get out high-risk groups, women, human rights advocates. They should be pushing countries all over the world to accept more refugees. Right now all the work is being done by NGOs, by philanthropists, by activists. The US government is barely there, and is only there at all because of the public pressure to act. They just checked out, and it’s coming from the very top. Afghanistan is not important. Now, you said you were going to withdraw troops, that’s fine. But you said you were going to be there for these people and you are not, and that’s really profoundly inhumane. And it does not reflect the America that I know, that I embraced, and that I became a citizen of.
In the longer run, what kind of external support will Afghan women need in order to safeguard their own rights in a Taliban-run Afghanistan?
A big challenge is that significant number of the leaders who we hoped would sustain the gains made by women in Afghanistan are fleeing the country. So that whole body of knowledge and activism is disappearing overnight. What my great aim is, you know, as somebody who's dedicated to doing this regardless of whether there's any international involvement, is working with that recent diaspora and the long-term diaspora of women to keep this issue alive and supported. To support and fund that reservoir of knowledge and skill, in the hopes that one day they’ll be able to go back and bring all this to Afghanistan.
And most important, to support those inside the country. Keep in mind that the struggle for women’s rights did not start in 2001. This is something that Afghanistan has been engaged in from the 1920s until now. There's been this back and forth between the extreme conservatives and the reformers. That seed will always be there. The next generation of women activists are going to figure out just as they did in the 1990s and just about every stage of Afghan history, because Afghan women are tremendously resilient and resourceful. As we move forward, they will tell us what they need in order to do the work that they do. It's certainly going to be much more gradual. Some of it will be clandestine, but they will find a way. They will need the West to not just give emergency aid but to help in a way that’s sustained and strategic. One that treats women's rights and human rights as important.
Is there anything you’d like to say to President Biden?
It’s not just the Afghan people you should be thinking about. I think about American armed forces, people who went and fought with their hearts and souls, people who died and lost limbs. Close to 2,500 American soldiers died in Afghanistan. And I talk to a lot of survivors and Gold Star families, and they often say that it was worth it as long as we were able to do something. What are you going to tell these people? The Taliban have come back stronger than before. In 2001 they ruled over 96% of Afghanistan, now they have a 100%. The gains we’d achieved in the last two decades for women and girls, those are gone too. What are you going to say to these people who gave up their lives and their limbs and their family members? So, if you're not going to do it for Afghans, do it for that constituency, because they should matter to Joe Biden.