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In Afghan Peace Talks, Women Need a Seat at the Table

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, I met with a group of Afghan women who described how dramatically their lives had changed since the Taliban government was toppled almost 18 years ago. During the Taliban era, women were walled off from society and often beaten and stoned for anything deemed inappropriate. In stark contrast, today Afghan womenare empowered and educated, and participate throughout civic life.

Yet women are being left out of the peace negotiations that will decide their future. To date, the United States, despite orchestrating these peace talks with the Taliban, has done very little to provide women a seat at the table. Before I left for Afghanistan, I asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a simple question in a Senate hearing: Would he commit to ensuring that Afghan women are able to participate in negotiations? He would not deliver this assurance.

There is a very real fear among Afghan women that, if talks proceed as they have, women's rights will be neglected in order to come to an agreement with the Taliban. I believe this would be a severe miscalculation.

Recently talks scheduled in Doha were canceled over disagreements about the composition of the Afghan delegation. Although a temporary setback, this is also an important opportunity to reset and prioritize the meaningful involvement of women in the next assembly. The United States has significant leverage to structure these negotiations, and now is the time to use it. Not doing so would be both a strategic mistake for the United States and a violation of U.S. law.

I authored the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in 2017 and which mandates the inclusion of women in all peace negotiations where the U.S. is involved. This is part of a growing international consensus; 79 countries, including the U.S., now have action plans regarding the involvement of women in conflict resolution. But we aren't following that plan here.

The participation of women is fundamental to forging a durable and lasting peace. A growing body of research shows that when women are engaged in conflict resolution, the chance for a durable agreement increases. You don't need to convince Afghan women. They are passionate about charting a better course for their country, and they understand the potential consequences if they are not involved. In meetings held in every province of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of women gathered to declare their support for peace built on a foundation of equality and opportunity. The interests and buy-in of half of Afghanistan's population in peace negotiations should not be a debate.

Afghan women know all too well what empowering the Taliban means for their future and their families. Women’s rights were dramatically curtailed during conflicts beginning in the 1970s, which culminated in Taliban rule. Today, in areas where the Taliban once again have control, many of the old oppressive laws have returned, including restrictions that prevent girls from attaining secondary education.

The women I met with are demanding that their voices be heard. They want peace without oppression. They are determined to not go backward. It is essential that the Trump administration learn from these women and from history. Afghan women can play an instrumental role in preserving the gains the U.S. and its partners sacrificed so much for, and they can help prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. With ISIS increasingly gaining a foothold in more remote regions of Afghanistan and looking to exploit any power vacuum and instability, the stakes are tremendously high.

The United States and its allies have lost many lives and invested enormous resources in Afghanistan to defeat the threat of terrorism. The success of women in Afghanistan is intricately linked to the success of the U.S. mission. The women of Afghanistan want an end to this war, and they will be the United States’ greatest asset in ensuring that this happens. Their willingness to engage and take on high-profile positions, despite the risks posed to themselves and their families, speaks to their strength and determination. Afghan women are the best hope for a future that does not continue the conflicts of the past four decades and advances the cause of freedom. It is critical that the Trump administration take action before it’s too late.

Jeanne Shaheen is the senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire and the only woman serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.