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Taliban & Afghan Women: Can Pakistan's Female Minister's Visit Help Ease Curbs?

The inhibitions in opening doors further on diplomatic ties with the Taliban lie in Delhi and not so much in Kabul.

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Pakistan’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, leading a delegation for a one-day visit, met Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul yesterday.

While making the visit known, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry had emphasised the country’s “abiding solidarity” with Afghanistan and its resolve to “strengthening peace and enhancing prosperity” in its western neighbour.

However, Khar's "political dialogue with the Afghan Interim Government" was held at a time when tensions are simmering along the border area briefly after Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) armed group called off a months-long ceasefire with Islamabad, thus raising concerns of regional security.

During the first high-level visit after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took office, Pakistan's foreign office said that Khar’s talks with the Taliban authorities who have now been in power in Afghanistan for over fifteen months focussed on “cooperation in the areas of education, trade and investments, regional connectivity, people-to-people contacts."
Snapshot
  • Pakistan’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar met Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul.

  • Khar's "political dialogue with Afghan Interim Government" was when tensions are simmering along the border area briefly after Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called off a months-long ceasefire with Islamabad.

  • It will be interesting to learn if Khar urged the Taliban to allow women's access to education at all levels.

  • The inhibitions in opening doors further on diplomatic ties with the Taliban lie in Delhi and not so much in Kabul. Naturally, there is no question of diplomatic recognition of the Taliban.

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Taliban’s Gender Apartheid on Afghan Women

It is ironic that Khar led the Pakistani delegation at a time when the Taliban is becoming more regressive on gender issues, including those related to female education. While permitting girls to attend primary school, it has virtually put an end to secondary and tertiary education for women.

Reports from Kabul indicate that the hardliners led by the group’s top leader Haibatullah are actively considering restricting if not eliminating, primary education of girls too.

On other aspects of gender issues, the situation in Afghanistan is admittedly still far removed from that which prevailed in the 1990s under the first Amir-ul-Momineen Mullah Omar. Women continue to go to hospitals for treatment and, a prominent Afghan surgeon, confirmed to this writer recently that male doctors are able to treat women, including undertaking surgical procedures.

In Kabul, the Taliban are not insisting that women should compulsorily wear the burqa; a hijab, which in any case, almost all Afghan women wear in public, is sufficient. The hijab covers the head but not the face while a burqa covers the whole body, including the face. Traditionally, in some areas, like the Pushtoon majority south and east, the burqa has been the norm in urban settings while in others it has been just the hijab for a large number of women.

It will be interesting to learn if Khar urged the Taliban to allow women's access to education at all levels. Certainly, that is one of the key demands of the international community which the Taliban’s top leadership has ignored.

Khar-Taliban Bilateral Talks and Ties With India

It is believed though that younger Taliban leaders including Acting Defence Minister Mullah Yakub the son of Mullah Omar, and the Acting Interior Minister Siraj-ud-din Haqqani who heads the Haqqani network are inclined to show greater flexibility to the demands of the global community on gender issues. For the time being though, they have been not succeesful in overcoming the extreme and medieval conservatism of the old clerics led by Haibatullah.

Coming to the matter of Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), Pakistan wants the Taliban to crush all activity on its territory but it has not been willing to do so. For long, the TTP and the Taliban have supported each other. Under Pakistani pressure, the Taliban has put curbs on TTP activity but has gone no further. The Pakistani army has been particularly frustrated at Taliban's approaches towards the TTP.

There is little doubt that Khar may have warned the Taliban against coming close to India. Here again, the Taliban could have assured her that it will never allow Afghan territory to be used by India against Pakistan but is unlikely to accept any curbs in building economic and related ties with India.

Like all Afghans, many Taliban leaders are aware of the importance of India to their country’s economic and commercial interests and want Indian humanitarian assistance too.

The inhibitions in opening doors further on ties with the Taliban lie in Delhi and not so much in Kabul. Naturally, there is no question of diplomatic recognition of the Taliban; No country has done so and there is no indication that any state will do so in the near future.
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China-Russia’s Afghan Ambitions

This is however, not stopping countries like China and Russia from pursuing their respective interests in Afghanistan. For the latter, the major enemy is the Daesh and the Russians, despite all the troubles of the Ukraine war, are keeping a close look at the group’s activities there. It would not be surprising if there is a quiet channel of information exchange on Daesh between the Taliban intelligence and its Russian counterpart.

The Chinese focus is on ensuring that the Taliban does not help the Uighur groups in any way. They are also pursuing their economic interests including in major projects such as the copper mines at Mis Aynak. China’s long-term interest in integrating Afghanistan economically to Xinjiang will never be abandoned even if it proceeds cautiously and slowly towards that goal.

Neither the US nor Europe has any interest in the Afghan situation beyond ensuring that it does not become a breeding ground for terrorism that can target their interests. The former has demonstrated the capacity to take out terrorists as shown through the killing of the Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri on 31 July.

The US and Europe also do not want the Afghan humanitarian situation to deteriorate to such an extent that there is large scale movement of refugees out of Afghanistan. This has not occurred so far but the economic situation of the people continues to be dire and the relatively well-off continue to leave the country if they can.

The regional states do not have the luxury of the US and Europe for Afghan instability impacts their security and well-being including through the continuance of the country remains the world’s primary centre for the production of illicit opium and its derivatives. That should concern Europe too for Afghan opium goes there in large quantities.

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Countries Weigh In On Afghan Situation 

Regional concern regarding the Afghan situation came through at an official level meeting of the Moscow Format on 16 November. China, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia (the hosts and conveners) and the Central Asian countries and some other countries met to discuss the state of affairs in Afghanistan. However, the Joint Statement at the conclusion of the meeting did not indicate any fresh thinking.

The Moscow Format countries merely reiterated the international community’s traditional demands of the Taliban—for forming an inclusive government, observing international human rights norms especially on gender issues and not permitting international terrorist groups to operate from its territories.

These are fine in principle but they overlook, in many respects, that the Taliban achieved a military victory and that it knows that the international community has no appetite for another ‘forever war’. The participating countries also showed concern at the humanitarian conditions prevailing in Afghanistan and it can be expected that more will be done by the donors in this area.

As for India, it has to show greater activism on Afghanistan. However, unsavoury may be the Taliban conduct on principles India holds dear, its interests cannot be sacrificed by adopting rigid positions and overlooking the available openings—and they are there. Also, a review of the visa policy towards Afghans needs to be revisited at the earliest for India cannot afford to lose all the goodwill acquired through decades of patient work.
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It is possible to have a realistic visa policy which will also ensure that Indian security interests are not sacrificed.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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