The Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 2020
Why Afghan government is pushing more Taliban-style policies
“Redeeming” the Taliban amounted to “national treason.”
By Scott Peterson
When, to kick-start long-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks, thousands of Afghan delegates gathered to consider a final release of hardened Taliban prisoners, Belquis Roshan held up a sign of protest.
The words on the female lawmaker’s banner were clear: “Redeeming” the Taliban amounted to “national treason.”
At the podium was President Ashraf Ghani, who had already released 4,600 Taliban prisoners in accord with a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed Feb. 29. He had convened the loya jirga, or traditional council, this month to gain popular approval to free 400 remaining prisoners – from a Taliban list that included men convicted of murder and of conducting high-profile attacks that killed Afghans and foreigners alike.
Ms. Roshan’s message was short-lived: She was tackled and thrown to the ground by a female security guard, silenced in an act civil society activists condemn as revealing the fragility of both freedom of speech and women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The intra-Afghan peace talks now hang in the balance – they were meant to begin Thursday, after a five-month delay, but have now been postponed indefinitely over the continued prisoner dispute.
Yet at the same time, analysts say, the government has sought in recent months to quietly roll back nearly two decades of increased freedoms by pushing conservative changes to laws governing the family, media, and nongovernmental organizations, moves that, in fact, aren’t too far from agenda items of the archconservative Taliban.
The analysts’ theories as to why range from Mr. Ghani’s past inclinations to centralize government power to a practical need to shore up conservative support ahead of negotiations. But his moves are colliding with the expectations of Afghans who have grown accustomed to expanding freedoms. Many also fear that bringing the Taliban into government – or Taliban battlefield victories – will inevitably lead to a new, less free era.
“Jirga is the place to raise voices without limitations; everyone has a right to raise their voice,” said Asila Wardak, a women’s rights activist and diplomat at Afghanistan’s United Nations mission, complaining from the stage about the treatment of Ms. Roshan the day after the incident. “A jirga is not a place to disrespect; it is not a place for beating women.”
Ms. Wardak’s speech was disrupted by the abusive shouts of several male lawmakers in the hall, including one man from the conservative southern city of Kandahar – where support for the Taliban remains strong – who stormed the stage and accused the women on it of being “too Western.”
“Convergence ... we don’t want”
This shows that, at the jirga that is supposed to decide about peace, women had their voices curtailed significantly,” says a Kabul-based Western official who asked not to be identified.
“If they can’t even get their voices heard at the loya jirga ... how are [women] going to preserve their rights of the last 18 years?” she asks. “We’ve seen the government portray itself as very progressive, but when it comes to it ... the government barely did anything to sanction those people who tried to shut them up.”
The attempted changes to family law, the NGO law, and media law – the last, only made public and sparking an outcry over censorship and free speech concerns after it was quietly approved by the Cabinet and sent to parliament in June – illustrate the challenge ahead for Afghan civil society trying to solidify gains as the talks with the Taliban approach.
“This coincidence of the government – ahead of the peace process – getting more conservative ... these are exactly the things the Taliban would be doing as well,” says the Western official. “So ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations, we see convergence on issues we don’t want them to converge on.”
Writing in The Washington Post this week, Mr. Ghani demanded that the Taliban acknowledge the “changed reality of today’s Afghanistan” and work to “preserve and expand the gains the Afghan people have made” since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
But analysts and civil society activists say fresh government efforts to change some rules amount to an unexpected bid to impose increasingly conservative restrictions.
Proposed changes to the family law, for example, include immediate forfeiture of maintenance by a husband for his wife if she refuses intercourse – for reasons beyond those permissible under sharia (Islamic) law – or even goes out without his permission. Underage marriage would become possible through a loophole that would require consent of a male relative and court approval.
One reason may be campaign commitments made by Mr. Ghani to conservative elements during his reelection campaign last September, before Afghanistan’s presidential vote.
Another may be a bid to broaden the appeal of a government that is accused by the Taliban of being a pro-Western U.S. puppet and is perceived to have ushered too many liberal changes into a traditional society.
“I imagine it is a signal to actors on the pro-government side, but that are quite socially conservative, ‘Look, you don’t need to go over to the Taliban to get some of what you want,’” says Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“The palace is worried about various factions of Afghan politics and society splintering off if they believe that the Taliban is going to end up winning this thing,” says Mr. Watkins, referring to years of steady insurgent battlefield advances, and the Taliban yielding few compromises in negotiations with the United States.
Yet he notes that, contrary to the all-conservative appearance of the law changes, the government in recent weeks also issued a decree to create the post of second deputy governor for each of the country’s 34 provinces – and to reserve those posts for women.
“The government is also trying to simultaneously keep international audiences and more progressive parts of its civil society happy as well,” says Mr. Watkins. “You have the government trying to send out whatever will stick, to keep different constituencies happy.”
Still, the proposed changes to the family law appear far-reaching.
“The provisions, on the surface, appear to be congruent with sharia law and proper family law, but there have been slight tweaks made that actually disadvantage women severely,” says the Western official.
Yet even as the family law is debated, Mr. Ghani a week ago announced the establishment of a High Council on Women – a step meant to officially incorporate women’s views in the peace process and empower them.
Criticism has come quickly, though, from women’s activists complaining that the move was only symbolic, because similar bodies designed to empower women exist already.
“It is supposed to help women be reassured that their rights will be observed in the peace process, but there is no real connection between that council and the peace process,” says the Western official.
Media law on hold
Similar confusion also reigns over the how and why of proposed changes to the media and NGO laws, both of which would have imposed stricter government controls. They have been put on hold after public criticism.
Afghan journalists reacted noisily when the changes to the media law became public in mid-June, for example, as they accused the government of trying to impose censorship, block freedom of speech, and force journalists to reveal sources to intelligence and government agencies.
“Undoubtedly there are certain circles within the government who want to suffocate press freedom through the proposed amendments, [and] this indicates censorship of media in the country,” Mohammad Elham, the head of Rah-e-Farda TV, told TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s largest television channel.
“There are many forces in Afghanistan and outside who wish to curb free media and access to information in our country, but we certainly did not expect the government to be a front-runner in this league,” Lotfullah Najafizada, the head of TOLOnews, told The Guardian.
The government responded that it was “strongly committed to our free media and will remain so,” and withdrew the proposal.
Likewise, the draft NGO law that emerged in June was an updated version of the one approved by the Cabinet in December 2019, which requires registration and sharing detailed financial information with authorities.
Amnesty International panned it as a “serious threat to the existence of civil society” groups in Afghanistan, which “imposes unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions ... and would exert undue influence and control over NGOs.”
In the late 1990s, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, the hard-line Islamists imposed a range of restrictions on Afghan society. Recently, Taliban members have noted to Western officials and analysts that both the media law and NGO law, as well as some of the family law changes, are “something we would have done.”
The loya jirga, meanwhile, endorsed the release of the Taliban prisoners. But after freeing 80 of the men earlier this week, the government stopped the process, saying the Taliban had yet to release all 1,000 captured Afghan security forces it was meant to – a claim denied by the insurgents.
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