WeeklyWorker

17.09.2020
Token Afghan women at Doha

Rank hypocrisy on women’s rights

It seems that the Taliban are now a respectable, civilised partner at last, writes Yassamine Mather

On the 19th anniversary of 9/11 - the attack by al Qa’eda on the USA on September 11 2001 - there is a photograph doing the rounds on social media featuring US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, standing a metre or so away (following social-distancing rules, no doubt) from a representative of the Taliban. It was taken at the beginning of the peace talks between the Afghan government, the United States and the fundamentalist, militarist group.

An Iranian social media user has, thanks to Photoshop, inserted between them a picture of anti-hijab, pro-Trump, Iranian women activists and this image has become quite popular in Persian-speaking social media - adding to the irony of the Pompeo-Taliban photo-op. Of course, we all remember Laura Bush and Cherie Blair shedding tears for Afghan woman being treated terribly by the Taliban government in the aftermath of 9/11, as the US was preparing to invade. The present equivalent of this is the misogynistic, racist Donald Trump ‘defending women’s rights’ in Iran.

In many ways this ‘fake news’ photo epitomises everything that is wrong with the US-Taliban peace talks. Trump is desperate to salvage something (anything) from his election promises of 2016: the wall with Mexico has not been built; the US economy is not exactly doing well; and, as much as Trump would like to deny it, the pandemic is still going strong and, let us say, the US president’s response to it has not gained him much in terms of support. So far the only one of his 2016 promises that he can claim to have kept is reducing US interventions abroad - which is why we are suddenly witnessing this flurry of activity, incorporating talks with the Taliban and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

How ironic it is that the anniversary is marked by peace talks with a group identified by another Republican US president as one of the main culprits, when he sought revenge for 9/11; a group that was the principal target in the ‘war on terror’. You could not make it up: after 19 years of waging war in Afghanistan, followed by a war against ‘nationalist Ba’athism’, under the pretext that Iraq and Saddam Hussein played an important role in facilitating 9/11, the US is now making peace with the very organisation that gave refuge to bin Laden and al Qa’eda - the only group that actually claimed responsibility for 9/11. (Of course, we should not forget that despite that claim, almost all the bombers on September 11 2001 were Saudi citizens and bin Laden himself had been sent to Afghanistan by the Saudi royal family.)

The war to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan was sold to gullible western audiences as a war in defence of Afghan women, who were certainly badly treated by the Taliban. However, no-one mentioned at the time that US’s Afghan allies were not exactly in favour of women’s liberation themselves. So here we are 19 years later witnessing the US in peace talks with the Taliban. Have they changed their position on women? Have they given up random attacks on civilians? Of course not. It is sheer opportunism that drives this ‘peace initiative’ - and indeed the picture would not be complete if the rightwing women supporting unveiling in Iran were not added to the mix. Trump helps to support TV and radio stations which claim to be champions of women’s rights in Iran - but don’t mention all his previous comments about women, before and after his election in 2016.

Peace talks

The US commander in the Middle East announced on September 9 that American troops in Iraq will be reduced from 5,200 to 3,000 by the end of the month. According to general Frank McKenzie: “This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of Isis in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat.” More on this later.

After 19 years of wars, resulting in the destruction of both Afghanistan and Iraq and costing hundreds of thousands of lives, with no peaceful settlement in sight, the United States is now drawing the war on terror to a close. No pomp, no ceremony - after all, even Trump is intelligent enough to realise that there is nothing to celebrate!

In Doha last week, the Taliban delegation walked into the venue for the talks without masks - when it comes to coronavirus, they clearly have the same line as Trump. The Afghan government contingent was led by Abdullah, head of the Council for National Reconciliation, and included three women - presumably a token gesture by the failing Afghan state to emphasise its ‘defence’ of women’s rights. Getting to the agreement, which actually delivers on the insurgents’ main demand - the withdrawal of the remaining American troops - had taken nearly a decade of on-again, off-again attempts.

Bringing the two Afghan sides to the meeting had been delayed a number of times. The most important challenge was the completion of the agreement on the exchange of prisoners - 5,000 Taliban were freed, as were 1,000 members of the Afghan armed forces. The negotiators had originally envisaged the process taking days, but it actually took six months. To complicate matters further, the Taliban wanted the release of six named prisoners accused of taking part in attacks that resulted in the death of western soldiers.

According to The New York Times,

Eventually, a small plane came from Qatar to take those six to house arrest in Doha, so that the talks could finally start. One official mentioned that negotiations went down to the minute the plane took off, including trying to persuade the six men to agree to haircuts, so they would be presentable in public.1

Clearly neither the US government nor those of Australia or France had any problem with the release of the thousands of Taliban responsible for bomb attacks that killed thousands of Afghan civilians.

In his opening remarks Abdullah said his government was joining the peace talks, because “in war, there is no winner or loser … We are here to figure out a process that will close the door of war forever and open the door of coexistence and peaceful life for our citizens.” Well, he could have said the same thing 19 years ago, before the ‘war on terror’ started.

During that period of almost two decades, there have been conferences, debates, academic papers on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq ... Most of it has come to nothing. Administration after administration in the United States and the United Kingdom - the two main advocates of the ‘war on terror’ - had promised to bring peace, stability and development to the war-torn region. Month by month, year by year, things got worse - but now they are withdrawing, because they no longer want to pay for keeping troops abroad. And they know they cannot just keep on repeating these promises without becoming a laughing stock.

Imperialism today is not about the exploitation of cheap labour in the colonies: it is about demonstrating military might, creating destruction and chaos, targeting all those who oppose war and then quietly leaving the devastated areas, pretending nothing bad has happened - after all, you were there for ‘humanitarian’ reasons and all that waterboarding and other forms of torture were unfortunately necessary to teach those Asians how to behave in a civilised manner.

Well, none of it succeeded, so now the US and allies have to cut their losses and get out, while a compliant, passive media seems to swallow all this - the very same media which featured the tears of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair over the plight of Afghan women now feature the concern of Pompeo and Trump for women’s rights in Iran’s Islamic Republic. Give me strength!

Change?

In case you have forgotten, let me remind you that the Taliban came to prominence in the early 1990s, initially in the refugee camps of northern Pakistan during and after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Their name means ‘students’ in the Pashto language - students of religious seminaries, which were mostly financed by Saudi Arabia. They also had connections with the Pakistani security forces and preached a hard-line Salafi/Sunni form of Islam.

In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, with the US’s Afghan allies showing unrivalled levels of incompetence and corruption, the Taliban used the situation to present themselves as a principled group determined to put an end to all that. In September 1995 they captured the province of Herat and by 1996 the Afghan capital, Kabul, had also fallen: the regime of president Burhanuddin Rabbani - one of the founding fathers of the Afghan mujahedin who was supported by the United States and financed by Arab countries in the war against the Soviet Union - was no more. The corruption (and drug-smuggling operations) of the mujahedeen was well known and it was no surprise that many Afghans welcomed the Taliban. Two years later, the hard-line fundamentalist group controlled almost 90% of the country.

That is when they started imposing Sharia law, including barbaric punishments, such as public executions of those convicted of murder and adultery, and amputations for those found guilty of theft. Afghan men were ordered to grow beards (on the grounds that Islam forbids the shaving of facial hair) and women had to wear an all-covering burqa.

The Taliban banned television, music and cinema, and disapproved of girls aged 10 and over going to school. As far as I know, they have not changed their position on any of the above questions. So you do have to wonder what has changed to alter their status from ‘enemy number one’ to a potential ally and a possible partner in a future Afghan state!

According to The New York Times,

The peace deal envisions intra-Afghan negotiations that would return the Taliban to political power in a post-war government. The Taliban’s deputy leader has said that “the rights of women granted by Islam” would be respected. But that was the same principle cited during the Taliban’s harsh rule.2

You might also ask, have they ended their armed operations intended to create an atmosphere of terror? Again the answer is no.

Almost every day at least a few dozen die in Afghanistan from bomb attacks - the Taliban have not stopped their targeting of Afghan cities. And in late August the war moved to a new area: for the first time in two decades of conflict, a historically ‘secure’ province, Panjshir, was attacked. According to the Afghan authorities, the Taliban kidnapped locals last week. Also last week, at least 10 bystanders were killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul, during an assassination attempt against the first vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, who had previously expressed doubts about the peace talks. These are just a couple of incidents amongst many picked up by the western press.

So in the rush to achieve some kind of peace - or at least peace talks - in Afghanistan, the US administration has managed to expose the fallacy of the ‘war on terror’, supported by successive US administrations from Bush to Obama, and exposed the ridiculous claims of Pompeo and Trump about defending women’s rights and human rights in general, in Iran and elsewhere.


  1. nytimes.com/2020/09/15/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-peace-talks.html.↩︎

  2. nytimes.com/2020/09/06/world/afghanistan-women-taliban.html.↩︎