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What’s Unsaid | The international community is ignoring Afghan calls to engage with the Taliban

‘If not engagement, it’s military intervention. And nobody wants war in Afghanistan.’

A graphic composite of a title card that shows Madina Mahbobi, an Afghan womens' rights activist, at the center. She is the first guest of the What's Unsaid podcast.

Welcome to What’s Unsaid, our new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable truths that often surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by Policy editor Irwin Loy and Asia editor Ali Latifi.

 

In our first episode, Afghan human rights defender Madina Mahbobi speaks with Asia editor Ali Latifi about why she wants to include the Taliban in discussions about improving the situation for Afghan people, especially women and girls. 

 

In short, she and other members of Afghan civil society are calling for the international community to engage with the Taliban — even though some Afghans who live outside the country have tried to silence her, and many in the international community remain hesitant to consider engagement.

 

Over the last two years, Mahbobi has seen first hand how the Taliban’s restrictions have affected the people of Afghanistan and the delivery of much-needed assistance, but she has also seen how the international community’s aid cutbacks and asset withholdings have had similar effects. Earlier this year, she spoke at a UN panel in Geneva, calling for engagement from the international community with the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government to help address what the UN has called the “world’s largest” humanitarian crisis. 

 

Her speech led to personal attacks, including claims she had become a “sympathiser” or a “lobbyist” for the Taliban. But Mahbobi is determined not to be silenced. She says those looking for solutions to the economic and social problems her country is facing must be brave and continue to voice their opinions: “We should speak about things that are controversial but still a solution to the situation.” 

 

In conversation with host Ali Latifi, Asia editor at The New Humanitarian, she explains what she means by ”engagement” and how dialogue with the Islamic Emirate  is already taking place on a local level in Afghanistan. With the Taliban, she says, “We should sit at the table and talk to them to solve the problem.”

 

Guest: Madina Mahbobi, Afghan human rights defender, and founder of the women-led Vision Development Organization NGO in Afghanistan. 

 

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Show notes 

 

Transcript | Afghan voices calling for engagement with Taliban

Ali Latifi: 

Inside Afghanistan: more voices are calling for engagement with the Taliban. 

 

Madina Mahbobi:

If not engagement, it’s military intervention, war in Afghanistan. And nobody wants war in Afghanistan.

 

Latifi: 

This is What’s Unsaid. A new bi-weekly podcast by The New Humanitarian where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable truths around the world’s conflicts and disasters. My name is Ali Latifi.

 

Latifi: 

Afghan human rights defender Madina Mahbobi addressed the United Nations in Geneva in June. 

While there, she said that engagement and dialogue with Afghanistan’s Taliban government is a much-needed alternative that would improve the lives of the Afghan people. To her, dialogue and engagement would begin to address the growing humanitarian needs in the country, as more than 28 million people still require basic things like food, medicine, and housing.

 

Clip, UN Human Rights Council

We are tired of war and violence. We want a peaceful solution. Engagement and dialogue is crucial for a peaceful solution and I urge the international community to explore every possible avenue to engage with the de-facto authorities and address the crisis that Afghans are grappling with. Thank you.

 

Latifi:

Those few words caused a firestorm online. With many in the diaspora accused Mahbobi, who heads an NGO in Kabul, of being both a Taliban sympathizer and lobbyist. She says her character was attacked online. It got so bad, that the UN issued a statement, saying it was “dismayed” that “an important discussion” on the rights of Afghan girls and women led to what it called “a smear campaign” against Mahbobi and a UN staff member.

 

Outside Afghanistan, Mahbobi’s calls for talks with the Taliban are seen as a betrayal to millions of people who lost so much in the two years since the Islamic Emirate returned to power. Inside the country, though, a growing number of people say ignoring the Taliban won’t solve the problems facing the Afghan people, especially women and girls. 

 

This is What’s Unsaid. My name is Ali Latifi, staff editor at The New Humanitarian. In today’s episode: Inside Afghanistan, more voices are calling for engagement with the Taliban.

 

Latifi:

Simply put, the thinking behind Mahbobi’s argument is this: Whether we like it or not, the Taliban are in charge. They call the shots. So, if the Afghan people or the outside world want to see real change, both sides should be part of any discussions.

 

Newsclip, PBS, Dec 2022

This weekend, the Taliban ordered that women can no longer work for any nongovernmental organizations, including relief agencies. Any such group that continues…

 

Latifi: 

The Taliban issued a decree last December banning Afghan women from working for NGOs. This crippled humanitarian aid efforts, including the work of Vision Development Organization, an Afghan women-led group that focuses on women’s rights and social development. It was the same group which was founded and led by Madina Mahbobi. She was the women's rights defender you heard speaking in Geneva at the top of this episode.

 

Clip, UN Human Rights Council

As a human rights defender and an Afghan woman. I'm concerned about my future and the future of millions of women and girls in my country. I am one among thousands of Afghan women that choose to stay in the country to make a difference, and did not give up hopes and continue to stand firm. Despite numerous challenges and barriers. Afghanistan was never a perfect state.

 

Latifi: 

We invited Madina to speak to us directly. Madina, thanks so much for joining us. My first question is just a way to get us on the same page. When you said engagement, what exactly did you mean by that?

 

Mahbobi:

When I say engagement with the Taliban, it means that the Taliban is the reality of Afghanistan. We cannot ignore the fact that they are ruling right now. They are controlling each and every activity happening inside the country. And they have control over the civic space, the women and girls issues, the economic issues, overall what's related to Afghanistan. When we say engagement, we mean that we need to have dialogue with the Taliban. We need to discuss important and critical matters with the Taliban. And we should not ignore the fact that the Taliban has a role in bringing improvement to the lives of women and girls. It does not mean that we accept the situation the way it is, or we are happy with the situation the way it is. We are absolutely not happy. If you see in these two years, there have been a lot of dialogues and engagements. But mostly the women in the diaspora was engaged. And we never had any woman from inside the country in these deliberations representing Afghan people from inside the country. To share the pressing needs and priorities of the women and girls from inside the country. This has neglected a lot of the needs and demands of the Afghan people in the country. The engagement definition and elaboration in the Western concept by the diaspora is different. They want military intervention, suspension of the humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, they want their political interest to be included. For us, when we say engagement, it means that we should talk with the Taliban to solve the issues related to the Afghan people. It's very simple.

 

Latifi:

So we have been seeing that there are countries that meet with the Islamic Emirate quite regularly. So what is the difference between that kind of engagement and what you're calling for? 

 

Mahbobi:

After my meeting with them in Geneva, it was very shocking for me the information that they had about Afghanistan and how to engage with the Taliban. Either engage or not engage. And secondly, the information that they had about the realities on the ground, the international community was heavily manipulated. Especially by the information that were given to them. When they are so much disconnected with the realities of the ground, it really affects their engagement with the Taliban. 

 

Latifi: 

But then how does the international community see the realities on the ground? 

 

Mahbobi:

The information that they have about the woman in Afghanistan is that, women, they are not amplifying their voices, they are not resisting for change, and the woman in diaspora are the only people who can represent the Afghan women, and they are the only voice. Which is absolutely not true. First of all, we are working in Afghanistan. Not necessarily that we are going to office, we are not going to office because it's banned and it's risky. We are raising our voice. Itdoes not necessarily mean that we are protesting on the streets. We are not protesting on the streets, because it's not safe. We have a lot of working groups that work for humanitarian aid. We are traveling to provinces, meeting with the people in the communities. We are resisting for change. We are negotiating with the Taliban inside the country. We met with a lot of Taliban officials to discuss about the problems and challenges. It doesn't mean we are silent. It's just we are not too loud about it. And we have reasons why we are not too loud about it.

 

Latifi:

When you do engage with the Taliban in the times that you sat down with them, how do they react to you? What kinds of things do they say to you? How do they respond to your criticisms, or your feelings or your demands?

 

Mahbobi:

They have different answers. First of all, for example, about the women's employment, they say that the situation is not yet ready, we are preparing for it. About girls’ education, they said that we do respect the fact that girls' education is the basic right. It's also mentioned in Islam, we are preparing for it. They did not say no, and they did not say yes today. They said we are preparing for it. And we have been advocating for so many critical issues since the beginning, this is two years. We have been discussing with that. But we are we are being hopeful that one day we will see improvement. But we are more hopeful that at the local level discussions that we initiated with the Taliban, the negotiations, we see that there would be improvements if we engage with them and have dialogues with them.

 

Latifi:

So as you said, a lot of people outside the country don't necessarily believe that it's possible for a woman to sit down with someone from the government, right, someone part of the Islamic Emirate. As someone who has actually taken part in these discussions, why do you think the idea of engagement is seen as so controversial to so many people outside of the country?

 

Mahbobi:

Those who are out of the country, first of all, they are so much disconnected with the ground realities. They have personal interests and political interest. Every time when anyone is talking about engagement and dialogue, a group of people, they are attacking them, and they are silencing their voice. So, we have problem with the Taliban, that they're silencing our voice. And we also, on the other hand, have problem with the diaspora that they are doing the same thing. And this is getting more critical day by day.

 

Latifi:

I kind of want to get back to some of the objections. Because to be fair, many people will say, well, there have been two years of talks, and nothing has changed. They keep saying, the situation isn't right to let women work everywhere or to reopen the high schools and the universities. So how do you respond to people who say, ‘we've tried for two years, and nothing has changed’.

 

Mahbobi:

When we are talking about engagement and dialogue with the Taliban and changing the situation, we are really talking about changing a group of people with their long-standing attitude towards women and girls. We are really talking about institutional change, a long-term change, a fundamental change. And this change is not happening overnight. We really should not get hopeless. I understand that day by day, the situation is getting more critical. There have been two years and the situation only got worse. But that's the only solution that we have to talk with the Taliban to make it better. If you see on the other hand, to use the military intervention to make the situation better. That's also not the solution, because we cannot put the Afghans in danger.

 

Latifi:

But some people will say it's a terrorist group that took power by force, how can you possibly sit down with them and speak to them diplomatically?

 

Mahbobi:

Taliban are open for dialogue. If you have heard the interviews of Taliban officials, they are continuously being very outspoken in media as well. They have been continuously telling that we are open for dialogue. And in every deliberation that they are invited, they're coming and they are listening. But this is important that which issues we are discussing, which issues we should put forward first to open the door for discussion, and which kinds of people we should bring for negotiation. For example, when you talk about the women empowerment, and there's no one from inside the country, and there's a woman from diaspora, every time they came from Qatar from other countries, they issued 100 types of moral edicts on us. And we are the people who are bearing the consequences of those edicts or those discussions. That's why I'm continuously telling to international community that when you organize these deliberations, it's important that you should have representative of the women from inside the country. That a person like me can tell you how it feels that when you are the director of an organization and your signature is not accepted by the Taliban. You're just there but invisible. You’re leading but from behind. 

 

Latifi:

Earlier in the summer, Mohammad Yaqoob Mijahid, the acting minister of defense, gave an interview. And he was asked about the issue of girls' education. 

 

Clip, Tolonews, 2023

(In Farsi)

 

Latifi:

And I spoke to several women in the country in response to that interview asking for their opinion and they said that it was basically a lot of what they'd heard all along, that there was really nothing new. Like when they talk to the Taliban officials, and when they bring up the issue of schooling, they keep getting vague responses that one day, one day, one day, something will happen. You personally, having talked to them, having been through this for two years now, do you have hope that this could somehow change. Because even the women who are talking to them are starting to feel a little bit frustrated?

 

Mahbobi:

We are definitely frustrated with the fact that two years we did not have any female graduates from school. We are not only frustrated about depriving girls from accessing secondary schools, but we are also frustrated about these girls are also facing forced marriage or child marriage.

 

Latifi:

About a month after the edict came out saying that Afghan women can't work for local and international NGOs, I spoke to several women who lead different NGOs, and also one foreign NGO who said that they had found ways to basically create workarounds, where women could continue working. And that's been in place since then, since about January. But they all were sort of hesitant to say it publicly because they felt like it might put those exceptions and those workarounds at risk. So it's just an odd situation, right? Because on the one hand, you want to say, look, we were able to do this, but there's also the sort of level of fear of if we make it too public, then we may lose these things. So how do you explain that to the outside world that things are happening, but you just may not be able to say them as publicly as you would like to?

 

Mahbobi:

So organizations, they explore different ways, different solutions. Very brave and creative solutions to be able to tackle the situation and to be able to move forward and navigate their way. But I understand that NGOs are hiding because they don't want to put themselves at risk, and they don't want to make publicity of their solutions.

 

Latifi:

We've seen that there have been a lot of limitations on the life of women in Afghanistan, including in terms of employment in many areas. So how have these restrictions impacted your organization and other organizations like yours?

 

Mahbobi:

The restrictions impacted civic space and Afghanistan, either as defenders of human rights or activists or NGO leaders. Because in general, we have to come up with different ways to be able to sustain the organization, the initiatives to still be able to work, and still continue with the civic movements inside the country. We have to have separate offices for men and women, before the ban. And after the ban, some of the organizations they could get exemptions for their female aid workers at least to go to the field from house and some others were still continuing to work from home online. And in terms of the female beneficiaries, they have to minimize it so that they can also have male beneficiaries, having separate vehicle for men and women. These are all the principles of the Emirati that have restricted us. It increased the effort, it increased the cost for every organization. Some organizations, they decided to replace their female workers by men. But some others like us, they are at home, they are working online. We still pay their salaries because of our commitment for women empowerment. Really different organizations are reacting differently. It really depends. Some organizations also decided to suspend because it's just getting too restricted and to shrinked. 

 

Latifi:

One of the things that this is going to affect is addressing the humanitarian issue delivering aid, speaking to women. And you just earlier talked about having to have separate vehicles for women having to potentially have separate offices, having men accompanying them. And in one of the stories that I worked on for The New Humanitarian, this was an issue that was brought up by other NGOs, saying that these kinds of restrictions they create a larger financial burden on women-led organizations. And a lot of times donors will be more hesitant to fund them because of that, because of having to deal with the restrictions, and also the financial costs attached to it. So how are these restrictions actually affecting the delivery of aid specifically to women?

 

Mahbobi:

For example, we have the dignity kit. Inside the dignity kit, we have the private instruments for women. Only a female aid worker can distribute that. Not a man. Even in the community, it's not allowed that a man community mobilizers will interact with the female beneficiaries openly, because some of the items are in a way that they have to raise their awareness, educate them how to use those instruments. Men cannot do this emirate will not allow that. And in the communities, people will not allow that. And even woman they are not comfortable themselves to have such interactions, private interactions, with men. All the negative effect is on the woman. Both in terms of unemployment increased for woman and also accessing services got limited for the female beneficiaries.

 

Latifi: 

Interactions between the Taliban and some aid organizations have already been happening on a smaller and more local scale. So, I want to play you a recording from an Afghan woman The New Humanitarian spoke to. In this, you’ll hear that she talks about her thoughts and experiences of how engagement with the Taliban is possible, some of the effects it has, and maybe it can be replicated on a national level.

 

Speaker, anonymous 

The discussions that took place on a local level with the government did bare some results, and women took advantage of this. For example, we saw that for one year, in some Northern provinces, high schools for girls remained open. In Kabul, adolescent girls lost two years of school, but through negotiations in some provinces, girls lost only one year. And we can try to use these local provincial examples and create opportunities for national dialogue and discussions. We have to increase this. We have to support this more so that it can become a national trend.

 

Latifi: 

So what we just heard was the voice of a woman in Afghanistan, talking about how engagement with the Taliban is sometimes possible on a local level. But now Madina, I want to ask you, what challenges do you think lie ahead when trying to further engage with the Taliban? What kinds of challenges and difficulties have you come across in your own experience?

 

Mahbobi:

Accessing them is a challenge. Most of the woman in the country doesn't have access to the authorities of the Taliban.

 

Latifi: 

But how does one get access?

 

Mahbobi:

There are some networks and organizations that they are getting together and doing the meeting with the de facto authorities to have advocacy meetings and discussing about the issues, different issues, particularly about woman and girls.

 

Latifi:

So you and I, we’ve both spoken to different officials in the Islamic Emirate officials. And a lot of times when we bring up these issues like rights and restrictions, they’ll say things like ‘We agree with you but the leadership gave this order and we can't go against it’. Or they basically tell you to wait. So my question is, in the instances where you’ve spoken to them, what do they say to you? How do you react to it, and do you really think that there is a chance that things could change? That they could all end up at the same page at some point? 

 

Mahbobi:

I think this is important to discuss the relevant topic with the relevant minister, for example. If we discuss about because education, should be with the Minister of Education. And when we have dialogue with Taliban on critical matters, we should really invite those who are influential. Those who are the decision makers and those who can really play and create an impact to the situation. We do have those members in the country that we can invite for dialogue. I don't want to say that I'm absolutely hopeless. But also with the situation, I'm frustrated, but I will say that we should continue dialogue. We should not stop it. Because stopping dialogue is not the solution. We should really continue dialogue and engagement, hoping that the situation will be better. We do not guarantee that it will be better tomorrow. And we cannot guarantee and no one can guarantee that.

 

Latifi:

I find it interesting that most of the discussion around Afghanistan under the Islamic Emirate, especially outside, focuses so much on women, and obviously the huge issue that no one would ever deny. But a lot of other things, the economy, the situation for young people, the potential for employment, the potential for development and reconstruction. When you went to Geneva, did anybody really engage with you on those kinds of things? Do you think that there is interest among the international community to sort of understand the entire situation of Afghanistan, which women are one very big part of but obviously not the only part?

 

Mahbobi:

We definitely had discussion on a lot of issues. But this woman issue has really undermined all the other issues. Especially the girls’ education, child marriage, and humanitarian crisis. More than two-thirds of our population is living under the poverty line. These are the major issues, migration by youth, unemployment rate that's increasing, the drug addiction has increased so much in Afghanistan, because the mental health issues has increased so much. Not only by women, but also with the youth. This is important that the discussion should not be only on women and girls but also on so many other things. But this has attracted a lot of attention of the international community that they say that they are getting hopeless day by day because of this situation of women and girls.

 

Latifi: 

But let’s say the international community doesn't listen to you and they reject your idea for engagement. What will happen, how will things develop.

 

Mahbobi:

If not engagement, is military intervention war in Afghanistan, and nobody wants war in Afghanistan. People of Afghanistan, we don't want war. I think it's enough that four decades of war we had in Afghanistan even more than that. That's not the solution to Afghanistan. And this is an international principle, communication. And there's nothing wrong about that. Why we are so much afraid to talk Taliban We should sit at the table and talk to them to solve the problem. I think it should be absolutely okay. Why it's controversial? Just because a lot of people they're not talking about it's very loud, seem like I'm talking very loud about it, because they will be attacked, same like I was attacked. I think we should really be brave and speak about things that are unsaid and that are controversial but still a solution to the situation.

 

Latifi: 

Madina, Thank you so much for joining us today. 

 

Mahbobi:

Thank you very much for inviting me.

 

Latifi: 

That’s it for the first episode of our new podcast series, What’s Unsaid. A podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths around the world’s conflicts and disasters. TheNewHumanitarian.org continuously covers the situation in Afghanistan. This podcast was recorded in Kabul, Afghanistan and I will continue to report from here in the coming weeks. 

Are there issues around humanitarian aid, conflict, or disaster response that should be discussed openly, but are currently unsaid? If you think so, write to us: [email protected]

 

Subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid - our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths. With new episodes every other week. Hosted by Irwin Loy, and myself. This episode is produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf with original music by Whitney Patterson and hosted by me, Ali Latifi. 

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