Zarmina Azimi is the only disabled lawyer in Afghanistan’s Ghor province and one of only a handful of women practicing law in the conservative region that still has a strong Taliban presence.
- US withdrawal plans have raised fears of a Taliban resurgence
- The international community could use sanctions and conditional aid as leverage to ensure human rights
- Four journalists have been killed in Afghanistan this year, including three women
Her gender and disability have made attaining her goals a constant and sometimes life-threatening struggle. She said some even view her “as an incomplete person”.
Now, after all she and the women of Afghanistan have achieved in recent years, she fears a US withdrawal could threaten the path to equality and see vulnerable groups pushed back behind closed doors.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced plans to withdraw remaining US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, but the delayed departure from the original date of May 1 has raised doubts over whether the Taliban will stick by negotiated power-sharing agreements.
“I come from a far and most-impoverished place of Afghanistan and stepped up to promote my peers and play my part in this … Like everyone, I’m afraid to go back to being ordered regarding my private actions and have my abilities curbed once again.”
On Tuesday (local time) Afghan officials said Washington-backed peace talks — scheduled to take place in Turkey this week — would be postponed after the Taliban “refused to attend”.
The meeting was scheduled for April 24 to fast-track an agreement between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government following Washington’s withdrawal announcement.
Their refusal to take part has again raised fears they may renege on agreed concessions on issues including women’s rights after foreign troops depart, or even attempt to seize control of the country.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, told a Congressional briefing he was not sure the Taliban would uphold the peace agreements they had already made in previous talks.
He added that leaving Afghanistan would make it harder for Washington to maintain counter-terrorism in the region.
NATO troops, along with Australia’s roughly 80 Defence personnel, will also depart Afghanistan alongside US forces.
Frances Brown, a director and senior fellow of Democracy, Conflict and Governance at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said preserving equality and human rights would depend on the “stability and the viability of the Afghan government” after foreign troops depart.
“A lot of the internationally supported successes have been in the non-military realm: health indicators; girls education; independent media,” she told the ABC.
“The 20 years of international involvement has also ushered in an extraordinary new generation of Afghans, many of them educated through fellowship programs in the West, who are savvy, connected, and eager to serve their country.”
In the lead-up to withdrawal, she said, the international community needs to “put full diplomatic weight” behind peace negotiations and “draw red lines on human rights protections and other concerns”.
“Afghanistan will continue to be dependent upon foreign aid both in the security and economic realm and making that aid conditional upon protection of rights of all Afghans — including women, minorities, everyone — is one tool. Potential sanctions is another,” Dr Brown said.
“But if the country is subsumed into civil war, this assistance will be difficult to provide, and if the constitutional republic government is defeated by the Taliban, all assistance — other than potential humanitarian assistance — is likely to be cut.”
Azimi’s fight for equality
Ms Azimi, now 26, was born under Taliban rule but even after their decline, she said war, poverty and illiteracy overshadowed her childhood.
As a toddler, her leg was partially paralysed by an undiagnosed cause, but she learned to walk with the aid of a stick.
At seven, she was determined to get an education and spent four hours every day walking alone from her small village through the sweltering heat to attend school.
“I can never forget my dried lips, the blisters of my feet, and the repetition of this process from day to day,” Ms Azimi said, adding that she had no support throughout her long struggle.
Now as a lawyer, she represents female victims of domestic and other forms of violence.
But under Taliban rule, she said, none of this would have been possible.
“I know that no country will ever sacrifice for us unless it is in their interests, but [the US] presence was productive for training our security forces, providing financial assistance, and military aid.”
She said preserving the opportunities that this opened up for women and other vulnerable groups should be a “red line” before the US leaves Afghanistan.
‘Probably I won’t be able to work anymore’
Journalist Sodaba Herari said if the US leaves she has no doubt “restrictions will be imposed” on women, especially in the fields of work and education.
“Women will be marginalised after this withdrawal, as they were excluded from all social discourses in the past,” she said.
She said even now, the situation for women in the city was “not at its best”, but women in rural areas “have a difficult life” that would only get worse without a foreign presence.
While a foreign military presence has had negative repercussions, there have been major gains in press freedom and women’s rights, Ms Herari said.
And if Mr Biden wants to claim credit for these gains then “they must do something to preserve it”, she said.
But the situation is already deteriorating rapidly.
“Since the start of the peace talks, the war on civilians and women journalists has surged,” Ms Herari said.
In the first three months of 2021 alone, four journalists were murdered, including three women, according to UN reports.
‘We welcome them to leave’
But many Afghans resent the presence of foreign troops.
“I hope they take their agents, corrupt collaborators, corrupt contractors, racial vassals with them too,” tweeted former foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta.
Other Twitter users claimed the withdrawal marked a “Taliban victory” over the US.
University student Khaleda Khawary said while as a woman she was afraid, she still wanted the US to go.
“If they can guarantee us security, then we welcome them to leave,” she said.
Basir Ahmad, a religious scholar and professor at Herat University, called the departure “happy and good news for me and all the Afghans who work for freedom”.
“We hope that, God willing, our country gets rid of this occupation,” he told the ABC, adding that foreign forces have committed war crimes and caused violent divisions among Afghans.
“We can’t ignore their economical and logistical support but their presence made this situation worse. They followed their own interest and not that of Afghans.”
He said the peace agreement negotiated by the US in effect handed Afghanistan to the Taliban.
“We hope that by the withdrawal of occupying forces from our country, the Afghans become wise, can unite, and get together to roll up their sleeves for building their country which is economically, politically, and socially damaged.”
But Faisal Karimi, head of the Afghanistan Institute for Research and Media Studies, doubted US troops would leave at all.
“I believe their military presence will remain for years. It will never pull out all of its troops from Afghanistan,” he said.
“Biden’s announcement is more like a political speech for the American people and for convincing the Taliban to come to the negotiation table.”
Mr Karimi said he believed the US would keep some troops along with their intelligence agencies.
“Afghanistan is the best place for its intelligence battle with other countries like China, Iran, and Russia. Their intelligence presence is a long-term one.”
What legacy will Australian troops leave behind?
Afghan-born Australian Obaid Sadath said the US and NATO would have “a hard time justifying this whole debarcle, because there really isn’t a winner”.
“When people withdraw, you’d hope it’s because of victory, but in this case it really isn’t,” he said.
He said we are yet to see if the Taliban will honour its side of the deal and if “the Afghan government and its armed forces survive without boots on the ground”.
“The Taliban are giving concessions that are very out of character, and that’s worrying,” he said.
“The biggest worry I have is what will happen to the vulnerable groups in Afghanistan — namely, children, women, people who have disabilities, minority groups who already have been really disadvantaged by 30-plus years of war.”
As Australian troops also prepare to leave, Mr Sabath questioned the legacy they would be leaving behind in light of so many reports of war crimes.
“In an Australian context I mean we have a very small presence in Afghanistan … what good has Australia done?” he said.
“It won’t be looked at fondly in the history books.
But now as the “so-called oppressors are leaving”, Mr Sabath said there were no clear options for a better solution.
“We’ve seen what the Taliban regime entails and it’s no better than what the troops have done to Afghan people, it’s essentially very similar.”