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Where are the Broads? The Not-So 'Broad Front' Looking to Rule Post-Taliban Afghanistan

12 November 2001

As fighters from the Northern Alliance dare further into northern Afghanistan, the Bush administration is struggling to answer the tricky question of who would govern Kabul if the Taliban abandon the capital. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is going to take up the issue today in New York, when he meets with his Russian counterpart, representatives of Afghanistan's six neighbors, and United Nations officials.

There's been much talk about how to establish a broad-based post-Taliban government that would guarantee the rights of women and ethnic minorities. Powell has been particularly clear that he doesn't want to see a repeat of what happened last time the elements that now comprise the Northern Alliance entered Kabul in the 1990s. What followed then was a brutal internecine civil war that left that city and most of the country in ruins. Washington didn't use the words then, but each group did its best to "ethnically cleanse" their region. Afghan women call it the "dark times" of abduction, forced "marriage" and rape.

"We have seen what has happened previously when you had an uncontrolled situation and two forces arriving in Kabul at the same time not meaning each well," Powell told NBC this weekend.

Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld has his eyes on the delicate world of global diplomacy. As most folks have probably figured out by now, every player in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban has a self-interest that conflicts with just about every other player. Russia has backed the Northern Alliance for years, along with India. They want their closest proxies to be in charge in Kabul. Pakistan helped to create the Taliban. They don't want to lose their investment when it comes to a new government in their neighbor, Afghanistan. President Musharraf has suggested that Taliban "moderates" (whatever that might mean) deserve a place in a new regime.

"On the one hand, you've got Taliban and Al Qaeda in Kabul, and anyone would want them out," he said on CBS on Sunday. "You would want to free the Afghan people from the oppressive regime of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that city. You certainly would want to try to do it in a time, in a way that it was clear to the world, to the Afghan people, to the neighboring countries, that everyone understood that the new post-Taliban leadership in that country would be broadly based."

Consistently left out of this so-called "broad government" are the broads, to put it crudely.

For all its talk, no one in this picture has seriously begun to address the role of women in any future form of government in Afghanistan. And although several organization including Amnesty International, the Feminist Majority, RAWA, Equality Now!, The Global Center for Women's Leadership and the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, are actively campaigning for women to be involved and some have met with the Bush Administration and with the UN Secretary General privately, when it comes to formal planning meetings, Afghan women's groups seem so far to have been shut out.

Last month when anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leaders met in Peshawar, women's rights weren't on the agenda. Now world leaders are meeting at the UN and they too, have apparently agreed that it is too complicated, too difficult, and generally not necessary to include women's organizations in their talks. If history is any guide, Northern Alliance claims of victory are likely to be heavily inflated. Any new government in Kabul could still be years away, but it is telling that at this moment, not one of the many organizations representing Afghan women or more generally women's human rights have been invited to the table.

"Countless women have been working on issues of peace and security for decades and have expertise and insights into terrorist violence and methodology," says a statement from the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice at the United Nations. The Caucus has drawn up a 12-point plan for stopping the war and rebuilding a just society in Afghanistan. Now signed by over 1,000 individuals and groups from around the world, the petition was personally presented to each member of the UN Security Council last month.

United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 specifically mandated that women should be given increased decision-making power with regard to conflict prevention and resolution. That resolution, passed last year, requires the UN to "ensure the equal participation and full involvement" of women "in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security."

There's no disputing that women have been singled out for discrimination and abuse for years inside Afghanistan, most dramatically, if not exclusively, by the Taliban. In a war situation, women always play a disproportionate role in the care of the hungry and the injured and bear the greatest burden of poverty and destitution.

The Northern Alliance can't get anywhere near Kabul without U.S. military and diplomatic support and at least at home, the U.S. claims that at least that part of this fight, as Bush put it last week -- is to topple a regime "under which women are imprisoned in their homes." While world leaders are talking about "broad fronts" and not alienating rival forces, they must not be allowed to abandon the women of Afghanistan and the region. Women can't be put on the backburner again. They've been burning for too long.

Laura Flanders.
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