As the tenth anniversary of the US/ UK military intervention in Afghanistan approaches this Friday 7 October, there will be much reflection on what has been achieved. Thousands of lives have been lost and billions of dollars spent. Yet the future of Afghanistan remains far from certain.
In the next few days we will see the talking heads of politicians, academic experts and armchair generals arguing the toss as to whether it has all been worth it. ActionAid has done that which is all too rare - in an extraordinary survey of over 1,000 women across the country, we have asked Afghan women what they think. The results are startling in their clarity: nine out of 10 are fearful about what a return to Taliban-style government would mean for them and their daughters.
Seven out of 10 women told us that their lives are better now than they were 10 years ago. Real gains have been made, and women and men now have equal rights in the Afghan constitution. This is underpinned by the enjoyment of basic freedoms which we in the UK take completely for granted: the right to go to school; to have a job; to walk down the street without a burka; to go to the doctor without being accompanied by a male relative. 27 per cent of Afghan MPs are women, compared with 22 per cent in the UK.
Of course, as ActionAid's new report A Just Peace? The legacy of war for the women of Afghanistan shows, things are a very long way from perfect. Angiza, an 18-year-old we spoke to, is living in a shelter run by an ActionAid partner organisation. She had to run away from home when she refused to be forced into marriage because her life was in danger from her violent uncle. A terrifying situation to be in - but under the Taliban there were no women's shelters and she would have had nowhere to escape to. Four out of 10 women told us that they think their situation will be worse when international troops leave.
The women we spoke to fear that the gains they have made will be traded away at the negotiating table in return for a 'peace' settlement with the Taliban and/ or other conservative factions. If peace is anything, it is surely far more than just an absence of war. A return to a situation where women are prisoners in their homes, without the enjoyment of the most basic rights, would be no peace at all. Let's remember that the position of women was cited as one of the reasons for the military intervention by everyone from Laura Bush to Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton and Mark Malloch Brown. After the invasion, the US State Department even produced a dossier chronicling the Taliban's 'war against women'.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just announced an end to negotiations with the Taliban but what this will actually mean in practice is extremely unclear. The US is known to be in negotiations with the Taliban, and it was recently reported that the Taliban may open an 'embassy' in Qatar to make negotiations easier. The fog surrounding the negotiations means that Afghan women feel that they are in the dark about what the future will hold. The High Peace Council has nine female members of 79 but they are often left out of proceedings. In the words of Dr Soraya Sobhrang, Commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, "There are negotiations going on with the Taliban, but no-one knows in reality what is going on. It is an underground process. Women are the victims and everyone is playing with their future."
The UK government is in a prime position to flex its diplomatic muscle, ahead of the phased withdrawal of troops which will conclude in 2014-15. A few days ago at the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister David Cameron said, "Let's be clear, you can't build strong economies, open societies and inclusive political systems if you lock out women." Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that women must not be forgotten in the peace process. Now is the time to give real meaning to these words. December's international conference on the future of Afghanistan, to be held in Bonn, should serve as the litmus test for this. The UK government must use every available tool to ensure that women make up at least 30 per cent of the Afghan delegation. This would be in stark contrast to the 2010 equivalent which was held in London under the last UK government, and which excluded women. As Asila Wardek, Director of Human Rights and Women's International Affairs at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said, "Without the participation of women, the Bonn conference is useless. We had good representation of women at the Bonn conference in 2001, but now after 10 years where we talked about democracy and good governance and women's rights, men will sit together and decide our future. It is not acceptable."
Afghan women have fought tooth and nail for a better future. Many have put themselves and their families at risk and some have paid with their lives. The governments of the US and the UK encouraged them all the way, and to abandon them now would be a cowardly betrayal. Those who have put their heads above the parapet have good reason to fear the return of the Taliban and their sympathisers - they would be in very real danger of violent retribution. So our government must ensure that they are protected as part of any reconciliation. Furthermore, they must force all signatories to a peace deal to guarantee that women's rights are sacrosanct. As Homa, a 50 year old teacher from Mazar-e-Sharif, told us, without this "women are the most vulnerable if the Taliban come back. Women will be back in their homes like prisoners."