Afghanistan Must Include Women in Talks And Reintegrate Refugees - Or Pave the Way for ISIS | Opinion

There is a new factor in the debate about the future of Afghanistan, and Western policy towards that country. I am not talking about the willingness of the Trump administration to directly negotiate with the Taliban. That is new, and is welcome (though the exclusion of the Afghan government is disabling of the chances of real success.)

The big new factor is the specter of ISIS. Known in Afghanistan as Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP, the terrorist group more than doubled its attacks in 2018 compared to the previous year, killing 681 people and injuring 1,500 more. After nearly 18 years of continuous war, and forty years after the Soviet invasion, formal peace is on the agenda, but so is meltdown.

In Afghanistan, the International Rescue Committee has 1,200 staff – 99% of whom are Afghan – providing humanitarian relief across nine provinces. Our teams on the ground know the hard-won progress. Western publics and politicians may be tired of hearing that half of Afghan girls are now in school, but the girls themselves are not. Their education is a lifeline, not a luxury.

However, ISKP has been explicit that schools are at the frontline and launched 34 attacks on all girls' schools and educational facilities in the second-half of 2018 alone. These attacks contributed to the 35 humanitarian workers killed or injured in attacks last year, including an IRC staff member. More than 60% of Afghans are under the age of 25 and more than 40% are under the age of 14. If the Afghan government proves unable to deliver basic services, including education, following the withdrawal of international security support, ISKP is primed to reap the rewards.

Creating the conditions for peace means focusing not just on the armed actors, but also the communities most affected by the violence. This means focusing on three things.

First, women should be included in the peace in a meaningful way. In accordance with Afghan national policy, women should have a seat at the table in all negotiations – not just discussions of gender issues. This is important not just because of their social and economic needs in a country where 35% of girls married before the age of 16.

All evidence points to this not only being right, but being practical. A study of 182 peace agreements found that women's participation in the peace talks led to a 35% increase in the likelihood of an agreement lasting at least 15 years – the difference between a brief pause in the fighting and a sustainable peace.

Ensuring women are adequately represented in the talks would be a welcome change in Afghanistan, where women have only been present for two of the 23 rounds of negotiations dating back to 2005. There have been worrying signs that Taliban leaders will only "support women's rights in the context of Islam and Afghan culture" – re-opening the constitution and relegating women to second-class citizens should be a redline for negotiations.

Second, the world should double down on human development as a source of stability. With such a young population, education is more important than ever. While much has been gained in recent years, 3.5 million Afghan children remain out of school - 85% of whom are girls. With just over 1% of required funding for education received in 2019 it's unlikely that we will be able to close that gap this year without significantly greater commitments from donors.

Third, there are still almost 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees, mainly in Pakistan, and an estimated two million unregistered. This is the second-largest refugee population in the world after Syria. Their ability to return safely will be the true test of success for any peace in Afghanistan. Ending the war is not the only pre-condition for safe return, but it is a vital one, and there are already worrying signs of pressure in Iran, Pakistan, and beyond to force Afghan refugees to return to unsafe environments.

The fear in Washington and other western capitals of endless war is understandable. Afghanistan is often described as a "graveyard of empires". But the Western role in Afghanistan is not about running an empire. It is about giving Afghans - all Afghans - the chance to lead a decent life, and hold at bay forces that threaten not just Afghanistan but beyond.

The IRC has been providing humanitarian aid in Afghanistan over the past 30 years. Yet 2018 was the deadliest year Afghan civilians have seen since records began a decade ago with more than 3,800 civilians killed. ISKP's surge in violence contributed to 20% of civilian casualties last year.

There are lessons here from what happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The biggest concern the capacity of the Afghan state to provide security for its population, a share of power for all its communities, and access to services for its population. These are tasks that need to be on the agenda if the current peace talks are not just to honor the blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan since 2001, but also ensure that they are not needed over and over again.

David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and a former UK Foreign Secretary.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​