How Women Are Leading Taliban Sons And Fathers To Peace
By Lianne GutcherAugust 15, 2012
An internationally backed Afghan peace program gives Taliban fighters the means to leave the fight — but wives and mothers may give them the motivation.
In the reception room of his home in Kandahar City, former Taliban commander Noorul Aziz sits on a cushion on the floor in the typical Afghan way and rests his back against the wall.
He is joined by his mother and three wives, each dressed in a vibrant shalwar kameez — blood red, royal blue and shocking pink — embroidered with gold appliqué.
Aziz, 39, rose through Taliban ranks to become a shadow governor of northern Kunduz province. He is one of the most senior commanders to have left the Taliban and pledged support for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
He said in an interview with The Global Mail that it was pressure from these women as well as his sister and aunt that made him stop fighting.
Pashtun women from traditional families such as Aziz's often have little contact with people other than their relatives. They are frequently overlooked by their own government, and their influence within their families is not readily understood by international military commanders.
But Aziz's tale demonstrates that women have persuasive power. It suggests that officials both Afghan and from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) could accelerate the peace process by identifying ways to better involve women. Yet only in March, a female member of the Afghan High Peace Council, the body in charge of negotiating with the Taliban, complained that women were being excluded from the most important talks.
The question of negotiation with the Taliban is a current and contentious one, and one that deeply concerns many women in particular deeply. In The Global Mail's interview with Afghan MP and presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi she noted that for the peace process to succeed, the Taliban would have to show they had moved away from their extremist agenda. Koofi says she has yet to see any sign of this. Given the perspective of the Taliban, "I think the first thing which will be compromised and sacrificed [under an agreement with the government] would be the women — any kind of rights, including educational and social rights," Koofi said.
The program that helped Aziz rejoin his family and community was not about peace talks with the Taliban, however, it was about encouraging men to leave the Taliban; surrendering fighters get amnesty, protection and jobs. It is viewed with some skepticism and has been criticised as naive. According to a US Congressional Research Service report, "Some observers say there have been cases in which reintegrated fighters have committed Taliban-style human rights abuses against women and others, suggesting that the reintegration process might have unintended consequences."
The turning point for Aziz, he said, came at the start of 2011 — about the same time the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program was getting up and running. It was then that Aziz attempted to make one of his occasional clandestine trips home from the battlefield in Nad Ali in Helmand, and was almost discovered by his son. He and his first wife, Wasila, did not want 10-year-old Noor ul Baqi to know his father was in the house in case he let the news slip and inadvertently alerted the authorities to the insurgent's whereabouts.
"The next day my son asked his uncle about the 'strange man' who had come to the house who his mother would not let him meet," Aziz recalled as he sipped tea and snacked on pistachio nuts. "And then my wife said, 'What kind of life is this when we are hiding you from your own children? We heard on the radio that a peace process has started. Please go and join it. I am sure all of those people who are in the peace process are not infidels, they are also Muslim'."
Speaking with evident fondness and admiration for his 27-year-old wife, Aziz said of Wasila: "She is a good woman."
At that time, Aziz was a commander in Helmand province, where there was an influx of US Marines in 2009 as part of US President Barack Obama's surge. Aziz claimed he carried out ambushes, planted roadside bombs, and shot down a helicopter.
Aziz said he was unsure how to join the peace process and, given his terrorist activities, was convinced the authorities would capture or kill him before he managed to sign up. It was his mother who explained the best way to go about it.
Sitting cross-legged on another cushion, across from her son, Laiko, the family matriarch — whose eight sons were all Taliban fighters — took over telling the story. Thumping the carpeted floor with her ring-adorned hand when she wanted to emphasise a point, she said: "I told him, 'The government has rules and we have to obey these rules.' I told him to go to the government's offices and join the government. But my son was worried the government would arrest him or shoot him. I am at least 85 years old. I have much experience about these things. I heard through the radio about the peace process. I am an uneducated woman but I managed to convince my sons."
The Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Program aims to help fighters who pledge to eschew violence and support the Afghan constitution return to their communities. Nearly 4,700 fighters had joined the program as of June this year. According to ISAF, the Afghan-run program aims "to provide a way for insurgents to stop fighting and rejoin their communities with honour and dignity".
Aziz originally comes from the Panjwai district in Helmand, so its late governor, Fazludin Agha, brokered Aziz's re-entry. Then the former figher was vetted by Kandahar provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa; the then-provincial council head, the late Ahmad Wali Karzai; and a member of the National Directorate of Security intelligence agency.
The Taliban have denied Aziz had ever been one of their commanders, and media reports have suggested Aziz is a fake. Aziz counters this at his office at the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs in Kandahar City, producing a recent letter from the NDS warning him that intelligence officials had learned from a "credible source" that the Taliban's leadership council, the so-called Quetta Shura, had formulated a plan to assassinate him as a warning to other commanders deciding whether to leave the insurgency. Since joining the government in April 2011, Aziz has survived two bomb attacks, including one that left him hospitalised and badly wounded. To make his point, Aziz fished out his iPhone to show pictures of himself lying wrapped in bandages in hospital after the second attack last September.
After joining the government, Aziz got the job as provincial head of Haj and Religious Affairs. He also became a member of the Provincial Peace Council. As well as the 85 fighters who he persuaded to leave the Taliban when he did, Aziz also subsequently convinced another 134 fighters to lay down their weapons, he said.
Aziz and his family also moved from Nad Ali in Helmand to Kandahar City. The program does not pay fighters to defect, but Laiko said that when female relatives whose husbands were still fighting saw how the family's situation had improved — a nice house in Kandahar city, a stable and prestigious job for Aziz, enough to eat — this was persuasive in prompting the male fighters to join the peace process.
Wasila, breastfeeding her small daughter, said of her husband: "Now I am very happy because he is always at home and there is no danger towards us."
Or at least less danger. Aziz said the family gets threatening letters and calls from the Taliban, and he wants the government to provide them with better security. The house does not have armed guards, although Aziz has two bodyguards and there is a police roadblock at the end of the family's street.
Aziz said that he explained to former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council until his assassination in September 2011, about the influence his wife had played in his decision to give up fighting.
Yet one of the council members, a woman named Gulali Noor Safi, recently told Reuters that most of the time women are "not involved in major discussions".
The council has established a women's committee to make sure women have "a voice and a presence in all parts of the peace process," according to second deputy secretary of the council, Najia Zewari. She said female members of the council have travelled to every province in Afghanistan to show their presence and are stressing to the council's former Taliban members the important role women can play.
"A sort of dialogue has started," Zewari said. "If these people, these big bosses, these people who are really influential within the Taliban, accept us in the process, I am sure there will be ways to contact the target women."
At ISAF, Major General David Hook, who commands the peace program's Force Reintegration Cell, said more work was being done to include women.
He told The Global Mail that one of ISAF's aims is to help the female members of the High Peace Council develop a strategy for engaging women more broadly.
"Talking about civil society in its broader sense, what Minister [Masoom] Stanikzai [the chief executive of the council] has said, which I think is very powerful, is that we need to turn this from a program into a movement — and he sees women as a central component of that.
"If we could get every woman in this country to talk about peace, [get them to say to the fighters] 'Come home, lay your weapons down,'" General Hook said, "the war would be pretty much winnable in the next however long, because of that powerful wave."
Read Lianne Gutcher's story on the struggle for women's equality in Afghanistan, A Few Good Men For Afghan Women.