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U.N. Envoy Says Afghans ‘Want Their Dignity Back’

Adela Raz says Afghans aren't willing to compromise on their gains in the peace process because "the new Afghanistan is defined by its pillars of democracy, freedom of expression, political and social freedom, women’s empowerment." (file photo)

Adela Raz, Afghanistan’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, is one of the highest-ranking woman officials in the Afghan government. In a wide-ranging interview with Gandhara, she weighs in on the prospects of continued support for her country and her hopes for preserving women’s rights in the ongoing peace talks aimed at carving a shared political future with the Taliban.

Gandhara: The two sides have finally reached a preliminary agreement on guidelines. After this milestone, what’s your biggest concern with the peace agenda?

Adela Raz: It’s going to be a long road ahead, and this is simply the beginning.

The overall concern for the majority of Afghan women and the younger generation is that we must make sure we protect what we have achieved in the last two decades. That’s what our call is: not to lose what we have earned.

As a government official, I can say our stand is very strong and we will not compromise on the gains we have earned because the new Afghanistan is defined by its pillars of democracy, freedom of expression, political and social freedom, women’s empowerment -- this is what makes the new Afghanistan different from the Afghanistan of two decades ago. And we are very clear that this is something we not only want to protect but we want to advance further.

Gandhara: The Afghan government, the international community, and the U.N. secretary-general have all demanded a comprehensive cease-fire, but violence on the ground has only increased. Where was the miscommunication?

Raz: Before the secretary-general had even raised it globally, the government of Afghanistan had been saying we need a cease-fire, a reduction in violence, and an end to the conflict. This is what we have been trying to work on for years.

The first call for peace and the first proposal came from President [Ashraf] Ghani before the peace process was even formed. This has been a call from the government and the people of Afghanistan from long ago. It’s not only that we want a reduction of violence and a cease-fire from now onward, but we wanted it yesterday. We wanted it a year before; we wanted it two years ago and even earlier.

I don’t think there is miscommunication. The Taliban have simply never reciprocated our call, and we’ve been on a defensive posture responding to violence rather than initiating attacks. This is something we need to ask the Taliban, and they haven’t been able to tell us. What are their legitimacies for continuing their violence?

Gandhara: U.S. President Donald Trump announced an additional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. How do you think the Afghan government is coping?

Raz: Currently, our security forces are fighting in the forefront. We do about 96 percent to 98 percent of operations ourselves. The ability and the strength are there; our security forces have been and are still able to defend the national interests of our country and every Afghan.

We are in conversation with our NATO allies, and they’ve been frank and forward with what is really needed. There is a lot of conversation with the international community that the withdrawal must happen responsibly, and it's important to evaluate the risks and how much this withdrawal can affect the security situation.

Gandhara: As permanent U.N. ambassador to Afghanistan, how are you helping the Afghan government muster international support if the peace talks do not succeed?

Raz: I support my government's initiative and my nation's national interest. We have built up a wonderful cooperation with most of the global community in the last two decades and especially in the last seven to eight years, where our focus on the region has been dedicated to connectivity. We are recognized and known as a respected partner at the U.N., and that itself has helped us build a friendship that we need to have at this important time. Our priorities are known to our partners, our U.N. colleagues, and U.N. member states, and we strive to get support from them whether it's for regional connectivity and economic cooperation or peace and stability and prosperity.

Gandhara: The recent donor conference in Geneva pledged $12 billion worth of financial assistance for Afghanistan. How do you and the U.N. want this money to be allocated? Do you see the international community continuing to extend financial and security support to Afghanistan?

Raz: Yes. I hoped so, and our expectations were correct. At the time when Afghanistan began its contemporary history, our baby steps toward development started from scratch. Now where we are, I think it's very much acknowledged by our international partners.

There was an expectation that this commitment and support will continue. Despite that, COVID-19 has made a severe impact on overall economies of the world and impacted us all equally, and priorities have shifted for every country. But Afghanistan wasn't that much impacted because of the generous support we received in Geneva.

With a peace agreement that protects and furthers the gains we have made, this support will continue. It was a clear message from the international community, especially the donor community in Geneva, that support and funding will be reviewed if the political settlement does not protect the gains we have made in the last two decades.

Probably we are among a very few countries that ask donors to put conditions on us because we genuinely want to be a self-reliant state. For sustainable economic development, it's important for the investment to be done sustainably, not only for short and quick results. I am optimistic.

Gandhara: Afghans complain that the U.N. and the international community have failed to prevent neighboring countries from meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. How do you prevent such interference?

Raz: It's important we live in a world where transparency exists. There are various mechanisms that look into either security incidents or yearly reports provided to the council; there are different measures where the facts on the ground are clear, but then there is politics. And in the U.N., the politics are even heavier because member states are constrained to say certain things loudly. But we are patient and there have been a lot of changes in the last seven to eight years. I think there is a clear and better understanding between our allies and neighbors.

We want stability, prosperity for Afghanistan and of course our neighbors and the region, as well. It’s not a simple statement we make but we have proved it on the ground with our fight against terrorism. We’ve never made a distinction between good and bad terrorists; we have genuinely fought this war. Truly we are at the forefront of fighting global terror. It’s unfortunate that Afghanistan has become that forefront, but we are there, and we lose a lot.

Gandhara: You spoke previously on the importance of preserving women's constitutional rights and gains. As U.N. ambassador, how will you use your role to do so? With such limited female representation in Doha, with only four female negotiators, can the concerns of Afghan women be properly addressed?

Raz: I represent the interests of my country, and that's vast. It's not only focused on women and it's not just because I am a woman but of course it has strongly impacted my role. It's not only my drive but it's the drive of every Afghan woman -- to convey the true picture of Afghan women since there are so many stereotypes.

We have proved to the international community we are equal partners in society and in the world. We’ve had a successful journey so far; we all owe it to each other's work. We have brought substantive changes in laws, economic programs, opportunities both in Afghanistan and here at the U.N. It’s collective work that Afghan women have done together.

I don’t think there is an expectation from only four women at the negotiating team to be able to carry the heaviest weight of the talks. It's no longer the elephant in the room that women's issues will be the most difficult. And it's probably the only peace negotiation in the world that has this complex element.

It's an unfair expectation for four women to manage that by themselves. I think it's an expectation [for] the entire negotiating team. It’s not only the inclusion of women in talks but it’s the outcome of the talks. They are four strong women. We have to be practical; the outcome must be inclusive of every Afghan regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, etc.

Gandhara: What are your own personal hopes for the conclusion of the peace talks?

Raz: To feel safe in your country, to feel protected, to not feel humiliated because you are a woman. To not feel restricted because you are a woman or you come from a different part of the country. To feel inspired and encouraged and opportunities given to you are not taken away. To have the ability to become the president, the judge, an astronaut, or teacher, to not have any limitations in that sense. To feel that when your children go to school, they come back. To walk on the street and not see kids asking for food because the hope is Afghanistan will be self-reliant. To feel that you can gain back your pride and dignity as an Afghan. I think that's the hope, desire, wish, and vision of every Afghan -- and that's mine, too.