The South Asia Channel

More of the Same in Afghanistan

With the Afghan election just three days away, it seems that a run-off election is likely as none of the candidates, including the three frontrunners, have differentiated themselves enough to garner a strong lead. They have repeatedly failed to offer competing visions for Afghanistan's future during their public appearances and televised debates, especially on the most important issues -- all of the candidates promised to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States and initiate peace talks with the Taliban.

During almost two months of campaigning, what has been most disconcerting is the lack of diversity among the candidates in their views regarding the Taliban and women's rights. When asked in the first presidential debate, hosted by Tolo TV, whether the Taliban are Afghanistan's enemies, for instance, not one candidate replied "yes." All of them sought to distinguish domestic fighters from foreign, moderates from extremists, and freedom fighters from terrorists. Qayum Karzai, current President Hamid Karzai's older brother, even went as far as defining the Taliban "as a large group of Afghans the same as teachers and farmers who shouldn't be ignored," a disturbing analogy regardless of the fact that he is no longer running.

Ashraf Ghani said he would negotiate with domestic Taliban members and would bring them into the government without any concern for women's rights and freedom of speech. In an earlier interview with Aljazeera, he even stated that: "reaching enduring peace means acknowledging of those who are bearing arms." His ideas were consistently vague and appeared to favor the Taliban over the Afghan public.

Yet, in contrast to their very lenient position towards the Taliban, the candidates had more repressive ideas regarding women in governmental roles. During that first televised debate, only one candidate, Zalmai Rassoul, said his cabinet will be at least 20 percent female. And when asked if they would appoint a female member to the high council of the Supreme Court, the candidates hemmed and hawed, never saying directly if they would.

When the Taliban were ousted by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001, the new government and its international supporters were welcomed by Afghans across the country. But now, nearly 13 years later, no presidential candidate dares to directly label the Taliban as enemies of the Afghan people. Even more alarming, the frontrunners are among the most progressive candidates. More radical presidential contenders such as Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, a prominent warlord, and Qutbuddin Hilal, the deputy of Hezb-e Islami, the second largest military opposition behind the Taliban, have not been appearing frequently in debates or public sight.

The reluctance of candidates to speak out against the Taliban does not demonstrate that the candidates are extremists, but instead indicates that the Taliban have created a positive image for themselves among the public. In recent years, corruption, nepotism, lawlessness, and the low quality of public services have sparked a major division between the public and government. This divide is wider and more apparent in rural areas where the insurgency is stronger than the government. Nighttime raids by Afghan and international forces that killed innocent civilians exacerbated the problem. Even candidates who personally oppose the Taliban, mostly in southern Afghanistan where the Taliban enjoy a stronger presence, are cautious to not lose their public base. Abdullah Abdullah, for instance, fought the Taliban for years in the Panjshir Valley, but mostly refrained from directly opposing the Taliban during the presidential race, at least during the early weeks of campaign period.

Ironically, the candidates' stances towards women's rights stem from the same caution and concern they have for opposing the Taliban. While Afghanistan has made several impressive achievements for women's rights, enrolling more than three million girls in schools and providing more work opportunities outside the home, Afghan women still have a long way to go until they are accepted as equal members of the community in the country's highly traditional and tribal structure of Afghan society.

Many in the Afghan public believe the freedoms given to women over the last 12 years are against the Islamic beliefs and customs of the country. In 2009 for example, the controversial, and regressive, Shiet Family Law -- which contained several clauses saying that a man can deny his wife food if she fails to satisfy him sexually -- was passed by both houses of parliament and endorsed by President Karzai. The law was reviewed after wide opposition from Afghan civil society organizations and Western states, but in 2013, the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women, which has been enforced through a presidential decree since 2009, failed to be properly discussed in the lower house after several parliamentarians called it un-Islamic -- presidential decrees, though legally binding, have to be passed by the lower house to become a permanent law. While the government has loosened its conditions for peace talks with the Taliban and increased the range of issues subject to compromise, women's rights are still elusive.

As such, women's rights have been left outone of the top priorities of Afghan civil society, especially since the idea of conducting peace talks with the Taliban was first introduced. Now, with Afghanistan's most critical election coinciding with the withdrawal of foreign troops, peace talks have dominated the elections. Many Afghans are tired of a continuous counterinsurgency campaign, and their public outcry has been interpreted as blind support for negotiations. Electoral campaigns have taken advantage of this public frustration, and there is a risk that the future government will try to integrate the Taliban within itself to establish a firm and prosperous administration.

It is necessary for independent media, civil society, and intellectual circles in Afghanistan to engage in direct and eloquent discussions with presidential candidates in order to ascertain their clear plans for the peace process if they win. They need to ensure that the election day winner will not sacrifice or compromise the achievements Afghanistan has made in the last decade -- most importantly women's rights.

Moh. Sayed Madadi is a Kabul-based Afghan civil activist working on democratic governance and human rights. He is a member of Afghans' Coalition for Transparency and Accountability, a civil society group advocating for good governance and the co-founder of Youth Empowerment Organization (YEO) which focuses on youth engagement in local governance.