Why Afghan government is pushing more Taliban-style policies

Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have been postponed indefinitely amid a dispute over reciprocal prisoner releases. At the same time, the government has tried to quietly roll back nearly two decades of increased freedoms by pushing conservative changes to laws governing the family and media. They’re moves that aren’t too far from agenda items of the Taliban.

One theory why is President Ashraf Ghani’s practical need to shore up conservative support ahead of the negotiations.

“I imagine it is a signal to actors on the pro-government side, but that are quite socially conservative, ‘Look, you don’t need to go over to the Taliban to get some of what you want,’” says Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

He notes that the government has also recently decreed creation of a deputy governor post for each of the country’s 34 provinces – and that they be reserved for women. “The government is also trying to simultaneously keep international audiences and more progressive parts of its civil society happy as well,” says Mr. Watkins. It’s “trying to send out whatever will stick, to keep different constituencies happy.”

LONDON

When, to kick-start long-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks, thousands of Afghan delegates gathered to consider a final release of hardened Taliban prisoners, Belquis Roshan held up a sign of protest.

The words on the female lawmaker’s banner were clear: “Redeeming” the Taliban amounted to “national treason.”

At the podium was President Ashraf Ghani, who had already released 4,600 Taliban prisoners in accord with a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed Feb. 29. He had convened the loya jirga, or traditional council, this month to gain popular approval to free 400 remaining prisoners – from a Taliban list that included men convicted of murder and of conducting high-profile attacks that killed Afghans and foreigners alike.

Ms. Roshan’s message was short-lived: She was tackled and thrown to the ground by a female security guard, silenced in an act civil society activists condemn as revealing the fragility of both freedom of speech and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The intra-Afghan peace talks now hang in the balance – they were meant to begin Thursday, after a five-month delay, but have now been postponed indefinitely over the continued prisoner dispute.

Yet at the same time, analysts say, the government has sought in recent months to quietly roll back nearly two decades of increased freedoms by pushing conservative changes to laws governing the family, media, and nongovernmental organizations, moves that, in fact, aren’t too far from agenda items of the archconservative Taliban.

The analysts’ theories as to why range from Mr. Ghani’s past inclinations to centralize government power to a practical need to shore up conservative support ahead of negotiations. But his moves are colliding with the expectations of Afghans who have grown accustomed to expanding freedoms. Many also fear that bringing the Taliban into government – or Taliban battlefield victories – will inevitably lead to a new, less free era.

Jirga is the place to raise voices without limitations; everyone has a right to raise their voice,” said Asila Wardak, a women’s rights activist and diplomat at Afghanistan’s United Nations mission, complaining from the stage about the treatment of Ms. Roshan the day after the incident. “A jirga is not a place to disrespect; it is not a place for beating women.”

Ms. Wardak’s speech was disrupted by the abusive shouts of several male lawmakers in the hall, including one man from the conservative southern city of Kandahar – where support for the Taliban remains strong – who stormed the stage and accused the women on it of being “too Western.”

“Convergence … we don’t want”

“This shows that, at the jirga that is supposed to decide about peace, women had their voices curtailed significantly,” says a Kabul-based Western official who asked not to be identified.

“If they can’t even get their voices heard at the loya jirga … how are [women] going to preserve their rights of the last 18 years?” she asks. “We’ve seen the government portray itself as very progressive, but when it comes to it … the government barely did anything to sanction those people who tried to shut them up.”

The attempted changes to family law, the NGO law, and media law – the last, only made public and sparking an outcry over censorship and free speech concerns after it was quietly approved by the Cabinet and sent to parliament in June – illustrate the challenge ahead for Afghan civil society trying to solidify gains as the talks with the Taliban approach.

“This coincidence of the government – ahead of the peace process – getting more conservative … these are exactly the things the Taliban would be doing as well,” says the Western official. “So ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations, we see convergence on issues we don’t want them to converge on.”