Amid uncertainty, Afghan youth cling tight to what they’ve gained

Scott Peterson

Shogofa Noorzai fought hard to become a young, newly minted female member of the Afghan parliament.

For years she battled brothers and uncles who sometimes beat her to block her rise – never mind the cultural traditions she faced down in her conservative Helmand province that dictate marriage and public silence for women.

But now Ms. Noorzai is concerned that the social gains she exemplifies may be reversed by political paralysis in Kabul, and by a U.S. withdrawal deal that may lead again to a form of strict Taliban rule.

“As the first woman, I acted as a man and traveled to every district of Helmand,” says Ms. Noorzai, 26, speaking with confidence in her Kabul office, whose walls are painted with historical scenes of the founding of Afghanistan.

“I talked to the citizens, talked to the people, and I told them, ‘I will raise your voice.’ That was too difficult,” she says of the 2018 election. “If a girl wants to be a politician [in Helmand], it is not common. I broke this cultural tradition that it was only for men – I broke it.”

Ms. Noorzai’s concern about preserving such fragile progress is mirrored among women and young Afghans, especially, whose lives have changed the most since the U.S. military ousted the arch-conservative Taliban from power in 2001.

Indeed, recent events meant to bring clarity and peace have, in fact, only added to a sense of disquiet about the future, as Afghans remain mired in political infighting, and steps are taken to wind up America’s longest-ever war.

The ongoing political uncertainty was on display Monday, when Afghanistan’s top two political rivals separately and simultaneously took the presidential oath of office in Kabul.

At one ceremony, Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated president for a second time after recently being declared the official winner in a disputed vote last September. That ceremony was attended by Afghan officials and senior American diplomats and officers, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan. Mr. Khalilzad failed to mediate a power-sharing arrangement despite last-minute shuttling half a dozen times between the Afghan politicians.

And at an event close by, Abdullah Abdullah presented himself as the actual winner in a “fraudulent” vote and had himself sworn into office by a cleric. Official figures gave Mr. Abdullah 39.52% of the turnout, compared with Mr. Ghani’s 50.64%.

The dual inaugurations were marred by a barrage of rockets that landed nearby as Mr. Ghani gave his speech, providing a stark reminder of the peacemaking challenges ahead. As aides rushed around amid the sound of blasts, Mr. Ghani stayed at the podium, opening his jacket to show he was not wearing any body armor.

“This is for the sacrifice of the Afghan people. I am ready for sacrifice,” said Mr. Ghani. “We have seen big attacks. A couple explosions shouldn’t scare us.”

U.S. staying on schedule

But the political paralysis and continued violence is already impacting the timeline of a U.S.-Taliban deal signed in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29. The Afghan government was not party to those talks, in U.S. acquiescence to Taliban demands not to recognize what the militants consider a “puppet” regime.

Since then, the Taliban have renewed attacks on Afghan security forces, and Mr. Ghani refused to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as the deal required by March 10, the day intra-Afghan talks were due to begin.

Instead, Mr. Ghani signed a decree late Tuesday that he would begin releasing 1,500 prisoners on March 14 at a rate of 100 per day, then 500 every two weeks after intra-Afghan talks begin, contingent on a major reduction in violence. But no matter how the Afghan sides adjust their timeline for talks, and despite the uptick in violence, the U.S. military is keeping to its schedule, announcing Monday the start of its drawdown to 8,600 troops by May.

All the uncertainty is raising anxiety among young Afghans, many of whom were children in the late 1990s, when Taliban rule forbade women from working and girls from attending school.

The parallel presidencies of one “self-proclaimed” leader and the other “announced by the election commission” are “very confusing” and complicate peace efforts, says Zainab Azizi, a social activist and member of the Kabul Hub Global Shapers Community, a volunteer platform for youth initiated by the World Economic Forum.

“A big light in their minds”

Another issue is the exclusion of the government – with its ability to serve as the voice of ordinary Afghans, she says – from the U.S.-Taliban talks.

“The future is very ambiguous, we really don’t know what will happen, we don’t know if the Taliban claiming they are changed and are really welcoming many new thoughts and situations” is genuine, says Ms. Azizi, who graduated from the American University of Afghanistan last year.

“I’m really proud that in Afghanistan, where conflict has been going on for more than 40 years, women are [today] really well-connected to each other, they are supporting each other, a big shoulder for each other’s improvement, and that will not stop,” says Ms. Azizi. “That’s what’s really making me hopeful, day by day.”

“What I know is there is a strong will of youths for a better Afghanistan, and they will do whatever they can to protect the values we have gained so far,” she adds. “We are a generation that struggles to make a better situation.”

Among them is Ms. Noorzai, the lawmaker, who says Afghanistan has evolved beyond the ability of the Taliban to reimpose strict rules.

“There are too many good changes, people became open-minded. There is a big light in their minds, especially in the youth,” says Ms. Noorzai. “If something went wrong, like a Taliban dark regime came, fortunately there is [this] big light in the minds, so [people] will never tolerate, never accept this kind of dark regime.” 

During four years working as provincial coordinator for women and children in Helmand, and two years as a member of a local peace council, Ms. Noorzai worked on more than 190 cases of violence against women, and had half a dozen women released from prison.  

“These cases made me not afraid of dying,” says Ms. Noorzai. “After what I see at home, no risk is a risk for me.”

Eyes on the Taliban

But there are risks for the nation from a process that both legitimizes the Taliban – which has for years waged an ever-advancing insurgency against U.S. and Afghan troops – and undermines the government, says Hewad Zazai, the 23-year-old manager of an upscale Afghan restaurant in Kabul.

“Every step is better for peace, but this [U.S.-Taliban] deal is a big concern,” says Mr. Zazai. “Now our worry is more, because if the U.S. withdraws all its troops, maybe we will face civil war again.”

Still, though he doubts the Taliban have “positive change in their minds” about the role of women, Mr. Zazai says he is “optimistic for the future. Most of our generation have become educated and they know everything about politics and culture.”

The result may depend on what happens at the negotiating table. The U.S.-Taliban agreement came after a week-long reduction in violence. But the text made no mention of civil society, or the rights of women and children.

“Before the deal was signed, all Afghans were happy,” says Freshta Farhang, a reporter with the Kabul online newspaper “But after it was signed, we became hopeless. Even me, I became hopeless.”

Now in her early 20s, Ms. Farhang has no recollection of Taliban rule, but she often writes in-depth profiles that include Afghan women and their tough experiences under the Taliban.

“When I heard there is nothing about women in the deal, I remembered all of my stories about women, and I became very afraid. I can’t live that way,” she says.

A return of Taliban rule is “not acceptable for anyone,” she adds. “My habit is that every day I should do something new. Imagine if I stay at home every day. To die at home is better than this Taliban again.”

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