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Counter-Terrorism After 9/11, Episode 7: Counter-Terrorism and Women's Rights with Amb. Roya Rahmani

15 Dec 2021

Counter-Terrorism After 9/11 is a podcast series exploring how counter-terrorism has changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.

In our sixth episode, we speak to Ambassador Roya Rahmani, Afghan diplomat, and the first woman to serve as the Afghan ambassador to the United States and Indonesia.

This interview explores Amb. Rahmani's experiences as a diplomat, her critical work promoting women's rights globally, and what the future holds for Afghanistan. Interviewing her is Dr. Joana Cook, a Senior Project Manager at ICCT, and Editor-in-Chief of the ICCT journal.

You can listen to Counter-Terrorism After 9/11 using the audio player below or through your favourite podcast player (Spotify, Apple, Google, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic).  Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been shortened and adapted for publication.

Warning: This transcript/podcast contains material that some viewers may find distressing.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani

JOANA COOK: It is my pleasure to speak with Ambassador Roya Rahmani, a former Afghan diplomat with nearly two decades of experience working with government, non-governmental organisations and multilateral institutions. Ambassador Rahmani, welcome.


COOK: As part of this podcast, we’re talking about the different experiences of individuals over the last twenty years since 9/11, but we’re always starting with that day. Where were you on 9/11?

RAHMANI: I was a student at McGill University [in Canada]. I vividly recall what happened that day. There was this sense of astonishment, shock and panic. I tried to figure out what was going on and I learned about the incident. I did not know about the magnitude, I had not seen the footage.

Prior to that, I had lived in war. I have been in Afghanistan, where, while living in the capital, in a day I had tried to count the number of missiles landing around us, and I would lose count. It would be over 2,500 a day during the civil war.

This entire experience [of 9/11] was new to me, because I came from a country where everything had been reduced to numbers. How many missiles had landed? How many people killed? How many people injured? And you move on. One of the thoughts that turned in my head was, ‘is it going to spread’? Are bombings going to be even haunting us here?

But then, as things were sinking in I thought, ‘I hope this is also a signal for change for Afghanistan’. I had been waiting for a change to happen and for that severe draconian regime that was in place at the time, the Taliban, to be ousted. So by learning what happened, I thought, probably it’s going to be also signalling a change for Afghanistan.

COOK: What did this mean for your professional path that’s led you to your position today?

RAHMANI: Initially, nobody knew what was going on, especially people like myself. I came from a very apolitical family, nobody ever in my family worked in government. We were just in a ‘wait and see’ mode.

When the Taliban took over in 1996, I was a refugee in Pakistan and we did not know necessarily who they are. We just heard about the takeover, and we were happy initially, in the very first moment. There was a change. We were so fed up with the civil war. But then it turned out to be devastating. The minute they entered Kabul they ran and took out the former president and hung him. I was a teenager thinking, “Oh my God, what is this? It’s getting from bad to worse.” In 2001 when the bombing started with the international coalition going in, it was a moment of hope, but also confusion.

I had graduated from my degree and was working as an engineer in a tech company and life was good. But then looking at what was going on in Afghanistan, I had this continuous itch that I need to contribute. This is something I had been waiting for all along, and especially for women’s rights. This is something I have been waiting for all my life, so that was the impact. I returned when there was a possibility for me to return. I gave up my life, job, apartment, my life basically in three days. I went back to Afghanistan, initially trying to go for a short period of time, but then that became my life.

COOK: The work that you were doing subsequently in Afghanistan focused largely on advancing the rights of women, and the status of women with non-governmental organisations. How did the war around you impact on the status of women in Afghanistan, and the work you were trying to do to advance the status and position of women in the country?

RAHMANI: Initially when I started in 2004, things were good, those were the best years. The women were very energetic, very vibrant, but the capacity was pretty low, and the human capital was not developed. We were all very much focused on reconstructing Afghanistan - not just Afghanistan, but mindsets, the way we did things. I was the head of an organisation that funded other women’s organisations all around the country to work for the promotion of women’s rights, and the relevant development projects. So, at that time, the war was not bad but every year it got worse.

By 2006, 2007, there was an active war going on again, all around. The bombing had started again. It took us so much time in 2004 and 2005, to encourage the women to build that stamina and confidence, to shed their burqa’s, to come out, to seek education, to be publicly visible. When war started again, and with the deterioration of the security situation, that was all really rolled back.

In this situation of war and conflict, women are affected in a way more than men. As one of the major things that gets affected is their mobility, their presence in public sphere reduces tremendously. Then for their own protection, as the war and the conflict got worse, they would be worried for their lives. I remember how one of the very first activist women that was killed during those years was the woman who was in charge of the Provincial Office of Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kandahar. She was an elderly woman. The next thing I hear is that the Taliban went and killed her. It sent a very tragic and also alarming message to a lot of women. So, it had already started to impact them, but I must say that still everybody was going full swing because they were trying to make it better, and they knew that there was so much ground to cover.

Photo credit: GIWPS

COOK: There’s an increasing body of research that demonstrates that the status of women and women’s rights are directly correlated with national security. But we haven’t really yet seen this translated practically to areas such as governance, diplomacy and indeed, security. When we look at Afghanistan, what were some of the biggest barriers to advancing work on women, peace and security that you saw? Do you think that that women, peace and security agenda, or for example, the National Action Plan, were taken seriously in Afghanistan at the time?

RAHMANI: The short answer is no. What are the barriers? In Afghanistan, any government that comes to power, one of the very first things that they signal is their position on women. It’s for a reason, because it is immensely important for how they define themselves, vis-a-vis gender roles. It has been a continuous battle with the pendulum going between modernity and extremism. As it’s moving from one side to another, women usually get crushed in the middle.

The women, peace and security agenda hasn’t been real in Afghanistan. There has been a deep-rooted belief and perception of gender roles. Gender has always been used as an instrument of power. The women have never been afforded a fair share. I will take any share, any real share in financial, political, or social capital.

In my view the basis of [women’s] lack of capital is their lack of financial capital. In Afghanistan it’s a bit more difficult because we haven’t had a functional economy for so long. Therefore, political [capital] is also financial capital. The reason that women had so many achievements and so much progress over the past twenty years is because of the role of the international community and their emphasis. It could have been done more, and better.

There is a body of research demonstrating the importance of their role in peace and security, that is neglected. I don’t think we have gotten to that. The perception has been so closed. But I must say, that when, for example, I was Ambassador to Indonesia, and I worked in Southeast Asia and some African countries, one of the major differences that I saw is the lack of access for Afghan women to the markets, to the banking system, which of course didn’t exist even at the time, and to financial mechanisms. That was defining their role in the rest of [society] as well. Frankly speaking, I think, involvement of women in the security sector probably would be one of the things that would come last.

COOK: In Afghanistan there was a lot of effort and time and money sunk into training up the security forces. We did see the emergence of women in the police forces, for example, in the Afghan National Army, to a limited extent. A lot of this was raised with the idea of not only advancing the equality of women, but also giving women access to those security institutions. Do you believe that there was a shift in mindset related to the roles that some of these women were taking up in security forces?

RAHMANI: The women who joined the security forces, they were some of the bravest women, and it was always very difficult for them and for their families. They were labelled. They were very openly assumed to be immoral women, and even their work environment was extremely discriminatory and abusive. I know of numerous cases of abuse and sexual assault within the security sector towards female workers.

Also, when it comes to the collapse of Afghanistan, people say, ‘why did the security forces not resist, not fight?’ and they draw the comparison with the Taliban forces. There are many factors, bigger factors. One of the factors was that a lot of people who joined the Afghan security forces were people who were seeking employment. They had absolutely no other means of earning a living and they joined the security forces. So that was defining their purpose and morale also.

For women, there were some that were completely driven by the goal, the morale and what they wanted to achieve. But for a lot of them, there was also an economic motive to join the security forces. The other fact was that they were extremely under-served. One U.S. senator continuously asked me about a project - what happened to it? Over 10 years they allocated funding for it, and it never got implemented. Finally, I told her the truth. Her committee allocated twenty million dollars to build bathrooms for female forces. It never materialised. Never, because the money was earmarked in a way that there was no room for corruption. So, it never got done.

There was also a mindset. People at the very local grassroots level saw how women were contributing now to the economy of the family and going in all the fields, and that encouraged them. This paved the way for the women to join the security sector. The women themselves also wanted to do something different, and the economic motivation to get a job, but then the resistance and obstacles were all going against them.

COOK: The initial decision to go into Afghanistan was to prevent Afghanistan from being viewed as a safe haven for terrorists. If we look at the time, money and effort that’s been sunk into countering extremism and countering terrorism in the country over these two decades, what have been some of the biggest lessons learned?

RAHMANI: What has gone right? We are looking at what happened in Afghanistan, and everybody is generalising everything, and of course there is huge disappointment. A lot of people think that the whole twenty years was a waste, and nothing happened. That we didn’t achieve anything regarding counterterrorism or counter extremism. That’s not true. In fact, you did not see any major international attack emanating over the past twenty years, or devised, from Afghanistan. The second thing is we know about the incidents that did happen, but we don’t know about the incidents that were prevented. There were a massive amount of them.

The past twenty years gave hope to so many people. It played with their mindset, and it gave them a shift in their mindset. It built a human capital that we never had. It taught people different ways of living and expectation and aspirations. Afghanistan is such a young country, so many people got educated. All of that played a major role in curbing terrorism and extremism, because in this era of technology and social media, it is very easy to get the younger generation attracted to these ideas. We are living in a place where there is multiplicity of truth(s). Somebody can define a new truth, and people can subscribe to that, and that is their truth, or a sort of ideology. We keep seeing that. But in Afghanistan, that was really controlled and managed. So there was much that went right. All the people that got educated wanted to come out – it’s an indication that they cannot live under extreme rules. Then, of course, their aspirations. There were lots of positive outcome and results.

What could have been done differently, better? The international community did not have a firm enough grip on accountability. Corruption fuelled extremism. People became radicalised because of the grievances they developed. A lot of this was emanating from the corruption that was just so prevalent all around the country. As we went along, it went from bad to worse, to the point that then the very recent years and months, everybody was so extremely fed up with the incumbent government, that they didn’t want to change.

Photo credit: 1TVNewsAF

COOK: When we look at how the war was conducted in Afghanistan, or how counterterrorism has been conceived of, it’s still very western-centric. From your perspective, was the knowledge, the experience, the perspectives of Afghans, were they considered enough? Was there a chance for Afghans to actually shape that agenda or inform it in a way that might have worked better for Afghans?

RAHMANI: Yes. I think there was certainly more room to tap into their understanding, their expertise, their knowledge, and their abilities. Counterterrorism is as much of a hard issue as it is a soft issue, and that aspect of it has unfortunately, been undermined continuously. You’re looking at the military aspects, and looking at CT as a very hard issue, but it is not necessarily yielding fruit. Based on the experiences that I have had in dealing with this issue, the hardest aspect of CT should be a deterring factor, as well as supplemental factor, not the [only] factor, the main instrument for countering terrorism. There should be so many other aspects of it.

For example, the issue is also that there was never a clear and consistent policy in terms of whether the coalition really wanted to engage in nation building or not. Are they serious about helping the system of governance and institutionalisation or not? Often there were the warlords and power holders that were continuously supported to build their own militias. That contributed to the failure of the mission, I would say. So yes, there was room to tap into the Afghans abilities to counter terrorism. And there still will be. There still is. It was not adequately utilised I would say.

COOK: Do you think the international community was adequately prepared the withdrawal from Afghanistan? We saw the US, take a very swift exit and currently we’re sitting in the Netherlands and there’s the impression that a lot of US partners were left in the dark. Had international partners that were in Afghanistan taken the steps to adequately prepare for the moment of withdrawal?

RAHMANI: If you mean, all the countries who were in alliance with the United States to Afghanistan, if you’re referring to them as the international community, that’s one question. But if you are talking to the United States itself, that’s another question. The main question is what did the international community want? [Did] they have a common objective that they wanted to [pursue], and in what way? Was it just a blanket feeling or statement, that we are fatigued and it has been too long, and whatever happens, this is it? We need to leave and move on because our constituencies, our parliament, our voters, are fed up with this issue? There’s no more support? That’s a longer and different debate.

To answer the question, whether they were prepared or not, we need to also first answer, what was their objective? And simply, a lot of people are of the view that the international community simply did not care. Did not care enough to see what happened, to experience what’s happening. Then, of course, the collateral damage has been always the people of Afghanistan over the decades.

COOK: The people of Afghanistan have certainly been the ones to suffer the most from this war, without question. When we look at the state of Afghanistan today, we see the Taliban has taken power, groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda remain active in the country. When we look to the international community, what steps or what actions should the international community take today to continue to support Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan?

RAHMANI: I’m avoiding talking on behalf of the Afghans. But I would say what action they could take depends on what they want.

The thing is, assuming that the international community does not want a refugee crisis, they do not want a humanitarian catastrophe that is literally happening in Afghanistan, they are concerned about Afghanistan becoming once again, a cradle for terrorism, they do not want Afghan women to be thrown back to the dark days, assuming these are all true, then they really need to put their weight into empowering communities, even if they are not going to have a relationship with the current government, because of who they are and what they are.

For that to happen in a way that is meaningful, it should not be just pledging money to the multilaterals to deliver wheat and kidney beans and two kilos of sugar to each family, but rather, engage in a better way such as promoting communities and supporting them to partner in, for example, digging wells, or establishing clinics and then protecting it, and having some sort of ownership in it. Community building, community empowerment, is the way forward. If they want to make a difference, they need to empower women. Involve them. They really need to be engaged in making those decisions, because that is for the welfare of the community.

Photo credit: Atlantic Council

COOK: What should that look like vis-a-vis the Taliban?

RAHMANI: For something like that to happen in a meaningful way, you need to be really creative, try new approaches, do things differently. You have to let go of some of the bureaucratic processes and engage people, engage Afghans. The human capital that you built over the past twenty years is something that is one of your best instruments. They are your eyes and they can help devise those kind of programmes and projects in a way that would be meaningful.

COOK: Do you see the Taliban being open to taking a role or engaging with the international community to advance some of these considerations?

RAHMANI: Yes, they would. I think the Taliban leadership understands that they don’t have the full capacity of governing, except when it comes to ideology. Second, anyone would realise that a starving nation is not in their best interest. They might be, but let’s be realistic about who the Taliban are. They were an insurgent group, they have only fought all the time for a very particular ideology with a very specific moral. Now, with the takeover, now they are faced with a whole range of issues. They had one thing, one specific objective, and they were able to carry it out and be disciplined. But now, there are a thousand different things to take care of that require technical capacity, which they lack.

Plus, for them to continue to be a solid group, to ensure that all their factions and segments are unified, they need to hold on to what they have been preaching. Meaning, it’s not easy for the Taliban to go tomorrow and tell their fighters that, ‘well listen, we told you for the past twenty years that a women’s place is at home and it would be sinful if they are not, and then you will be punished and you will go to hell. And now, let’s think differently because it is better for our governance’. A lot of these young fighters, they grew up with that fuel, with that ideology. They also have challenges in altering that if, assuming in the best case scenario, some of them would be open to that, which, from my experience, it is not necessarily true, because many of them they are very much the same people that they were twenty years ago.

COOK: I’ll turn it over to you if there’s anything else that we haven’t discussed today that you think is important to raise.

RAHMANI: One of the things that I keep saying, or I repeat as an answer when people ask me what is going to happen to Afghanistan moving forward? My response is that what happens to the women of Afghanistan will define what happens to Afghanistan. It is not just a cliché, it’s not just because of my personal and professional experience and connection to the issue. It is something that would really define the future of the country. I think one of the biggest and best achievements, or most tangible achievements of the past twenty years have been the progress that women made in Afghanistan. I believe that the international community can make good use of that.

COOK: Ambassador Rahmani, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

RAHMANI: Thank you for having me.