An Armchair Discussion with Fawzia Koofi

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Daniel F. Runde: I’m Dan Runde. I’m a senior vice president here at CSIS.

I’m really, really, really pleased to be hosting my friend Fawzia Koofi. Fawzia Koofi is a female politician in Afghanistan. She has been a glass-ceiling breaker. She is somebody who has gone through a lot. She lost her husband to the Taliban; she has survived a number of assassination attempts. She has – you know, she has gone through a lot.

She has been a woman politician in a country that, you know, is learning to bring, you know, all voices of the society into full participation in the society. She is someone I really like, and I really admire. And I’m really grateful that she agreed to become a visiting fellow with us here at CSIS. And so, we’re so happy that she’s here for the month of October.

She is someone I really admire and look up to. It’s important to have people you admire in public life, and Fawzia is one of the people I most admire in public life. So, I’m really happy to have her today.

This is as part of a series of discussions that we’ve been having. It’s the third that we’ve had in the last six weeks around the fall of the legitimate government in Afghanistan and the takeover by the Taliban a year ago.

So, I’m really happy to have her here today. I’m not going to say much more than that. I’m going to turn it over to my friend Fawzia and let you make some remarks. You can either do it here or from there – either one.

Fawzia Koofi: No, thank you so much, Dan, for the opportunity and for the platform because I know it’s probably very difficult now for Afghans as a whole, but for Afghan women to get a stage with all the attention shifted from Afghanistan to another awful situation.

When I was in Europe, I was like contacting my Afghan friends in the United States and asking them to meet the members of Congress, State Department, think tanks, organizations like yourself, and ask them to do, you know, tangible things for Afghanistan. And they were telling me there is not much of interest. For many of Americans, Afghanistan project has kind of died; it’s no longer an area where Americans want to keep an eye.

And I couldn’t believe it because, after all those, you know, lives, and blood, and treasure you have invested to help us – us being in the forefront of all of it – how could you just turn an eye from what’s happening in Afghanistan, and to the women especially?

But now being here, I can kind of imagine that, you know, I can see that the world – that the U.S. has other priorities now and Afghanistan is no longer a priority, which is heartbreaking because how could you, you know, repeat the history – the history of not very long ago, only 20 years back. When you abandoned and forgotten Afghanistan, the consequences of that were not only on the Afghans, but on yourself – was huge, was a threat to the global security. You lost more than 3,500 lives. Afghans lost millions of lives. And the 11 September attack happened.

My worry is that, you know, this situation – if we really don’t keep the attention in Afghanistan, I’m not saying that you will see the 11 September experience; what I’m saying is that all – you know, whatever is happening in Afghanistan is shaping itself toward the future where, with the current situation, the current status quo where the world global security might be at risk.

So, thank you for having me here.

Mr. Runde: You’re welcome. I think there is a lot of anger, and shame, and confusion in the United States about what happened in Afghanistan, and so I think we’d rather not deal with those emotions – I think is a lot of it, and then I think we’ve been very consumed by the COVID pandemic, and I think the war in Ukraine has been something that understandably has absorbed a lot of attention here in Washington.

But I remember that film, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and the book, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and the end of that movie – I’m not going to repeat what they say at the end of the movie, but it’s not – it’s not safe for work, so I’m not going to repeat what they say at the end of that movie. But I think if you haven’t seen it, go back and watch it. It’s exactly what my friend Fawzia Koofi said.

And so, I think there is a strong temptation for us to forget, and just look the other way, and hope maybe – we may not be interested in Afghanistan, but the events in Afghanistan may become interested in us. And we can’t necessarily – we can’t necessarily build a wall high enough to protect ourselves from those sorts of dangers. So, we’re going to have to remain engaged.

I know we – you know, we hosted the special representative for Afghanistan last week, Tom West, and he talked about all the ways in which the United States remains involved. But I do think we – you know, I worried – we did a paper here at CSIS several years ago that said exactly what you are saying, Fawzia, that if we leave that we may have to at some point – and I hope it doesn’t happen – we may, under some sort of circumstances be forced to have to reengage in Afghanistan in ways we don’t really want to.

So, I agree with you, and I think we have an ongoing variety of interests in Afghanistan. Some of it is because we were there, but I think there is a security interest, but I also think we have other interests as well, and I want to get to some of those.

So, one of the interests I think we have is we made major investments in supporting women leaders and investing in women and girls in Afghanistan. Several million girls went through kindergarten through 12th grade, and what I’ve said all along is that that investment will radically change the society in Afghanistan.

If you look at a country like Bangladesh, another South Asian country, the investments in women and girls have totally, positively transformed Bangladesh. Bangladesh is on its way to becoming an upper-middle-income country, and you could argue that there is a direct correlation between the investments in women and girls – especially girls – the number of years of education of girls in Bangladesh to sort of the positive economic outcomes that have happened in Bangladesh.

You know, right now under the Taliban, girls cannot go to school after, what, ninth grade or eighth grade?

Ms. Koofi: Sixth grade.

Mr. Runde: Sixth grade – I mean, it’s barbaric. It’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous. And it’s – so how do we get girls back in school?

Ms. Koofi: Well, girls not being in school is one of the hundreds of challenges people of Afghanistan face today. But the fact that girls don’t go to school explains the ecosystem of how women are living in Afghanistan – the fact that it’s a clear benchmark of oppression and gender apartheid, obviously. Women don’t go to school, and ultimately, they don’t go to work. They won’t get to university next year, and in fact, this year, Taliban banned many girls from going to universities or entering the university entrance exam. They assign specific faculties where women could into, so they can’t get into journalism faculty, they can’t get into law faculty, they can’t get into engineering faculty because these are not regarded as – from Taliban perspective – traditionally a job that is traditionally fit for women.

So, I think, yes, we talk about girls’ education because, you know, from my own personal experience, when Taliban stopped me – and I can see a lot of, you know, the younger Afghan girls here who were also stopped either from their primary school or university during Taliban, that it took me 20 years to recap –

Mr. Runde: To catch up.

Ms. Koofi: To catch the – you know, the time that I was not allowed to go to university – five years. I wanted to become a medical doctor, but they stopped me, along with millions of other girls and women in Afghanistan. And after Taliban collapse, it took me 20 years to be what I wanted to be, and I just started, you know, kind of walking on my own feet when this happened.

So, it’s not going to be even – I mean, the U.N. report also says that the fact that women are not going to work actually impacted Afghanistan’s economy by a huge percentage. They say that five billion – it impacted Afghanistan five billion dollars for the fact that they are not allowing women to go to work. And we are now talking about a country which is almost 40 million people at risk of severe poverty. So why are we depriving women? It’s not even a social or political issue. It is a matter of security because if any government is oppressive enough, that is oppressing 55 percent of its society, which are women and girls, to the corner and depriving them from their basic rights, they can pave the way for any other military extremism or any other extremism. And my fear is that now all the ground is paved for military extremists to come back because there is oppression. And Taliban, you know – since they came to power, their only priority is women’s rights – oppressive measures against women basically.

Mr. Runde Right. Their priority is anti-women’s rights.

Ms. Koofi: Anti-women’s rights. They have issued 32 verdicts and edicts minimizing women’s rights as if women freedom and liberty is the only problem in Afghanistan. And if you really oppress women to the walls of their homes, Afghanistan will become a garden of flowers with all a prosperous future, which is not – we are talking about a country that women were already suffering, so you can imagine the amount of – you know, the amount of frustration in Afghanistan, not only from women, but from everyone who is living there.

Mr. Runde: How did you – how did you – you lived under the Taliban. Your husband was killed in essence because of his treatment by the Taliban. You were widowed because of this. What was it like living under the Taliban, and how did you get educated? What happened?

Ms. Koofi: I was born in a very traditional family, although my father was a member of parliament, but he never allowed his own daughters to go to school. I was the first to go to school because my mother helped me. And they say that if a woman is educated, she will educate her society, and that’s why we believe girls’ education is the key in Afghanistan. And then eventually, because – you know, because of whatever I have gone through as a woman, experiences in my life facing discrimination, facing injustice, I could see women around me, but also men around me were suffering from wrong politics, of exclusionary politics by Taliban, but also during civil war, but mainly by Taliban.

You know, I could see that women are being whipped in the streets for not wearing the standard appropriate clothes of Taliban, and I was thinking that this – something is wrong here because there is a social contract between people and the government, and on the basis of that social contract there is mutual accountability. And Taliban were not committed to that – not at all – and they are not committing now to that, you know, accountability towards people. And that drove me to politics actually.

After 11 September attack and the United States’ commitment that they will help people of Afghanistan achieve democracy – (laughs) – which eventually they also failed, I went to politics, and for me politics was just a means of change. And therefore, when I was elected – and I think anybody, when you are elected into office, that’s the first step for you to achieve what you want to achieve: your dreams for your country, for your people. Getting to office was not my objective. It was a means to do what I wanted to do.

And it was not easy path, Dan. I mean, I remember from the time that we were even not allowed to speak what we wanted to speak, you know, in the parliament. The mics were cut.

Mr. Runde: As a woman.

Ms. Koofi: We were never regarded – this is 2005, 2006 in the first democratically elected parliament after 40 years of war.

So, these were not easy experience. People were – easily could talk about our clothing, et cetera, so we really had to struggle, pave the way. Sometimes when people talk about democracy was important to Afghanistan, I disagree because we really stood in forefront of protecting what we wanted to. Women were in the forefront of all of that, starting from parliament to civil society to the rule of Afghanistan. And in fact, when I was traveling to the rural villages in Afghanistan, people were usually, you know – they were following closely politics in the world, and they were so aware, thanks to the media, about what’s happening. So that was like the transformation I could see.

Women were asking me in the villages that, you know, who is going to be the United States’ president next time? Is it going to be Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama? It indicated, you know, how people, women were aware of what’s happening in the world and how they wanted to be part of all the progress, and they were part of the progress.

So, for me politics was a beginning to start to change and transform the society. Every woman and man who actually worked in Afghanistan in the last 20 years, no matter were they in politics, civil society, they were part of that transformation, and that is something I wanted to deliver to Taliban. I wanted to tell them that Afghanistan is a transformed Afghanistan. It’s not Afghanistan that they took over in 1996 that, you know, people thought it was OK if a woman was whipped in the street and didn’t react. Now you see that when, for instance, our 50 Hazara girls were killed last week in a, you know, act of genocide, basically, against Hazaras and against everyone who is living in Afghanistan, not only, you know, women, but also men protested in the streets, but women were of course leading these protests, asking for Afghanistan – for a better Afghanistan.

I think they deserve our solidarity. I think they deserve for us to stand with them. If they are risking their lives – remember Afghanistan is so different with Iran. In Afghanistan, everyone has a gun. Everyone is – you know, who has a gun ultimately believe and use of violent against women, especially Taliban, which are a minority of 10 to whatever percent – 10 percent probably, oppressing the people. They were out using guns and violence against these women protesters. They were asking a better Afghanistan.

You know, that is I think a seed that we cultivated in the last 20 years that we can see now it’s growing. But before it dies – my plea to the world is before it dies let’s continue to help them. Let’s continue to help them achieve what they want to – a better Afghanistan. Our plea is very simple. We don’t women in Afghanistan to look like the women in the United States or in Europe. We want our basic, fundamental rights – a right to go to school, to go to work, a right to be able to have a say in the future of your country and live in a society which is equal.

Mr. Runde: Does the United States, do other countries have leverage in this situation? And if so, what is it?

Ms. Koofi: I must say that the U.S. and European leverage is getting smaller and smaller day by day because Taliban have now learned how to maneuver the regional politics, so they have new allies. We know that Russia, for instance, was the first country to offer Taliban the embassy. They accepted the first – they accepted credential of Taliban diplomat. China is of course in Afghanistan – they have a lot of economic interests – Central Asian countries in Afghanistan. So, these are kind of a potential substitute, I would say, for U.S. and for Europe, which could minimize your leverage.

Before it’s too late – I’m saying again, before it’s too late, you also have leverage. Your leverage is the people of Afghanistan who believe in a different Afghanistan: the women of Afghanistan who could be your partner. Don’t regard women of Afghanistan just as victims and survivors; regard them as your partners because you have empowered – they have empowered themselves. Regard them as your partners.

So, I don’t like this word of sympathy. When we share our problem, we hear these sympathetic words of, like, we are sorry for you. Act beyond being sorry. Act in solidarity with people of Afghanistan, with women of Afghanistan.

Remember in 2013, Taliban was nowhere. In 20 years, they found they were not able to control one district. Only in 2021, you know, when the American deal was signed which demoralized our forces – and it’s a different story and probably needs another conversation – that they managed to control our areas. But for 20 years they were not able to control even one district in Afghanistan, right? So, they were nowhere, but there was a political office for them established, and Afghanistan was the only country in the world represented by two flags.

Now you see, if Taliban were nowhere and they were brought to become a political force, women of Afghanistan, civil society of Afghanistan that transformed part of Afghanistan. I am repeating again that you guys invested blood and treasure. They are the really full partnership with you for a different Afghanistan. Use that. Use your money because I know that, you know, there is this tendency that, you know, people of Afghanistan are hungry, we need to help them, we need to give them money, which is good. Thank you so much for that. But look at beyond the humanitarian issue. Look at the political situation.

And also, your other leverages – work with region, impose sanctions because we never actually use our political leverage against Taliban. It was either fight or friendship. There was no middle ground. Use that, do sanctions, travel ban. I hope that the U.S. does not really request the removal of travel ban because I’m hearing that, you know, some of the diplomats are asking actually travel ban removal for Taliban to be able to travel to some of the countries.

Well, as an Afghan woman, as somebody who holds Afghanistan passport, when I came to the United States, I was picked as a selectee for a very, you know, in-depth search – security search. I wonder if Taliban undergo the same security check with, you know, all these private jets, and while they’re in the FBI list of sanction, in, you know, U.N. list of sanction, can we bring some of those measures so that the women of – they could put themselves in the – you know, their feet in the shoes of women of Afghanistan and feel the pain.

Mr. Runde: So, you’d ask for everyone that comes from the Taliban to go through a DHS search. I agree with that. (Laughter.) Fawzia, it’s a horrible process, and I’m sorry you had to go through that.

But Fawzia, in terms of – there are a number of things that have been announced. Secretary Blinken recently announced the Alliance for Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience, and I think it’s linked to how we can figure out a way, both economically and politically, to construct a representative process for Afghanistan, for voices inside and outside Afghanistan.

So, could you talk about Secretary Blinken’s Alliance for Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience? What do you think about that? And then could you talk about what’s it going to take to have a representative process for Afghan voices inside Afghanistan to be more – to be more heard?

Ms. Koofi: So, on the initiatives – there are two initiatives. One is the consultative mechanism and then the other one is the alliance for economic support.

Any initiative – we welcome it. I wish these initiatives were undertaken just before the collapse because I know that two, three years before the collapse, women were kind of forgotten. And when I – in my conversation with the U.S. diplomats or other women conversation when we were asking that why in the Doha deal there was no mention of human rights and women rights. As your partners, the answer we got was like, you know, our soldiers are not here to shed blood to protect women rights in Afghanistan – which probably makes sense because women and human rights have never been a strategic issue and the basis of which the world will plan their foreign policy. I understand that.

But, you know, we embolden the women of Afghanistan to the extent that they were – we put them at risk, and then all of a sudden, we left them. They felt – honestly, they felt betrayal.

Now moving forward – moving forward, these initiatives, they must be really focusing inside Afghanistan directly to those women organizations who are led by women because a lot of women who lost their jobs, they were the breadwinners of their family. Their husbands, brothers, male member of the family were killed in the war, in our, you know, joint efforts to protect our values. They were killed, and they are now left with no means of support. And Taliban have asked them to leave the job because the public jobs are not for these women; they are only for Taliban – by Taliban for Taliban. They are not for these women.

So, these initiatives are important, but I think – I think one has to really see the whole situation – as I said before, the whole ecosystem of Afghanistan, which is a political settlement. Without, you know, using your leverage for a political settlement in a time which the ground is prepared: Taliban are divided. You can use all of these, you know, opportunities for a political dialogue.

Mr. Runde: Talk about the Taliban being divided because we read about this. I asked Special Representative West about this; he didn’t want to talk about it publicly, but I’d like you to talk about it publicly. How – Is the Taliban split?

Ms. Koofi: They are. I mean, being a rebel group fighting in the mountain is the easiest thing probably for Taliban because they are a group of fighters. But once they came to power, of course there are differences over power, over who is controlling more resources, who is controlling more, you know, security institutions, who is more oppressive, who is more extreme on their views. So, they have split.

There are three kinds of Taliban. One is of course the Kandahar, kind of Durrani branch which, you know, some of them were in Doha in political office. Then you have the Haqqani, and then you have the leader, which is Mullah Haibatullah. Mullah Haibatullah seemed to be more traditional. I’m not sure if he is educated or not, but –

Mr. Runde: Have you – have you met him?

Ms. Koofi: No, luckily. (Laughs.)

Mr. Runde: Luckily. (Laughter.)

Ms. Koofi: He was – nobody has seen his face, so we don’t really know if he exists as a human being. We just know his name.

So, he was – he is in Kandahar, he is surrounded by this group of traditional people who don’t believe in girls’ education, and they believe this is against our tradition, this is against our religion, while we know that in some of the very conservative provinces also people protest against girls not being to school. So, they are actually probably claiming some other Afghanistan, maybe 200 years back, that we don’t even remember, that they are trying to claim.

Then you have the Haqqani network, which portray themselves as progressive, but I don’t think they mean it because they want to really have a good relationship with the world. They want to whitewash their faces, so they want to say what the world wants to hear.

And then you have the Durranis. So, these are like our leverage points over Taliban.

Mr. Runde: These three? And do you think – you were part of the Doha process. Talk about – the question I asked Mr. West last week was, did the Taliban lie during that process? Did they lie to us? Did they lie to you?

Ms. Koofi: I think they did create a narrative that we, as international community – you guys – and we as people in Afghanistan seemed to believe that.

Mr. Runde: We wanted to believe it.

Ms. Koofi: We wanted to believe it, and we are now all trapped into this narrative. The narrative was that they are Taliban 2.0, that they have changed, and they actually said it. And I have been public about this, and I think it’s safe to say this. They – in one of the dialogues, one of the Taliban who is now in the – among the 11 people who signed the verdicts on burka, forced hijab – he is the minister now in the Cabinet of Taliban. He, in one of the dialogues, say that from their perspective, Taliban can – a woman can be minister, foreign minister, prime minister. I’m quoting him.

Mr. Runde: But he signed a thing saying –

Ms. Koofi: And then – yeah, not that only that he didn’t keep that promise, but he was one of the signatories that signed this deal, and he is the minister of one of the important ministries in a good relationship with China, I must say.

Mr. Runde: I’m sorry – I’m sorry to stop you, Fawzia, but what you are saying is during the Doha process, before they took over, he was saying all sorts of sort of progressive things, and then he turned around and signed the statement.

Ms. Koofi: Signed a statement that basically asked – put women in a situation that they have to all cover their faces. That’s their – Taliban’s favorite hijab, which is even not Islamic, I must say, because there is no agreement about what is hijab in Islam, right? But the Taliban kind of interpretation of hijab as a burka is not Islamic. It is traditional but in very, very remote areas. And why would a government enforce a, you know, tradition of a specific area over all the population? It doesn’t work in the 21st century.

I feel – I feel heartbroken when I’m talking about all of this, and people listen to it without, you know, kind of using their leverage to help us. But anyways, they have, you know – he has signed this verdict along with 11 people.

Now my request in the U.N. Security Council last week was very simple. If they don’t allow women of Afghanistan to travel – and interestingly they ask the male member of the family if a woman gets out of the home without, you know, the standard Taliban hijab, the man will be punished. So literally they are asking the abusers of the women to abuse the woman; if not, they will be abused and punished. So, my plea was very simple. If they don’t allow women out of Afghanistan, they should not have the liberty to travel. Are we asking a lot?

Mr. Runde: It’s crazy. It’s just crazy.

OK, do you see any credible alternative to the Taliban emerging soon?

Ms. Koofi: There are many. Where were Taliban in 2013? (Laughs.) They were not even an alternative. There are many.

The first alternative is the women of Afghanistan, because now women of Afghanistan are the most organized force – natural resistance force against Taliban. If they don’t speak, if they don’t protest in the street, that does not mean they are happy. We are receiving calls and messages from women across Afghanistan, from south to east, north to west. Everyone is asking for some sort of liberty. Everyone is asking for a life with dignity. These are women.

In Kandahar – you know, we have a man in Kandahar who has actually, you know, kind of started a campaign to let girls go to school. And a lot of women are joining. My province used to be one of the most liberal provinces. Now women in that province cannot go to school. So, there are alternatives. Women of Afghanistan are the main alternative I would say. Work with them. Regard them as your partner. Open office for them the same way that you supported the office of Taliban in Qatar, open an office for them in Qatar.

Mr. Runde: That’s a great idea.

Ms. Koofi: Second, the civil society and the political community of Afghanistan. Yes, we are not happy with what the political – the way the political community of Afghanistan divided themselves and as a result of which Taliban managed to lever that and come to power. But, you know, there are new faces, new generation, an empowered generation.

And of course, there are others who have made difficult choices of fighting Taliban militarily, which we don’t disown them. They have a choice because they – some of them are actually former security forces and the SIGAR report yesterday says that a lot of these former security forces joined either ISIS or, you know, military resistance of different platforms against Taliban. So, women, the people of Afghanistan are alternative. Give them the same platform you gave to Taliban and see how they deal with this, and they manage.

Mr. Runde: You and I have talked often about the role of religious leaders. This is a very religious society. I think we – I think in the West we are sort of – there’s – at least certainly among elites, it’s largely a post-religious elite. And so, I think we’d rather talk about anything other than religion, or it’s something we get very, very uncomfortable talking about. Even in a country like the United States that was in essence founded by religious dissidents, it’s an uncomfortable topic at times.

And so, when I went to Afghanistan in 2019, I asked to meet with people who were not supporters of the democratically elected government, and so I met with a religious leader in Kabul, a prominent one. And I said, so could you imagine a prime minister of Afghanistan being a woman someday? And he said, no, no, that’s not Islamic. I said, I don’t understand that, sir. I said, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia – all Islamic societies have had women leaders as prime ministers, so tell me why is that – and he just kind of ignored me.

So, I do think – could you talk a little bit about this issue of how do we engage religious leaders because, as you’ve said, there’s a spectrum of views within Islam on this, and so I do think there would be a lot there. So, talk a little bit about that.

Ms. Koofi: Well, I think that the Muslim society, the Islamic countries – the OIC but also other countries, they have a huge responsibility to counter what Taliban narrative is. Taliban narrative is not Islamic, and it’s going to create further Islamophobia if they continue to, you know, oppress and suppress the nation under the name of Islam.

And honestly, in a lot of these military extremist groups that have, you know, started in 21st century in different countries, because they run out of, you know, ideas about how they manage a country socially, how they manage a country politically, what is their economic policy, there is a narrative they try to find for themselves is oppress women. If you look at a lot of military extremist groups who have taken power by military means, that’s a very easy entry point, to oppress women and then get popularity. If you ask them what is your financial policy, what is your economic policy, what is your social policy, how are you going to run the country – the same way if you ask Taliban – they won’t have answer for any of these.

So, I think it’s a responsibility for OIC member states, and their silence, I must say, is, you know, frustrating the people of Afghanistan. They recently sent a delegation of 10 people to Afghanistan – one woman included. Taliban, of course, their answer was clear. Their Islam is very unique. They think it’s very different from the rest of the world, and in fact, they have started abolishing some of the laws that are made in Afghanistan before I was born even. And these are – the referral point for these laws are Islamic countries like Egypt. You know, our civil code and our penal code is developed based on the Egyptian civil code. But Taliban now abolish that because they think it’s anti-Islamic.

So, it’s a very different version of Islam. I don’t – in many occasions I think it’s in contradiction with Islam. And that’s why I think the rule of actual religious scholars is very, very important that they counter this narrative, they counter, and we had several conversations –

Mr. Runde: Conversations about this.

Ms. Koofi: – you know, discussions and series of programs on involving religious scholars. I think the OIC must be vocal on this. Many countries think that, you know, if these countries think the Taliban are protecting Islam, they’re making a mistake. They have – in fact, Taliban have inspired a lot of military extremist groups that are there in every country, and especially, like, in some of these Muslim countries, you have that. You know that Pakistani Taliban recently said that they want Islamic emirate of Pakistan. The same way you have in Central Asia you have now a Tehrik-i-Taliban Tajikistan who have actually announced themselves to start working after Taliban took over. You have the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, that actually operates in Afghanistan. Just before Taliban take over, there were 22 military extremist groups that were operating between South Asia, Central Asia, and Afghanistan.

Mr. Runde: And there was something like 19 just in Afghanistan operating.

Ms. Koofi: Nineteen just in Afghanistan. They have now increased, expanded because they’re inspired the way Taliban took over. So they are going to be a threat to the elected or whatever government in power is, so before that happens, I think these Islamic countries, and especially the OIC, has a responsibility, as I said before, to counter this narrative and to stand with people of Afghanistan, because, I mean, in nowhere in the world women are deprived from their work rights, from their education rights because in fact the right to education is a fundamental right in Islam.

Mr. Runde: So let me just list – I’ve said this a couple of times and so I think – if I’m the emir of Qatar or I’m the prime minister of Pakistan or I’m the king of – or the prime minister of Saudi Arabia, if any of those folks want to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize – and many leaders do in countries all over the world would like to someday when the Nobel Peace Prize for something. And it struck me that those leaders would – could win the Nobel Peace Prize if they could help women get back into school in Afghanistan. Could you talk about –

Ms. Koofi: Yeah, I have been listening to this wonderful statement. Thank you for advocating for Afghan girls. But I must say that this is not – girls’ education is not the only problem. We should not really set the bar so low that if Taliban do not really fulfill their commitment to allow our girls to continue school, and one day when they do that, which they are actually using this as a leverage over international community, and once they allow that the world will think, well, the situation is now normal.

Mr. Runde: And it’s OK.

Ms. Koofi: It’s not one of the – it’s one of the atrocities Taliban are committed. Extrajudicial killing, exclusion of ethnic groups, exclusion of social, you know, groups, religious groups, a government that is not legitimate, basic, a government that is not based on the will of people – these are much more greater problems, but of course girls’ education because in 21st century this is happening. And this is happening in a country that you have invested billions of dollars, and lives.

Mr. Runde: But Fawzia, I agree – I 100 percent agree with everything you’ve just said but if I said Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar, it strikes me that they have – maybe UAE – have potentially unique leverage over –

Ms. Koofi: Yes.

Mr. Runde: What should those countries be doing?

Ms. Koofi: You know, Qatar – because we were there for one year on and off. They have 12 percent more female students or girls in educational institutions than boys. Saudi Arabia now has – I mean, I’m not talking about their government, but they have opened to, you know, women exercising their rights. UAE, their ambassador – my friend Ambassador Lana in U.N., their permanent representative, does not even wear a scarf. So, it’s not only Afghanistan that by oppressing women you protect Islam. I think they have their ways – I think Qatar has a lot of leverage. I think Pakistan – because for most of the Taliban, they still have their family members living in Pakistan. I don’t think they have moved their Quetta Shura to Afghanistan. And I think, you know, the Taliban claim that they want Islamic emirate of Pakistan is serious. They have been fighting in the border areas recently.

So I think before that flame, which is now in Afghanistan, goes to any of these countries, they must become vocal not only in statements, because we have been hearing these nice statements from all these member states, but then when it comes to practical steps, like engaging with Taliban, on a condition base, tell them that if you don’t do these things, you’re not going to have a good future, not only in terms of – from a political theory also; I mean, politics of exclusion is not going to be sustainable and that’s a reality. Taliban are now, you know, implementing the politics of exclusion where they exclude everybody from politics basically, from social life even.

Mr. Runde: Fawzia, there’s a sense in Washington – I asked Special Representative West this – he was more – I’m going to describe it as more optimistic about this in that there’s a fear in Washington that as we – I believe that when we leave – if we leave a vacuum, China and Russia have the ability to fill it, and they will attempt to do that. In some ways they’ve done this diplomatically by recognizing the Taliban. You were talking about this. But to put it simplistically, it seems as if in many parts of the world China, if they’re given an opportunity, will stick a straw in a country and suck out the rocks or suck out, you know, the minerals, et cetera. So, there’s a sense that China has a lot of interest in the minerals of Afghanistan. How – what kind of involvement does China have right now? What kind of leverage does China have right now? How should we – you know, we have a lot of interests, as you know, here in Washington, even more so than five years and certainly more than 10 years ago, in China, in the Chinese Communist Party in mainland China. How do you see China’s involvement, mainland China’s involvement in Afghanistan?

Ms. Koofi: A lot of countries from the region and far that are now engaging with Taliban in the way that give them recognition, give them, you know, the power to maneuver and to bypass the West, these interests are economic interests, obviously, you know, because Uzbekistan hosted in late July, they hosted a conference which a lot of these countries with economic interests went there. And the whole – you know, the Uzbeks and countries in the region will achieve something in terms of women’s rights and girls’ education but we all know that the main focus of that conference was also on economic interests of the region. So that’s my fear. My fear is that if once Taliban start this kind of bilateral and transparent relationship with different countries in the region, including China, then the West and the U.S. will ultimately lose its leverage, which is already very small.

And that’s why I think before we reached to that point which is on the way – because I know that a lot of Chinese investment, investors are in Afghanistan, they’re, you know, not even in a bidding process, interested in Afghanistan minerals. Afghanistan has billions of dollars underground, but still, you know, a rich country, a poor nation, unfortunately. So, I think we need to really engage for a political settlement, that we establish a government that is accountable and avoid all these untransparent relationship.

Mr. Runde: I want to come back to that at the end about what that looks like. There have been some folks who’ve used the term diaspora. Do you consider yourself part of an Afghan diaspora?

Ms. Koofi: Once in my conversation with Special Envoy West, Tom West, I told him that, you know, don’t call me diaspora because whenever I hear this, it’s like you’re shooting with a pistol in my brain because you guys helped – you guys sent planes to evacuate. I wish there was no evacuation. I wish we were in Afghanistan in the full front – like really fighting and trying to change, even if it’s with cost of our lives, to change the status quo. But anyways, I don’t agree because Taliban were out of Afghanistan for 20 years, more than 20 years, and they were regarded as leaders of Afghanistan.

Mr. Runde: And they were never called the diaspora.

Ms. Koofi: As the reality – as the only reality, I would say sometimes, because some of our partners say, oh, Taliban are the only reality. Probably they are the reality but maybe 15 percent of the realities of Afghanistan. So, if they were an Afghan, why a double standard? Why Taliban being outside the country for 25 years were still regarded as leaders and we, spending 80 percent of our time still inside Afghanistan, trying to help people, in our own way trying to help people get out, trying to motivate people who are actually at risk, manage protests. In fact, when I was here, in the U.S. at 2:00 in the morning three days ago, I receive a call from girls who are protesting in Mazar-i-Sharif, along with many other people who are abroad, receiving the same calls at 3:00 a.m. These girls were locked down in dormitory and they asked me for support. I mean, what can I do from miles away, you know, to help these girls, but that shows the level of trust and hope that is connected to us from inside Afghanistan.

So why are we the diaspora? Why do you think we are diaspora? We have left Afghanistan in protest to what was happening. I left not because I was scared of what was happening. No, I didn’t leave because of my security situation, although I was under house arrest, and you know that.

Mr. Runde: Yes.

Ms. Koofi: But I left because of the fact that I wanted to show my protest for the way Taliban wanted to govern.

Mr. Runde: Where were you August 15th?

Ms. Koofi: In Kabul, in my home.

Mr. Runde: And what happened?

Ms. Koofi: It was a tragic day and all of us get emotional when we remember that day.

Mr. Runde: I know.

Ms. Koofi: I think the fall of Kabul did not really happen on the 15th of August, and I don’t think actually it was a fall in Kabul. I think it was a handover of Kabul. Let’s put it that way – handover by former president. I think it happened – the whole – the fall of Afghanistan happened – started from the time that the U.S.-Afghanistan deal was negotiated with excluding the Afghan people, the people of Afghanistan, the women of Afghanistan, the government which was elected. They were not included. And when we were talking with, you know, American diplomats that why you are not, like, briefing, why we are not included, why there is no simultaneous negotiation, and the response we got was like, it is about Taliban-the U.S. matters, and you know, one of those Taliban-U.S. matter was obviously in the Doha Agreement and it was withdrawal of your troops – which was not Taliban-U.S. matter; it was Afghanistan’s matter. It was our future. So, it was important for us to be engaged in that. And therefore, I think it started from then, expedited when on the 13th of April, President Biden said that I’m going to withdraw no matter happens.

Mr. Runde: Was President Biden given a difficult situation by former President Trump?

Ms. Koofi: I think the way Afghanistan case was managed was really not responsible, by both presidents, I must say. But in the Doha Agreement, I mean the United States violated the Doha Agreement, Taliban violated more, because in the Doha Agreement it says that the withdrawal will be condition-based, conditional withdrawal, and one of the conditions was a political settlement to reach. There were four elements and I remember the popular statements, my sisters and brothers from Afghanistan who would also remember from Ambassador Khalilzad who would say, you know, nothing will be agreed upon until everything is agreed upon. But you know, and the four elements that were interconnected to agree upon was withdrawal, condition-based, political settlement, and of course prisoners release and disassociation of Taliban with other military extremist groups, and explicitly they mentioned al-Qaida, which we know none of it is actually happening. And the Americans left –

Mr. Runde: Zawahiri was there. We got him, thankfully, but the fact that he seemed to be pretty comfortable in Kabul –

Ms. Koofi: Close to the palace.

Mr. Runde: Pretty close to the palace –

Ms. Koofi: He’s not the only one there.

Mr. Runde: God. It’s awful.

Fawzia, there are some that say the only way to respond to the problem of the Taliban is to take up arms. What do you think about that? Should we – I don’t know if we should – I don’t think we should want another war; there’s been 40 years of war. What is your response when people say we should take up arms against the Taliban?

Ms. Koofi: You know, I am in this movement of liberty and freedom by standing and protesting in the streets or protesting in our own way. So, I am in – you know, I’m in support of those women and men who are asking, standing for their rights in a civic way. However, that being said, there are people who actually were pushed to the corner and left with no choices but to make harder choices. Picking up a gun is a hard choice because they know that they’re actually playing with their lives, but they were pushed to that corner. And my fear is that again, if we do not really have a response in a way that there is a political settlement, this is going to go to a civil war, and in a civil war, it’s not only Afghanistan that will be impacted; like before, like before 2001, it’s the global security that will be impacted.

Mr. Runde: So do you think we – so some people have said it’s not a question of if but when having a civil war again in Afghanistan. Do you believe that?

Ms. Koofi: Well, there is war. There is active war in some parts of Afghanistan. It’s just a matter of time, I think. There are more people that are unhappy. And in fact, when – you know, 50 of our girls were killed last week from our Hazara community; there was huge activism, civic activism to say it was a genocide, but there were some others who were also talking about picking an arm if they’re not protected in their own country. So, everyone is thinking of hard choices. And as I said before, you know, the only movement that probably believes in civic activism is the women movement, and we’re also not taken seriously. So sometimes probably the women of Afghanistan should also pick up a gun.

Mr. Runde: OK. OK.

Ms. Koofi: If that’s the only –

Mr. Runde: Well, that woke me up. That got my attention. (Laughter.)

Ms. Koofi: If that’s the only way we are taken serious, we should probably do that. (Laughs.)

Mr. Runde: OK. Well, this is – OK, so, Fawzia, there’s been – the United Nations has played a role in Afghanistan in different ways. The current United Nations footprint is called UNAMA. Could you talk about what is the role that UNAMA is playing? Is it playing a constructive role? What do you think about UNAMA?

Ms. Koofi: So UNAMA is like the lead coordinating body in Afghanistan. Their mandate expired last March and all the women organizations, the women rights activists, the men – we really lobbied. I remember how many Zoom meetings I had to arrange and attend with – you know, at home sometimes I’m called, like, Zoom; that’s my second name because it’s like 24 hours on the Zoom meeting. Thanks to those member states in the –

Mr. Runde: Fawzia “Zoom” Koofi.

Ms. Koofi: Exactly.

Mr. Runde: That’s your nickname. (Laughs.)

Ms. Koofi: It’s a new name.

We’re grateful for those countries who actually help us to have a stronger mandate, not only extend UNAMA mandate but make it stronger.

Mr. Runde: Which did happen.

Ms. Koofi: Which did happen. And, you know, this happened actually just one week before the Ukraine issue become more sensitive, which further divides the Security Council. So, if it was delayed for another week, probably we shouldn’t have –

Mr. Runde: It wouldn’t have happened.

Ms. Koofi: We wouldn’t have the same way – a strong mandate as we have now.

Mr. Runde: It did happen.

Ms. Fawzia: We got it. So UNAMA mandate focuses on the political dialogue, human rights, and humanitarian. What they have been doing is only humanitarian because that’s the easy thing to do, humanitarian, right? They haven’t done really much on human rights. They published a report in June which is not very comprehensive. There is a new SRSG, which we are looking forward to working with her because it’s a woman and she’s from the region and she’s a Muslim woman and she will use the –

Mr. Runde: What’s her name?

Ms. Koofi: Roza Otunbayeva. She was the –

Mr. Runde: Oh, from Kyrgyzstan.

Ms. Koofi: She was the president of –

Mr. Runde Prime minister of Kyrgyzstan or president of Kyrgyzstan?

Ms. Koofi: Democratic president of Kyrgyzstan. So, she is from the region. She is Muslim. We are hoping with her, you know, footstep in Afghanistan we will be able to work for a more stronger mandate on human rights but also on political system.

Mr. Runde: So, she was – so Kyrgyzstan has – you know, has an effervescent democracy, so she was democratically elected –

Ms. Koofi: Yes.

Mr. Runde: Muslim woman from Kyrgyzstan is the U.N. representative in Afghanistan.

Ms. Koofi: Exactly.

Mr. Runde: That’s amazing.

Ms. Koofi: That’s a strong message for Taliban.

Mr. Runde: Totally. OK, so should the U.S. and other international players have offices in Afghanistan to deal directly with the Taliban, or should we work only with – through UNAMA?

Ms. Koofi: I think it’s – engagement with Taliban must be conditions-based. Taliban tell us – I’m just quoting them – that, you know, you guys lobby with international community so much for your rights and you think the world is listening to you? They’re not listening to you. We have a very good relationship with the world. EU is in Afghanistan. It’s just the recognition. Otherwise, we have a very good relationship. So, the more you actually try to make it easy and the more your engagement is not on the basis of give and take, the more normalized the situation becomes with Taliban, the more Taliban think that they’re doing OK, that they’re doing good, and they wouldn’t bother to really keep their commitments.

So, I think UNAMA, they have a mandate to work with people. They really have to work with people because I don’t think actually, they’re now engaging so much with the people. I wonder how many groups of women the UNAMA has met in the last six years. They have obviously met a lot of Taliban. So, but when it comes to your presence, your, like, embassy presence, your diplomatic presence, I think it goes against the international standard if you are not recognizing a power; how do you – or a de facto authority – how do you have your presence there? That’s what Taliban are desperately looking for, and that’s why they are sometimes giving the message that, you know, we want to girls to go to school because they want your presence, they want your money, but they’re not serious and honest on what they say about women’s rights.

Mr. Runde: OK, so here’s my last question, and then I’ve got several questions from the audience, but there was an ongoing – you could argue there’s been an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan since 1979. That’s a really long time. So, both you and I – I’m not going to say what our ages are, but both you and I were children when that happened. And –

Ms. Koofi: No, I was born after that. (Laughs.)

Mr. Runde: You were born after that. Of course, you were. (Laughter.) Of course, you were. Of course, you were born after that, absolutely. So, you were born after that, of course. So, is peace possible in Afghanistan? And what does a peaceful outcome look like in Afghanistan? Because – and there was – this seems as if this has gone on for a really long time. What does this look like? What – I mean, I’m not asking for Sweden and I’m not asking for Switzerland. So – but I don’t know, Bangladesh? Why can’t Afghanistan be like Bangladesh?

Ms. Koofi: Yeah. Well, yeah, a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan where every human being will be regarded as human being, regarding their, you know, ethnic, religious, color, race, whatever, was something that I wanted to see as a result of my engagement with Taliban. I know a lot of civil society activists and women rights activists; they were against my engagement. They said, you know, don’t legitimize Taliban; don’t give them that whitewashing, you know, opportunity; they have not changed. But we wanted to bring a peaceful settlement for our country because, you know, at the end of the day, all of us were a victim of war. I went to negotiation – in fact my had in cast as a result of Taliban attack –

Mr. Runde: You were stabbed?

Ms. Koofi: Yeah, as a result of – so I –

Mr. Runde: And your bodyguard was killed.

Ms. Koofi: He was injured. So, I was several times attacked. In the last one my hand was injured, but I wanted to demonstrate, as a victim of war also, along with millions of other people –

Mr. Runde: And when they saw you, they were unhappy to see you; they had hoped you had died, right? They were –

Ms. Koofi: (Laughs.)

Mr. Runde: Isn’t that true? That’s what you told me? You showed up at the negotiations and they were shocked to see you because they thought you were dead, right?

Ms. Koofi: I was – (laughs) –

Mr. Runde: Right? Is that right? Isn’t that true?

Ms. Koofi: Exactly. Well, they shoot me that they wanted to –

Mr. Runde: So, think about that, right? So she shows up at the negotiations and they’re like, hey, I’m so unhappy to see you because we tried to kill you and we’re so sorry about that. That’s basically what happened, right?

Ms. Koofi: (Laughs.) That didn’t happen.

Mr. Runde: And they’re like oh, right? So, think about that. I mean, how messed up is that?

Ms. Koofi: Thousands of other women and men were targeted and killed, journalists, judges, the cream of our society.

Mr. Runde: It’s disgusting.

Ms. Koofi: It’s disgusting that they were killed.

Mr. Runde: It’s so offensive. It’s so gross.

Ms. Koofi: There is still a small window of opportunity for peace, but we all have to really work toward that, right. Get out of our box of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan but work for a political settlement. So, engage with women of Afghanistan, engage with political community of Afghanistan, so that they start mobilizing, because one year we were, like, scattered around the world because it was unexpected saturation –

Mr. Runde: But now we have Zoom.

Ms. Koofi: We have Zoom but also, we are now out of our, you know, administrative procedure. We have kind of a time to breathe and think about what’s happening – going to happen in our country. And then include Taliban as a small reality in that process, because obviously we cannot – there are a lot of people who believe in dismantlement of Taliban and when I, you know, consult them on what should I say in these kinds of platforms, they’re like, tell Americans to dismantle Taliban. So, you have many people in Afghanistan who believe that way. I personally believe that we need to work with this moment reality, which are Taliban, 10 to 12 percent probably. They can be one reality, but the rest of the society – form a government based on the will of people.

So, I met a congressman the other day in the U.S. Congress, and he told me that, you know, for us Afghanistan is a failed democracy project. I said, probably the U.S. failed in its strategy of bringing democracy in Afghanistan or helping people of Afghanistan achieve democracy. But the people of Afghanistan did not fail in their desire to achieve a democracy –

Mr. Runde: They want a democracy.

Ms. Koofi: They still want a democracy. And if the situation continued like this for another five years, people will – ordinary people I’m talking – start questioning us, their so-called leaders, saying that did you leave us with these kinds of people, with Taliban? Where is your democracy? They will even start questioning our values. So, before they start questioning our values and they lose complete faith in us, we really need to do something to restore democracy and constitutional order because Afghanistan is the only country that does not have a constitution.

Mr. Runde: OK, so here’s – how do you get the Afghan political class to join together in a united front to challenge the Taliban?

Ms. Koofi: They have started. They have started, I must say. We now need to mobilize more women because this is about women. The women of Afghanistan are writing the new history. We like it or we don’t like it. The political community of Afghanistan, these kind of patriarchy, traditional men: If they want to believe it or if they don’t want to believe it, the new history in Afghanistan will be determined by women of Afghanistan because they –

Mr. Runde: God willing.

Ms. Koofi: – were in the forefront of standing against oppression. And some of these men were actually looking at them and saying that – and just looking at them, not even joining their protests. They think that women are only fighting for women’s rights, which in reality last days’ protest, not in big numbers because it’s a very difficult situation, I must say, but even if 200 women is protesting in Afghanistan, that means 200 women know that they’re not going to come alive home, but they still take that risk. So, I think women of Afghanistan should be 50 percent of those dialogue and negotiation. This is first – and political.

Second, we need to give space. I know that a lot of political community and civil society activists, they’re struggling in their situation. There is no office for them, there is no resources for them, you know, and many countries are reluctant because they want to have an economic tie with Taliban; they don’t want to upset Taliban. So, we really need to get serious into this business of bringing constitutional order, rule of law back to the society, to Afghanistan.

Mr. Runde: Fawzia, thank you so much. You’re amazing. Thank you very much.

Please join me in thanking Fawzia Koofi. (Applause.) Thank you.


Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Fawzia Koofi

Fawzia Koofi

Former Visiting Fellow, Project on Prosperity and Development