September 1, 2015
Shinkai Karokhail, a member of the budget and finance committee of the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) of the Afghan National Assembly and a longtime activist for women’s rights, education, and conflict prevention, sat down with the New Atlanticist's Ashish Kumar Sen for an interview on a recent visit to Washington.

Here are excerpts of our interview.

Q. Over the past year, Afghanistan has got a new unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah; NATO troops have begun withdrawing and those remaining are in a noncombat role of providing support. In the midst of these changes, insurgents have stepped up attacks. What is your assessment of the situation in Afghanistan?

Karokhail: It’s been a huge transition and we are expecting a critical year ahead. We have to accept that this is a big test for the people of Afghanistan; and we have to pass this test in order to save our country.

While we have a unity government, you have to understand that when you bring together two groups with different political agendas there will be some clashes. However, I don’t think that internal challenges of this union should be our biggest concern or focus right now.

We also have to recognize that a lot of great things are happening and they have brought some hope to the Afghan people. For example, many people, Afghans as well as the international community, had underestimated the capabilities of our national police and army. Yet our servicemen have bravely and ably protected the country despite facing many challenges. This is a feat that should be given a lot of merit and attention given that our servicemen don’t have the resources that the armies of other countries have. We don’t even have an air force.

Things may not be moving as fast as we had hoped, but they are moving in a positive direction. Appointments of Governors, for example, are now based on education and merit and not how long a person fought in the jihad against the Soviets. This will pave the way for technocrats to come to office.

Q: What is life like for Afghan women these days?

Karokhail: There is a sense of satisfaction that we don’t need to lobby the President on women’s rights; he is already pro-women’s rights [Editor’s note: Ghani has shown his commitment to having more women in government by including four female Ministers in the Cabinet.] A good example is his decision to nominate a woman to be in the Supreme Court. We tried for the past decade to get to this point. [Ghani] promised he would nominate a woman and he did. The responsibility to support her fell on the Afghan Parliament and we failed, unfortunately.

Q. It has been reported that many women in Parliament did not show up to vote for President Ghani’s Supreme Court nominee. Can you explain what happened?

Karokhail: I admit that the absence of many women at the vote was a great disappointment for me and the other Afghan parliamentarians who were fighting for this day to come. However, I have to emphasize: Why should only women be held accountable for the failure to vote for women? Men should also accept women as equal citizens of the country and should participate in processes that legitimize their equality in government. This was not just our duty as women, but also our duty as Afghans fighting for positive change. But we are not disappointed. Sooner or later we will have another female nominee.

Q: Shifting gears, Western governments have been preoccupied with the rise of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham], which is now reported to have spread to Afghanistan. How serious is this problem for Afghanistan?

Karokhail: I don’t think we have the same ISIS that exists in Syria or Iraq. They are former Taliban members from Afghanistan. They are trying to associate themselves with ISIS given the movement’s infamy and global impact.

So far it is not a very big threat.

Q: Are you concerned that ISIS stands to gain from the splits within the Taliban following confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death?

Karokhail: If the so-called Daesh [Editor’s note: Daesh is another name for ISIS] in Afghanistan was actually part of ISIS then yes, it would be a big concern for us. But a bigger concern is the suspicion and confusion that arose when news of Mullah Omar’s death broke out. I hope it becomes a big concern for the international community as well.

I hope everyone will realize that we need to recognize the role Pakistan is playing. For the past few years, we have been hearing about the meetings between the [Afghan] High Peace Council and Taliban leaders in Qatar. Now it turns out Mullah Omar has been dead for the past two years. How were these peace talks happening without any input from the so-called leader of the Taliban movement? Most importantly, how and why was Mullah Omar’s death kept from the very people he was supposedly leading?

We wonder if it matters whether Mullah Omar was or Mullah [Akhtar] Mansour is the “leader” of the Taliban. Maybe the main player was always someone else: the ISI. [Editor’s note: ISI is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency].

We need to ask why the United States of America has funded Pakistan’s so-called war against terrorism when the country is selective about which terrorist threats it chooses to eliminate. When it comes to the TTP [Editor’s note: The Pakistani Taliban is known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)], Pakistan has been swift with its action. Meanwhile, the Quetta Shura who are responsible for the deaths of so many Afghan civilians and servicemen are allowed to hold highly publicized gatherings to mourn the death of Mullah Omar and to select new leadership, receive training, and live comfortably in safe havens provided by Pakistan.

We need the international community to ask: Why is Pakistan playing this game?

Q: How can the Ghani government move the now-stalled peace process forward, and does it need to be more inclusive?

Karokhail: I used to think a lot about this process and how it can be made more inclusive. I wanted to make sure that women, civil society, and the youth were all present. Today, however, I wonder what process we are talking about.

When he came to office, President Ghani visited all the stakeholders in the region and sought their support to start an actual peace process. We were all quite hopeful. Now, however, I don’t know how we can open this dialogue, and with whom we should conduct this dialogue. Should we be talking to Mullah Mansour or to the ISI? The [Ghani] government needs to rethink its strategy.

Q: President Ghani expended a lot of political capital trying to move the ball forward on the peace process by reaching out to regional players, including Pakistan. The way things stand today, will the Afghan people be willing to support a similar outreach to Pakistan?

Karokhail: Afghans have always supported the idea, but the most important thing we need to know is, how do we get the Taliban to the table? We need the Pakistani government to play a sincere role, as was promised to us many times.

Q: We hear that a number of wealthy, educated Afghans are leaving Afghanistan primarily because of security concerns. How has this exodus affected the country?

Karokhail: It is definitely a big concern because their wealth has also left the country. The government needs to work to make Afghanistan a place that is safe enough for wealthy, educated Afghans to stay, invest, and improve the economy. Furthermore, if the government wants to secure this country, it needs to provide jobs, provide energy, and focus on land issues. The private sector should also be mobilized to provide opportunities for people so they stay and rebuild the country.

Q: A young woman, Farkhunda, was brutally murdered by a mob in Kabul in March of this year. There were unprecedented protests by both women and men who marched demanding justice. You were one of the observers at the original trial where several were convicted. A few months later, the Appeals Court reversed sentences for four men given death sentences in that trial. President Ghani was reportedly upset with the way the case was handled and has promised to reassess it with the help of the Attorney General’s office. Can you give us any updates about this case?

Karokhail: The Farkhunda case received international attention because the horrible incident happened in the capital. The seriousness with which President Ghani treated the case gave us a lot of hope because he assigned a special committee to report back to him on the case.

Unfortunately, the problem is that 200 to 300 people were involved in killing this woman. The government did its job in presenting the evidence, but given that the judiciary is independent, the rulings of this case are ultimately up to the judge.

Personally, I don’t think the court delivered justice. The judge should treat this case as a criminal case, and not focus on making some people happy. I think the Supreme Court will ultimately reject the verdict and the case will be reopened.

Q: Women in Afghanistan have come a long way in the last decade in terms of education, legal rights, and economic opportunities. But many are worried about losing the gains that have been made. What do you think should be done to safeguard women’s rights?

Karokhail: In order to safeguard women’s rights, we need to work to make laws designed to protect women, such as LEVAW [Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women], constitutional. We also have affirmative action in our constitution from which women should be equally able to benefit. Furthermore, the government should allocate resources to implement development goals for women, to empower them, and bring more women into the decision-making process.

Q: On a more personal note, you are a breast cancer survivor. Could you tell us a bit about your breast cancer awareness campaign?

Karokhail: Cancer was not and still is not a priority in Afghanistan. That is the biggest challenge. Even the international community—the donors—and the Afghan government consider primary health issues much more important. In fact, breast cancer didn’t even cross people’s minds given how taboo it is to even talk about a woman’s body.

I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer when I was in the United States. This was less than six months after I visited a doctor in Kabul after I sensed something was very wrong. Having no knowledge about cancer and or even the capability to fathom such an illness, the doctor assured me that nothing was wrong and that I didn’t need a mammogram.

If my illness taught me something, it was that we need to break taboos, raise awareness, and provide avenues for women to protect themselves against breast cancer and even cervical cancer.

Last October, [Afghan First Lady] Rula Ghani’s first public appearance was at our breast cancer awareness program, which was such an honor and an affirmation that things are moving in the right way. I hope we get support from some of our donors as well, and hopefully one day I will witness the opening of a cancer treatment hospital [in Kabul].

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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