Transcript: A conversation with First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani and former First Lady of the United States Laura Bush

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Event transcript


Former First Lady Laura Bush

H.E. Rula Ghani
First Lady of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Moderated by

Holly Kuzmich
Executive Director, George W. Bush Institute
Senior Vice President, George W. Bush Presidential Center

Lael Mohib
Director, Enabled Children Initiative USA

Introduction by

Paula J. Dobriansky
Vice Chair, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY: Good morning to our viewers in the United States and good evening to our viewers in Afghanistan. Thank you all for joining us for today’s special edition of AC, Atlantic Council, Front Page, in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute. I’m Paula Dobriansky. I’m on the board of the Atlantic Council and also vice-chair of the Scowcroft centers for strategy and security.

Today’s conversation comes at a very crucial time for Afghanistan. Afghanistan sits at a very key inflection point, with peace negotiations currently online between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha. Though these talks give hope for an end to decades of war in Afghanistan, they also do raise certain concerns. It is truly vital that we remain vigilant in protecting the goals that—and the gains that have been made on behalf of women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan, as well as those marginalized voices more generally, in the last two decades particularly as the negotiations have been underway. The peace talks represent a major opportunity to really ensure that these gains are cemented.

I’d like to mention that back in September when these talks began and go underway, at the time initiated by secretary—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the Atlantic Council’s member of the International Advisory Board, she initiated a statement. And over one hundred former heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers, among many others, issued a statement on the role of women in the peace process. And I would like to just share with you a few words from that statement.

It went on to say that we call upon all relevant national, regional, and international actors to pursue a peaceful, stable Afghanistan by ensuring women’s full participation in the peace process. After forty years of conflict, these may full—may finally be—this may finally be an opportunity for peace.

The international community has an obligation to assist with ensuring that the peace forged is durable and that there’s an opportunity—that this opportunity is not squandered. Very significantly, the statement goes on to say that with the peace process under way, that also the international community should prioritize women’s meaningful inclusion in order to help obtain the long-term security goals that we have been working towards for decades.

We have already seen meaningful progress in Afghanistan since the women began to be inaugurated and integrated into society as equal citizens. And, you know, very significantly, the statement says that, given the key role of women in ensuring a durable peace, that the following measures are absolutely necessary—that women need to be part of the negotiations and not just an issue to be discussed, that women must be involved throughout every step of this process, and that also the perspective of women and youth must be reflected in any agreement and that these—this is the key issue that has to be part of this process going forward.

Clearly the discussions that we will hold today are very key that you will be hearing very soon. But they represent only the beginning of a long road which we must support Afghans as drivers of their own future. The war may indeed involve and it has had many actors engaged in it, but the future of Afghanistan is undoubtedly Afghan.

I am delighted now to be able to introduce our very own first former first lady of the United States, Mrs. Laura Bush. First Lady Laura Bush has long championed the cause of women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan. And, you know, through her very longstanding involvement and dedication in the US-Afghan Women’s Council, of which she is an honorary council member, and also through her dedication and involvement in leadership in the George W. Bush Presidential Center, LAURA BUSH has worked to provide access to education and health for Afghan women. And if you remember, she also delivered a remarkable—at the time when she was first lady—a remarkable radio interview in which she called attention to all Americans about the rights of Afghan women.

We will have Ms. Holly Kuzmich—she is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute—who will moderate the discussion. Ms. Kuzmich has worked closely with the Bush family in these efforts as executive director at the George W. Bush Institute, as well as senior vice president of the Bush Center.

Following their discussion, I will also introduce our second featured and honorary guest, the first lady of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Her Excellency Rula Ghani.

So if you would like to engage in the discussion, please use the hashtag #ACFrontPage.

With that, I would like to now give the floor to First Lady Laura Bush and to the moderator, Ms. Holly Kuzmich.

Over to you.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Well, good morning, Mrs. Bush. It’s good to see you. It’s so good to be with our friends at the Atlantic Council. We’re appreciative of them putting on this event, and, of course, to Ambassador Dobriansky, who chairs our Women’s Initiative Policy Advisory Council here at the Bush Center, who had a role in this as well.

FORMER FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH: Yeah, a special thanks. Thank you to the Atlantic Council. And thank you very much for hosting Mrs. Ghani as well. She and I are good friends. We’ve been friends for all these years. And thank you for wanting to talk about this, because I think what’s happening in Afghanistan is very important right now.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Well, Mrs. Bush, you have really been an advocate for the rights of Afghan women for almost twenty years now.

LAURA BUSH: I know. It is hard to believe.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Tell us why this is personal for you.

LAURA BUSH: Well, I think right after September 11th, when the spotlight turned on Afghanistan, what we saw was a failed country. And it was failed because half of the population was left out. I remember what it was like. Women couldn’t leave their home without being fully covered and without a male escort. And because of the years of war already with Russia and then the Taliban, many women didn’t have—they were widows. They didn’t have someone to be able to leave their house from. And remember the other part, they couldn’t be educated. They couldn’t go to school. And the very idea of a country that leaves half of the population out is a failed country. And that’s what Afghanistan was.

HOLLY KUZMICH: And you, as first lady, knew you could use that platform to really be an advocate for them as well.

LAURA BUSH: That’s right. Could talk about women there. I met—made trips to Afghanistan. I met a lot of the women there. I brought some of the women who were particularly—like—(inaudible)—who had started a school in Bamiyan province, the same province where the Taliban had blown up those sixth century Buddhas that were a world heritage site. I brought her to the G-8 when we hosted it at Sea Island, Georgia, so that the other first ladies from other countries could meet her as well. There were a lot of countries that went together to support the people of Afghanistan, not just the United States.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Right. So you went as first lady three times to Afghanistan. Talk about some of your memories of those trips and–

LAURA BUSH: Well, I remember particularly she started a school there for girls. And I told her I would come, and in this chance to actually go there and see her. And I did see the remnants of those big sixth century Buddhas lying in rubble on the ground, there in her district where she was. Of course, I became very good friends with Mrs. Ghani. I would always see our troops while we were there, and go to Bagram Air Force Base, and see them before—usually have dinner with them or something before I flew home.

HOLLY KUZMICH: One of the things you did when you traveled there was you signed the MOU to establish the American University of Afghanistan.

LAURA BUSH: That’s right. That’s right.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Talk a little bit about that, and its role in–

LAURA BUSH: Mmm hmm. Well, the United States has a history of founding American Universities. We have one in Beirut, I think, and several others around the world. And so we were able to establish the American University in Afghanistan, which continues today. Their recent valedictorian was a woman, which I think is really terrific. It’s a really—I think, a very important role that the United States has played over the years in many countries, and that is founding these American Universities. And of course, that university takes women and men. In fact, I think there are more women at the American University in Afghanistan right now than there are men. This, of course, is in a country that not that long ago women weren’t allowed to be educated at all.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Mmm hmm. So just a little context, in 2006 there were fifty students and very few women. (Laughter.) Today there are 1,700 students and more than half–

LAURA BUSH: Are women.


LAURA BUSH: Isn’t that great?


LAURA BUSH: It’s terrific.

HOLLY KUZMICH: And over one hundred Fulbright scholars, and so many of them women. I mean, in twenty years that’s pretty remarkable progress.

LAURA BUSH: That is remarkable.


LAURA BUSH: It really is. Also, I think it shows how hungry Afghan women are to be educated. Afghanistan before the Taliban was an educated country. Women and men were educated. And then, sadly, after the Taliban came in, they pretty much destroyed Afghanistan.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Right. Right. So we’ve talked a little bit about education. You’ve highlighted that. And there have been so many areas of progress for women, of course. What do you think the people of Afghanistan stand to lose if those gains are reversed?

LAURA BUSH: Well, everything. They’ll lose everything. I’m not that happy about the idea of negotiating with the Taliban. I think we should be negotiating with the legitimate government, elected government of Afghanistan. I think we forget that America gives people a certain prestige. If we negotiate with the Taliban, then we’re in some ways saying they’re important—more important than the elected government. And do we want peace there? Absolutely. Would we like our troops to come home? Of course. But we still have troops in Berlin, you know, many, many years after World War II. We’ve kept troops in various places in the world. And not that I’m suggesting we have to do that in Afghanistan, but they’re a very fragile democracy. And there are a lot of people—the Taliban, obviously—that would rather take over and have it be like it was before, a failed country. And they’ve made a lot of progress. And so I hope we’ll continue to support the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

HOLLY KUZMICH: We’ve also seen gains for women in access to health care.

LAURA BUSH: That’s right.

HOLLY KUZMICH: We’ve seen more women be entrepreneurs in Afghanistan–

LAURA BUSH: That’s right.

HOLLY KUZMICH: –and grow the economy. I know you’ve gotten to meet some of those entrepreneurs and support some of those entrepreneurs–


HOLLY KUZMICH: –over time.

Well, we’ve talked a little bit about why it’s so important to have women be educated. What does it mean for the leadership and decision making of the country when you have women involved?

LAURA BUSH: Well, if you have half the population left out, like I said before, you’re a failed country, and it’s very important to have both men and women, you know, being able to contribute in every way to the country, being able to work and contribute to the economy, be able to contribute to the government—all of those things. It’s really—and my mother was born two years before women achieved the right to vote in the United States, which is pretty amazing, isn’t, that in her—she lived a long time; she lived until she was almost a hundred years old—but the idea that even we were that—not that many generations ago that women weren’t allowed to vote. And I think it’s important for us to be able to use what we know in building the democracy, what is important in building a democracy.

And we are now in the midst, really, of talking of that again with Black Lives Matter and with all the other marginalized communities that may have been left out in our long history, even though our Declaration went with all people are created equal. I actually think it was all men are created equal. (Laughter.)

But I think we have a—we know from our own history how important it is to have everyone, every race, men and women, included in a democracy. That’s what a democracy is; it’s made up of all people with all different viewpoints.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Well, and studies have shown that having women involved in leadership levels brings more peace and stability to the country–


HOLLY KUZMICH: –so there’s actually research to show–

LAURA BUSH: Exactly. How important it is to have women involved.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Right. You know, so many Americans are skeptical about why we’re still involved and why they should still support the people of Afghanistan, and especially the women in Afghanistan. What would you say to them about why this matters?

LAURA BUSH: Well, I would say that we have a moral obligation, really, to continue to support the people of Afghanistan. We went in early on to support them after September 11th. They’ve made great, great strides.

Sadly, the Taliban has had the opportunity to come back in some ways. But I think—I just feels like it’s a really moral obligation to continue to support them. Afghanistan was a thriving country at one time, and we know what happened to it after the Taliban came in. And we don’t want that to happen again. I think that’s why it’s a moral obligation to continue to support the people there.

And there are many, many people who do: the US-Afghan Women’s Council, all the American women who looked at Afghanistan after September 11th and were shocked at the way women were treated there and figured out ways they could help.


LAURA BUSH: I think of Connie Duckworth, who immediately started helping women become entrepreneurs and make money, and then all the other great projects that American women have founded there in Afghanistan.


LAURA BUSH: And I think American women would say let’s keep supporting them.


What message do you have for policymakers in the US about what they can and should still be doing to support Afghan women?

LAURA BUSH: Well, I think that they just should still be doing what we do already, which is give some financial support—a lot of financial support, actually, to the government; not to the Taliban. They’re dependent, really, on that as they build their economy, but they have been able to build an economy. And they’ve been able to build an economy because everyone can participate in it now, not just men.


LAURA BUSH: And I think that—you know, we’ve given aid to countries for many, many years, and I think it’s in our moral interest and I also think it’s in our security interest to continue to try to fund—send money to Afghanistan for a legitimate government and legitimate projects that are going on there.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Right. And we really have the ability to condition that aid–

LAURA BUSH: That’s right, we certainly do.

HOLLY KUZMICH: –on representation by women in the peace talks–

LAURA BUSH: That’s right, that’s right.

HOLLY KUZMICH: –and in the government, and in society in Afghanistan, and that’s important.

Well, LAURA BUSH, any words for the women of Afghanistan because this is going to be livestreamed and you might have women in Afghanistan paying attention to what you’re saying.

LAURA BUSH: Well, I think the women of Afghanistan know that I’m standing with them, that I have been for all these years. And President Bush I know would also say that he’s standing with you all and hopes for the very best for you. And I also want you to know how much I admire the way the women of Afghanistan have been able to step out and secure their rights and be real full contributing members to their economy and to their society in every way.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Yeah. OK. Well, Mrs. Bush, thank you.

LAURA BUSH: Thanks so much.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Thank you for your continued leadership.

LAURA BUSH: Thanks to the Atlantic Council. Thank you for hosting Mrs. Ghani, especially.

HOLLY KUZMICH: Yes. Thank you. And we will send it back to Ambassador Dobriansky.

LAURA BUSH: Sounds great. Thanks a lot.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Thank you so much, Holly, for a great interview. And Mrs. Bush really, thank you so much again not only for being with us here today, but also for your longstanding dedication to Afghan women.

It gives me great pleasure, by the way, first, before we go to our featured guest, I’d like to mention that here in Washington, DC we are very, very fortunate to have Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Roya Rahmani. She has been a great partner with the Atlantic Council, supporting the causes of Afghanistan, and we’re particularly grateful today for her making today’s discussion with Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, possible. Thank you so much, Ambassador. We are really appreciative of all your efforts, and thanks for being with us.

And I’d also like to mention that we are also joined today by one of the Council’s great partners on Afghanistan, and that’s Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Thank you, Stephen, for your support. We’re really grateful. And also, the importance of the Afghan taskforce. We just are grateful to be partnering with you and glad that you could be with us, as well, here today.

STEPHEN B. HEINTZ (Rockefeller Brothers Fund): Thank you very much.


I would like now to turn to Her Excellency First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani—(audio break)—who is director of the Enabled Children Initiative, a charity that supports and advocates for Afghan children with disabilities who have been abandoned or orphaned.

Now, since assuming the office of the first lady in 2014, First Lady Ghani has worked very closely with Afghan women to create a more fair and just society. This has been really a core goal and objective of hers. Recently, Her Excellency First Lady Ghani has been a vocal advocate of ensuring that women are represented at the highest levels of the peace talks in Doha, and continues to work to ensure that women’s rights and participation are preserved and also elevated throughout this process. We are just thrilled to have you with us today, Your Excellency First Lady Ghani.

With that, I would like to give the floor over to you and to Mrs. Mohib. Welcome.

FIRST LADY RULA GHANI: Thank you, Paula. Thank you for all the things you said. You’ve given me much too much credit, but I agree with you that women have made incredible strides. But it is through their own volition and their own—their own hard work.

But please also accept my thanks. The Atlantic Council also should—I should say that I’m extremely grateful that they’ve given me, again, another opportunity to speak to their fellow members.

And I would like to also say that I’m also very grateful for Mrs. Laura Bush to have accepted to join in this program. And I—she never disappoints. She really spoke so well about Afghanistan. And it’s true: It comes from the heart, and you can tell.

You want to go ahead?

LAEL MOHIB: Thank you, Mrs. Ghani.

And thank you, Paula. Thank you to the Atlantic Council and all of the viewers who are joining us virtually today.

And most importantly, thank you, Mrs. Ghani, for being here –

RULA GHANI: You’re welcome.

LAEL MOHIB:—for this very important discussion at this important time. I’ll jump right in with a first question.

RULA GHANI: Let me—let me first say there are a few things I would like to say in terms of being a first lady, I’m neither elected nor selected. So I consider myself a listener, a facilitator, an advocate. But I still live very close to the seat of power in Afghanistan. And as an old-school journalist, I like to bear witness to what happens around me. So I will be—I’ll be glad to speak about the things I know.

But also I would like to say that we have been going through a period of heightened violence that is really very disturbing. And to the families of the fallen soldiers and citizens, I want to assure them that I will try my best so that we get a durable and just peace. They will not have died in vain.

LAEL MOHIB: Thank you, Bibigul.

I want to come back to the issue of increased violence and the peace process later in the conversation, but I want to start by setting the scene for the viewers today. It’s difficult to really appreciate the progress that has happened here in Afghanistan if you haven’t been here to live it. And for the past six years, you’ve had an open-door policy in your office. You’ve met literally thousands of women. You’ve traveled to the provinces. You’ve listened to their issues. When I walked into your office this evening, the corridor is full of photos from these meetings, from the floor to the ceiling. It’s really something to see.

So if you can just give us your perspective on the progress made by Afghan women and girls in society and politics.

RULA GHANI: Sure. Well, three years ago I had my annual report to the CSW at the UN; you know, this Conference on the State of Women in the world. And three years ago I said they’re now visible. You can see women everywhere—in the streets, in offices, in the government and all that.

Today what I can add is that not only are they visible. They’re also active and effective. And there’s not one day that goes by that I don’t hear about a new woman that I hadn’t heard from or I meet a new person. And so in order to illustrate that, I went back to my schedule for the past week and I picked up four women that I met for the first time last week. And maybe we could have the first picture.

So I’m going to speak about two young women—I mean, young. They’re in their early thirties. Palwasha from Helmand. This is a picture you’re seeing. And she had come to my office because she wanted to give me a booklet she had written about breast cancer. Her sister had died from breast cancer. And she’s the daughter of two doctors. She lives in Helmand, in Nad Ali, which is one of the districts where violence erupted recently. But still she felt it was her duty to write this booklet, to put it together, to compile it, so that her own sisters can be informed of what to look for and when to go and reach out for help, for treatment.

Let’s have the second picture.

The women you see sitting on the couch are all the board members of the Afghan Cancer Foundation, which we founded almost four years ago now. And I—as a facilitator, this is—you can see how I try to facilitate. I asked them to come when Palwasha came to give me her booklet. And they were very interested in meeting her. And I think they will be printing her booklet, to distribute it all around Afghanistan.

Next picture.

In this picture—well, this is an Afghan tradition. You bring a shawl to put it on the shoulders of a woman that you’re visiting. And Marya, the person who’s putting the shawl on me, is an Uzbek from Faryab. She started as a schoolteacher, and then very soon after became a monitor and an implementer in the NSP, the National Solidarity Program and its successor program called Citizen Charter.

She—let’s go to the following picture that you can see her. She is—it has been now two years since she is DoWA in Faryab. DoWA means director of women affairs. Which means she represents the Ministry of Women’s Affairs Faryab. Interestingly enough she’s an ambitious lady. And she came to see me to discuss how she could accede to a national position. So these two young women you can see are really trying to make every opportunity they have to be able to fulfill their own potential.

Next picture, please.

This is Zarah Sepher. She’s a Hazara who grew up in Iran and became an activist at the age of twelve, working in Afghan schools—I mean, schools for the Afghan migrants there. She came back to Kabul, became a writer and having studied law she also was a bona fide public defender. She founded an organization for the protection of women and children. And she still writes from time to time for the local press and the international press. She is now the advisor to Vice President Danish. She is his advisor for human rights. She had been very affected by the attack on the maternity hospital, you remember, a couple of months ago, where women and babies were killed in the process of delivery. And she came to discuss with me two proposals, one for creating some kind of social security for families and the other to create—to decide how to take care of children that have lost their mothers—I mean, newborns who have lost their mothers. It was really very touching from her.

Next picture.

This is the last picture I’ll be showing you. This is a fourth woman. Her name is Karima Faryabi and she is—she is older than all the other three. She studied medicine. She graduated from the School of Medicine in Balkh and has then worked with UNICEF and with Doctors Without Borders. And then when the Taliban came, she just decided to have a free clinic and just work as a free—I mean, as a doctor, with helping all her compatriots. All this in the province of Faryab. But she’s also known to have—I mean, she has some sort of fame to have alerted her compatriots to the possible harms of the medicine of oxytocin. At the time it was used totally without real understanding of its effects. She is slated to become our minister of economy. And she had come to visit me to get to know—it was a get to know each other visit, a courtesy visit. Thank with the pictures.

What I want to say is that you can see here is four women, four different trajectories. And yet, they’re all trying to make the best of all the opportunities they have around themselves to be able to become strong and effective, and to be able to be actors—real strong actors in the rebuilding of the country. It’s really very rewarding to meet them.

LAEL MOHIB: And of course, these are women who have access to education. Others, particularly in the rural areas may not.

RULA GHANI: I’m glad you’ve asked this question. We do have still a very large proportion of women who are—who cannot read or write. And we’re trying to do something about it. It’s taking a lot of time. But these women also can think. And you find that out. Last year we had a program where we were consulting women about what they thought about peace. And we visited—when I say “we,” it was my office but with other institutions, both governmental and civil society institutions. We visited all thirty-four provinces and sat down with women and asked them what did they think about peace, what were the obstacles for peace, and what—how do they think we could avoid or resolve these obstacles.

They were incredibly sophisticated. They really knew—they knew not only what was happening around them, but they knew what was happening in the country, in the region, in the world. They had very good opinions. If you’re interested in knowing what these women—we consulted with 15,000 women—what these women’s opinions were, you can go to my office’s website, which is, and look up Women for Peace. And there you will see and you have in English a whole summary of what were their demands and their observations.

So Afghan women are really very, very much aware of what’s happening. And I think they are progressing very, very fast. It’s almost exponential. And I’m very proud of them.

LAEL MOHIB: You’ve taken us to the peace process talking about the Women’s Consultative Jirga–


LAEL MOHIB: –which I wanted to ask you about. But before I get to my question, I just want to do a bit of stock-taking on where things are right now in the peace process. The Taliban are in violation of their February 29th agreement with the US government. They have ramped up violence across the country—you mentioned Helmand—and citizens are bearing the brunt of that. At the same time, this week a senior al-Qaida commander who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted List was found and killed. He was being harbored by the Taliban here in Afghanistan. And the word from Doha is that they are—they are refusing to negotiate in earnest with the Afghan negotiating team.

So women—Afghan women are watching this unfold. What are they telling you? How are they feeling about the process unfolding in Doha?

RULA GHANI: They’re not just telling me; they’re telling the world. They really are very active, ever since they figured out that they were being sidelined by the Doha talks because, unfortunately, in its first appearance it had no space for women. And they are—they really have made their voices heard and protested very clearly and reactivated all their networks, even networks with Europe and with the American—with the US

Don’t get me wrong: Women—Afghan women want peace. Afghan men, too. We all want peace. Who wouldn’t, after living for forty years in such a situation of insecurity and of violence at every corner? But we don’t want peace at any cost, and we have some very clear ideas of how we want—how we conceive that peace.

As I said, we did consultations with women over a period of six or eight months, and we went everywhere, every corner of Afghanistan. This is for the women, but the men, too, have started realizing what they want for peace.

The Taliban have to understand that we have no problems for them coming back to Afghanistan. They are our brothers. They are our sisters. And if they are Afghans, they have the right to live in Afghanistan. And actually, some of them already do live. And you know, there is nothing that says on their forehead that they are Taliban, and probably in the street there are quite a few people that might be Talib that we are seeing. But they need to understand that if they want to come and live back in Afghanistan, they have to adhere by the law of the land. They cannot come and impose their own convictions, their own brand of religion on the rest of the population. Let’s do the math. We are almost 36 million people. They are, I don’t know, 100,000, 200,000, 300,000? So where do they come from wanting to impose on us certain things they believe in?

There is—so, actually, finally, what I would like to say is that there is a lot of confusion in what’s happening in Doha. A confusion—as I said, at first it was not known; it was said, that maybe women should not be there. It was really. Then it was not known who they wanted to negotiate with. They said they would not negotiate with the government. It was a big charade. I personally never called it Doha peace talks. I called it the Doha charade.

And up till now we’re still not really clear about what the Taliban want. If ever you—if you have followed carefully, you’ve seen that our team of negotiators is there with them. They’ve been there for almost more than a month. And they’re trying to set up procedures. And so they’re—when they were discussing on what base should the negotiations go, the Taliban said, oh, but we have this agreement with the US. We want that to be the basis for negotiation.

Our team said, well, we also have an agreement with the US It’s a different agreement. So let’s negotiate instead on the basis of the Holy Quran and the Islamic precepts. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t accept. They still want to do it on the basis of that agreement.

Well, that agreement, which was signed, I think, in August—I’m not really quite sure when it was signed—anyway—

LAEL MOHIB: February.

RULA GHANI: In February. That agreement has been published, but partially. There are several clauses that have not been made public. And we are still in the dark. We don’t know what they have agreed. But for some reason they must have been promised something that must be very appealing to them, for them to have forgotten about the cloak of religion in which they wrap themselves! It’s really—for us it’s very important to understand what the Taliban stand for.

Also there is this thing that here in Afghanistan we have freedom of expression. We have freedom of expression. That means that on TV anyone can come, and we have a whole tradition of roundtables and of discussions, and everybody says whatever is on their mind. And we’ve had Taliban who have come and spoken. And me myself, with my own ears, I heard one of them saying that women are halfwits and ignorant of religion—‘Naqes el Akl, wa Naqes el Deen.’ The Taliban has not changed. And the increased violence shows that they’re still following the same strategy of fear and intimidation. This is not how we like to live. So we still have a lot of questions regarding the Taliban and regarding the so-called peace process.

LAEL MOHIB: (Inaudible)—you mentioned unknowns in this process and rumors that are being generated. There’s also been a traceable narrative over the last year or so that women’s expectations or their desire to preserve and expand their rights in a peace agreement may be some kind of obstacle to peace, and they could have to be sacrificed to achieve peace. What would be your response to this narrative?

RULA GHANI: It’s very true that at first, when the Doha talks started, there were not only rumors, but you had people, often foreigners, saying that, well, you’ll have to quietly relinquish all the rights you have and you have to go back to your homes, because this is the cost of peace. This is why the women stood up so quickly. This is why they said, no, this process is wrong from the start. We women should be part of it and we should be able to speak up what we have to say.

What they’ve done was very interesting. They have tried to find a line of argument that could apply both to them and to the men. You see, women in Afghanistan don’t feel this is just they are there for women issues. They are there as national actors. And so what they’ve done with all the discussions—because we had discussions. Every week there would be a discussion somewhere. Every embassy organized something. Every NGO organized something. Every institution. Even my office did the symposium on peace. But what we—what happened is that we had like this—it was—the Doha talks were—had a very good effect inasmuch as it made us think through—think through what life would be, what are the things we really care for, how would Taliban rule on us, rule over us if ever there’s power sharing?

And we realized in the process that we have a great constitution. We have a constitution that is an Islamic constitution, that can—that blends both the precepts of Islam and democracy, because Islam has an aspect of democracy that is very strong. It has—it also is a very inclusive constitution. For example, when it talks about what schools of thought of Islam we should have, it talks both about the Hanafi school, which is for the Sunnis, and the Ja’fari school, which is for the Shia also. All the Afghans are taken care of. It talks about the equality between all Afghans—men and women. There is no Afghan better than another Afghan. It talks about—let me see. Oh, it talks about freedom of speech, which we really enjoy, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly. It also talks about free market economy.

So basically it’s a constitution that allows all sorts of different—various groups to be—to coexist and to live together under the rules of this—of this constitution. And it is—there is this expression in Dari that when a person wants to say she really likes the constitution she says, I see myself in the constitution. And it’s true. Every Afghan sees themselves in that constitution. So there was that discovery that brought back people together. But also, in the discussions we found out that often in Dari we used the word “regime” and “government”—‘Nizam wa Hukamat’—we use them intermittently. But actually, “regime” is something—it’s the Islamic Republic—and “government” is that government that is there for five years and can be—and can change. Every five years there is an election, it can only have two mandates, and all that.

So by clarifying this, the women gave an opportunity for people who felt that they were in opposition to the government but wanted a republic that, yes, they could be part of that same movement of saying: We want an Islamic Republic. We don’t think we will be comfortable in an Islamic Emirate. So basically I feel that the women have been formidable interlocutors to the Taliban. They have really managed to rise from everyday issues and see the big picture.

LAEL MOHIB: Thank you. In the interests of time I’ll just combine my last two questions, but they’re very closely related. Looking positively into the future, what do you believe is the way forward for peace? What do we need to achieve peace, not just from Afghanistan but, of course, the international community, Afghanistan’s foundational partner, the United States? What is needed to achieved peace?

RULA GHANI: As I’ve said, everybody wants peace. This is really something that is for everyone. And I’m still cautiously optimistic that it will happen. Achieving peace is going to take time, especially building peace, especially after the time of signing whatever agreement we have. But for that, you need a very strong government. A weak government cannot enforce peace and soon after the confrontations will carry on. A strong government is what we are witnessing, is what we are seeing. A strong government is a government that can deal with COVID. COVID-19, for example, we have managed to secure food for everyone. We have managed to—within the medical infrastructure that we have, we have managed to give the advice that was needed and to try and treat the people where, fortunately, we didn’t have too many people who contracted COVID-19.

We have—we have also provided jobs for people who were without jobs, for manual labor, big projects and things of the sort, but enough for them to have three hundred Afs a day, which will help them have some food on their table and help them survive.

So this government is not a puny government; it’s a very, very well-run government. We have made very strong strides in the economy, we have established air corridors. We have the TAPI line is now starting, is underway. A lot of things happened.

It’s also a government that has really managed its relationship with neighboring countries. We have opened up Central Asia, and we’re now part of Central Asia. It’s really a big feat, and it helped us with getting, for example, grain from Kazakhstan for the COVID thing.

As I mentioned, the government is inclusive of all Afghans. In the government there is a very strong effort to serve the people, and the Afghans realize that this government is really serving them, is helping them. So there is—there is support for the government no matter what the media says about the few opponents. And it is also a government that thinks forward. We already have almost ready a plan for 2021 to 2024, that is called the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, in which there are three pillars: peace building—because, as we said, peacemaking is something, but peace building will be difficult; state building; and the third one is market building.

So basically, I think that we are ready for peace. We are ready to make the effort. I’m just wondering what are the Taliban wanting. Do they really want peace? That’s my question.

As far as our international partners that have been with us for so many times and for so many years, I want to thank all of them for their perseverance in trying to help us and in trying to make things better for us. And actually, we are succeeding—slowly, slowly.

There are two things, though, I would like to ask from them. One is regarding researchers that try to do research on Afghanistan. It’s a little bit a pet peeve of mine because I read all the research. Please, don’t rely on the media. Please come to Afghanistan and see what are the things on the ground. Talk to people. Talk to many different peoples. Don’t talk to just one little bubble because I am seeing more and more research that are outdated, that would be fine for four or five years ago, but they don’t reflect the present. I saw a research on political participation of women that was announced a few months ago. It didn’t even have the role that women played in Doha and in the peace process. So what kind of research it is? Yes, it said what was before.

The second thing I would like to ask for is clarity. We get so many—we hear so many voices with so many different messages—sometimes dissonant messages—and it’s really very confusing. The Doha talks are a case in point. So I hope I did not talk too much.

LAEL MOHIB: No, not at all—all very important points. And this is a conversation that could continue. I hope it will continue on different platforms in different venues.

Thank you, Mrs. Ghani, for lending your voice to this discussion today, and I’ll hand it back over to Paula. I’ll give you the last word before I hand over to Paula.

RULA GHANI: As a last word, it’s obvious. I am so thankful, and I feel always so touched to see so many people being interested in what’s happening in Afghanistan. Thank you for your interest. Thank you for persevering in your—in wanting to figure out ways of helping us. And, well, God bless.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you, Lael, for a superb moderation. And your excellency, Mrs. Ghani, thank you so much for your being with us this evening, your time. We’re very grateful for everything that you’ve said, for the clarity of your comments, and also your courage and your dedication. Just thank you. We are most appreciative.

I look at both of the conversations, and truly what an incredible set of conversations that we have had today. The insights that have been provided by former first lady Laura Bush and also here excellency first lady Rula Ghani are really a model to all who seek a more fair and just society. Thank you both, Mrs. Ghani and Mrs. Bush., for your inspiring insights. And also to the wonderful moderators, Holly Kuzmich and also Lael Mohib. Thank you both.

And I also would like to express a debt of gratitude to the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and also to the George W. Bush Institute for hosting these key discussions. It has really been not only an honor, but I also think truly insightful and very thoughtful, the conversations that we have heard today about the future of Afghanistan, about the peace negotiations, peace talks, and also about the future of Afghan women and Afghan society. As was said, it should not be an issue. It has to be part of the process.

So to conclude, let me just emphasize that in Afghanistan, but also everywhere in the world where turbulence and instability prevail, we must remember that there is no peace without justice, and there is no justice without equality. Thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you.


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Related Experts: Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky

Image: Aisha, 12, (R) takes part in a literacy class at the Family Guidance Center women's shelter in Kabul. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (Afghanistan Society Education)