Fatima Gailani was recovering from cancer at the height of the pandemic when she got the call that dragged her out of retirement for the third time.

The Trump administration had signed an Afghanistan peace deal with the Taliban to put an end to the United States’ longest war. American-sponsored peace talks between the insurgent group and the Afghan government were to follow. Would she like to join?

Fatima Gailani is helping negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. 

Gailani, the daughter of an aristocratic Afghan family, tried to talk herself out of it. She had witnessed world powers re-establish the country with the stroke of a pen in Bonn in December 2001, but she also saw diplomacy crumble just as swiftly in ensuing years. Still, the prospect of healing her country’s deepest wounds was too strong.

Clad in a loose headscarf, Gailani faced the men who banished women like herself from public life over dinner at a luxury Qatari hotel. She had almost lost her voice to cancer but she was determined to make herself heard.

Gailani is the most senior of four women in a team of 21 delegates (one for each year of war) representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at peace talks with the leaders of the Taliban. The negotiations in Doha – and soon in Istanbul – were a key condition of the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020, which also required assurances from the group that Afghanistan would not be used as a base by terrorist organisations. Also at the negotiating table are former parliamentarians Habiba Sarabi, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak and Fawzia Koofi.

When she first arrived in Doha, Gailani was wary. She had dealt with the Taliban as president of the Afghan Red Crescent, the Islamic counterpart of the Red Cross, but always at the end of a telephone line.

The Taliban are notorious for their hard-line interpretation of religious law, which banned education and sport for women and confined them to their homes. From 1996 to 2001, mundane pleasures such as watching movies, dancing and nail polish were deemed blasphemous and prohibited.

Today, the Taliban still control large swathes of territory. Afghan security forces have prevented the group from taking over major cities, but they have relied on the support of US and allied forces to keep it at bay.

In Doha, Gailani found herself talking to Taliban leaders about their children and leading them in committees to discuss women’s rights, law and constitutional reform. Despite her initial doubts, she says the Taliban treat women as equals at the negotiating table, even if values clash.

“Age has a very important role in Afghanistan and I have this card in my hand,” says Gailani, who at nearly 70 is the oldest negotiator. “They look at me and my three other sisters as politicians talking to them, negotiators. And we talk to them as negotiators and we are not aware of our gender.”

Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, centre, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for an international peace conference in Moscow in March. Credit:AP

The first time Gailani used her voice to deal with the Taliban was in 1996 from her exile in London. The group had captured Kabul from a deeply fractured Mujahideen guerillas and declared an Islamic emirate.

Gailani, who had become the spokeswoman for the Mujahideen overseas, was appalled by the images of girls’ schools closing down across Afghanistan broadcast on British television, so she used her political clout to get one of the highest authority in Sunni Islam, the late sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, to issue a fatwa condemning the exclusion of women from education. (Fatwas are rulings that help guide behaviour.)

Fast-forward to the peace talks in Doha which, after eight months, are yet to yield meaningful results. An offshoot conference in Turkey has been postponed until further notice.

And as the US and NATO coalition prepare to withdraw almost 10,000 troops by September 11, including 80 Australian Defence Force personnel, fears Afghanistan could descend into civil war are mounting.

General Frank McKenzie, the current head of the US Central Command in the region, conceded last week the Afghan military would “certainly collapse” in the face of the Taliban advance without continued American support, perhaps ushering in a new Taliban era.

Gailani calls herself a perpetual optimist, but she admits negotiations are fragile and, if they collapse, it could take a decade for the sides to talk again.

She remembers the years before war took hold of Afghanistan, when people could walk down the streets of Kabul without looking over their shoulder and families left their doors unlocked.

Afghan National Army soldiers march at their graduation ceremony in January.Credit:AP

Her fondest childhood memories are of warm winters playing under palm trees in Jalalabad, on the eastern border with Pakistan, and of young people eating and drinking in the mountains surrounding Kabul on the weekends.

Gailani remembers the day the Soviet Red Army marched into Kabul in 1979. She was exiled in London after fleeing Iran, where she had been studying until the Islamic Revolution overthrew that country’s monarchy.

Glued to the television screen, she watched as Russian soldiers painted Kabul red with flags and banners. “They even coloured the pigeons,” Gailani says.

In the wake of the invasion, she became the international spokeswoman for the Mujahideen, who would eventually oust the Soviet-backed communist regime. It was her father, Sayyid Ahmad Gailani, the leader of a Sufi holy order and founder of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, a party aligned with the Mujahideen, who convinced her to enter politics.

When the Taliban ousted the Mujahideen government, Gailani shifted her focus to the rights of women and minorities, using her family’s political status to condemn their actions from London.

In the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Gailani returned to her homeland to help write the country’s new constitution and in 2005 took the helm of the Red Crescent Society, where she served as president until 2016.

Gailani feels disappointed by the decision of Australia and America to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan but remains convinced peace can be achieved before the September exit date.

“For us, a withdrawal without even having a tangible result from our negotiations, and a withdrawal with a timetable but without conditions was a shock. We have to admit this,” she says. “But we have to face reality; whether it is today or tomorrow we have to learn to stand on our own two feet.”

A mother weeps at her daughter’s grave on the outskirts of Kabul as friends and families of students killed in local conflicts gather in a cemetery to call for a permanent countrywide ceasefire.Credit:AP

If anything, Gailani says, the sudden withdrawal of troops has united both sides of the conflict.

The real roadblock in Afghanistan’s future, she adds, is the lack of trust between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban, but she insists the government is willing to make concessions although she does not reveal what those might be.

“It’s too early to talk about it”, she says, while hoping the gains made in women’s rights and social freedoms since 2001 will remain intact.

“I think women in Afghanistan are not just a token anymore. They are a very credible force.

“I don’t think anyone could harm us anymore.”

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