Mina’s List and Palwasha Hassan discuss working for peace in Afghanistan, escaping the Taliban, and trauma

Teresa Casale
Teresa Casale
December 9, 2021

In a powerful conversation on the Peace Catalyst Podcast, three women associated with Mina’s List, including founding Board Member Palwasha Hassan, discussed the importance of including women in peace negotiations and processes, the collapse of the Afghanistan peace process, and the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. 

After introducing Mina’s List’s work in Afghanistan and how the organization was founded, 

Founder and Executive Director Tanya Henderson told the story of how, in April 2021, nearly 100 Afghan women delegates came to develop 60 recommendations for a just and lasting peace in Afghanistan. 

When the Trump Administration announced in 2018 that the U.S. would negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban, Ms. Henderson said “everyone was honestly quite shocked.” She continued:

First and foremost, why is the U.S. negotiating peace with the Taliban? Why wasn’t this an internal Afghan government, Afghan populace peace negotiation?... So [Mina’s List’s] partners, women’s organizations in Afghanistan, like [Palwasha and other women leaders] said we have to be included and part of this process. The U.S. cannot negotiate a “peace agreement” with the Taliban and essentially negotiate away the 20 years’ worth of work that we have dedicated our lives and put our lives at risk to secure.

After the Trump Administration backed away from the 2020 peace deal, the State Department announced in February 2020 that the newly-inaugurated Biden Administration would resume the stalled talks. Then, Mina’s List, Afghan Women’s Network, and other organizations convened a delegation of over 90 Afghan women from across the country to fly to Istanbul - where the official talks were due to be held - to develop and present their recommendations and red lines to the international community. 

However, days before the talks were scheduled to begin, the Taliban announced that they would boycott the event. A few days later, President Biden announced the non-conditional and complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Mina’s List Policy and Advocacy Director Teresa Casale explained that these developments meant that “essentially, the peace process and the parallel peace process were cancelled.”

Unwilling to be deterred, the women delegates instead held peace workshops in Kabul, resulting in over 60 recommendations on a variety of different issues which Mina’s List worked to incorporate into concrete policy recommendations. 

“These 60 recommendations were much more than one or two pages… They were so substantive and so important,” Ms. Casale said. The policy recommendations were presented by the delegates to members of US Congress:  

“All of the delegates [to the peace workshops] were able to join a Zoom meeting [with the Democratic Women’s Caucus] to present these recommendations… It was a pretty major achievement to at least have all of those women having direct interaction with members of Congress.”  

Ms. Hassan, who is the director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center, a founding Board Member of Mina’s List, and a founding member of the Afghan Women’s Network, also shared her tale of leaving Afghanistan after the Taliban took control and spoke of the trauma she experienced while living on military bases after being evacuated.

We knew that [the Taliban] would sooner or later reach Kabul, but you know, mentally, we were still not prepared to leave in that way,” she said. “You literally had to leave everything in a few hours.” 

She continued: 

“That first day that the Taliban came, I was still in the office… My program manager was crying when she came to my room and she said ‘The Taliban are next door.’ We were all so terrified.”

Fearing for her life, Ms. Hassan and her family members managed to get through the chaos at the Kabul airport. But inside the airport was a different nightmare: they were stuck there for two days, during which time they attempted to board multiple flights. Finally, they got onto a military plane and ended up at a military base in the US after a few days at a base in Kuwait. 

But conditions on the military bases were dire. “People came and tried to welcome us but [the conditions on the base were] very, very tough,” she said. She and other Afghan women were able to work with the management of the base to improve conditions, and things became a bit better. Still, people were bored and listless. With no idea how long the processing would take or when they would be able to leave, Ms. Hassan said:   

“Each person was suffering, and I saw that many of the younger people were becoming depressed… We slowly saw the signs of depression… I know people were trying to help us, the best people were trying to help us. Still this whole process was so traumatic.”

Ms. Hassan’s moving story shows “the incredibly difficult space that all Afghan women are in right now… the lack of [peace] is very painful,” said Ms. Casale. This is why Mina’s List is now “specifically focusing on making sure that our friends like Palwasha and other leaders of Afghanistan who have spent their lives building democracy and equality and fighting for women’s rights… can rebuild their lives now.”  

In closing, Ms. Hassan called on people who want to support refugees to “see the issues and problems of others as our own. Don’t see yourself as a provider or supporter,” she said. “Refugees, more than anything, need dignity.” 

Listen to the full episode here. Our thanks to Peace Catalyst for the opportunity to have this conversation.

To support Mina’s List’s efforts to help Afghan women leaders continue to use their voices to hold leaders to account, donate here.

Teresa Casale
Teresa Casale
Executive Director