Despite a substantial level of anticipation in the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, the authors argue that much more needs to be done before democracy is firmly established in the country.
Radio Free Europe, By Karim Lahidji and Guissou Jahangiri, June 13, 2014
Much noise was made about the unprecedented voter turnout for the first-round elections in Afghanistan on April 5, with almost 7 million people (60 percent of all eligible voters) making their voices heard despite serious insecurity.Yet just two months after they filled the streets of Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar, the people of Afghanistan have all but disappeared from the discussion, and media attention has turned to the big power players and who between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani will be the country’s next leader. But regardless of the results of the second-round elections to be held on June 14, the question of whether Afghanistan can now be considered democratic will depend on whether its citizens continue to participate in their own governance.For the next leader of Afghanistan to be a true beacon of democracy, he will need to ensure that the extraordinary willingness of Afghanistan’s citizens to participate in their governance continues beyond the ballot box, by guaranteeing them access to education, information, and justice.
An educated citizenry is at the heart of any well-functioning democracy: people must be informed and encouraged to think critically if they are to meaningfully participate in a political society. Education is particularly important in a young country like Afghanistan, where two-thirds of the population is under 25 years of age. Equal access to quality education should be a key priority for the incoming government and seen as an investment in the development of generations of politically active and informed citizens.
An improved educational landscape has been one of the major achievements of the post-Taliban era. Many schools closed under Taliban rule have been reopened, and girls have again been offered access to education. But just as important as the government’s reopening of schools has been the enormous public response to it. With the same enthusiasm that they brought to the ballot boxes in April, Afghan citizens have shown a desire to invest in the future of their country by sending their children — boys and girls — to school. Since the fall of the Taliban, school enrollment skyrocketed by 700 percent, with almost 3 million more girls attending school despite continued threats and attacks against them.
Low Literacy Rates
To build on these gains, Afghanistan’s next leader must ensure equal access to quality education and give protection to those regions where Taliban groups continue to burn school buildings and threaten those who wish to educate their children.
Further resources need to be dedicated to improving literacy rates, which remain among the lowest in the world. In rural areas, where three-quarters of the population resides, around 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men still cannot read or write. In addition to the proven role of education in economic development and advancing women’s rights, ensuring access to education for all of Afghanistan’s children will be the main determinant for genuine democracy in years to come.
But even an informed and educated citizenry cannot engage in politics unless they are given the space to voice their thoughts and opinions. A democracy that represents the will of the people is not guaranteed only through the counting of ballots every few years; citizens must have the opportunity and freedom to share their views and concerns on an everyday basis.
Ensuring that civil society is given space and resources to thrive in Afghanistan will therefore be an essential element to lasting democracy in the country.
Freedom of expression, association, and assembly must be protected, and the media must be allowed to operate without censorship.
Media and civil society are the channels through which citizens learn about and engage with their government, and Afghanistan’s new president must therefore enact legislation to protect journalists and facilitate the creation and operation of diverse civil society organizations. The international community and donors must also recognize the importance of bolstering local civil society, and support Afghan organizations representing and mobilizing their fellow citizens.
Violence With Impunity
Challenges to the capacity of Afghans to engage freely in governance come not only from illiteracy or a weak civil society. Violent actors who deny the rights of women continue to dominate local politics and rule by force, particularly in rural areas. Current approaches to “peace talks” have resulted in impunity and have allowed warlords to continue terrorizing the population.
The passing of an amnesty law by the parliament in 2007, ironically titled the “National Stability And Reconciliation Law,” precludes prosecution of all people engaged in large-scale human rights abuses prior to 2001. This immunity for violent actors, combined with a lack of vetting for political leaders, has allowed local warlords to hold on to power and prevent genuinely representative candidates from running for office.
Moreover, without accountability for past and present abuses, Afghans will not feel safe to criticize the government and defend their rights. The fallacy that peace and justice are incompatible continues to pervade the peace talks in Afghanistan, and allows violence to continue with no consequence.
In this climate of impunity, Afghanistan’s citizens have no guarantees that they can safely speak out against those who violate their rights. Unless Afghanistan’s new government guarantees the rule of law and invests in justice mechanisms, he will be but a figurehead, and violent actors will continue to prevent genuine democracy from taking hold.
For far too long, the voice of the Afghan people has been silenced by poverty, exclusion, and violence. Nevertheless, they are being asked to have hope and courage and again face great risks to vote in the second-round elections on June 14.
Let us not ignore this call for change by the Afghan people by succumbing to the temptation of declaring democracy in Afghanistan based simply on the completion of the elections. Afghanistan’s people deserve to be able to continue to participate in their own governance, and it’s up to the country’s next leader to ensure that they are able to do so.
Karim Lahidji is president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Guissou Jahangiri is director of Armanshar Open-Asia, FIDH’s Afghanistan-based partner organization. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of RFE/RL
During the Afghan elections in early April I was traveling in Central Asia, mainly in Kyrgyzstan. I wanted to inquire into the fears of the governments there as a result of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What did they think of the growth of Taliban and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Officials in each country cited two threats. First, the internal radicalizing of their young people by increasing numbers of preachers or proselytizing groups arriving from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. The second, more dangerous threat is external: they believe that extremist groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan are trying to infiltrate Central Asia in order to launch terrorist attacks.
Islamic extremism is infecting the entire region and this will ultimately become the legacy of the US occupation of Afghanistan, as the so-called jihad by the Taliban against the US comes to an end. Iran, a Shia state, fears that the Sunni extremist groups that have installed themselves in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on the Iranian border will step up their attacks inside Iran. In February Iran threatened to send troops into Balochistan unless Pakistan helped free five Iranian border guards who had been kidnapped by militants. (The Pakistanis freed four of the guards; one was killed.)
Chinese officials say they are particularly concerned about terrorist groups coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are undermining Chinese security. Although China is Pakistan’s closest ally, its officials have made it clear that they are closely monitoring the Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang province, who are training in Pakistan, fighting in Afghanistan, and have carried out several terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
Terrorist assaults from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir have declined sharply since 2003, but India has a perennial fear that Islamic militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province may mount attacks in India. Many Punjabi fighters have joined the Taliban forces based in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, and they have attacked Indian targets in Afghanistan. India is also wary of another terrorist attack resembling the one that took place in Mumbai in 2008.
For forty years Pakistan has been backing Islamic extremist groups as part of its expansionist foreign policy in Afghanistan and Central Asia and its efforts to maintain equilibrium with India, its much larger enemy. Now Pakistan is undergoing the worst terrorist backlash in the entire region. Some 50,000 people have died in three separate and continuing insurgencies: one by the Taliban in the northwest, the other in Balochistan by Baloch separatists, and the third in Karachi by several ethnic groups. That sectarian war, involving suicide bombers, massacres, and kidnappings, has gripped the country for a decade.
Some five thousand Pakistani soldiers and policemen have been killed and some twenty thousand wounded, both as targets of terrorist attacks and during offensives against them. The economy has sharply declined, and there are widespread electricity shortages. The political elite is divided and at odds with the military over how to deal with terrorism, while many in the middle class are leaving the country.
Two years ago all the states in the region would have publicly or privately accused Pakistan’s military and Interservices Intelligence (ISI) of supporting, protecting, or at least tolerating almost every terrorist group based in Pakistan. The ISI had links with all of them and often collaborated with them. Recently those relations have changed. Governments in the region now accept that Pakistan is in some ways trying to fight terrorism on its soil. But those governments are also concerned that the Pakistani military and political elite have lost control of large parts of the country and cannot maintain law and order. The US and Western countries fear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal is vulnerable and that terrorists in Pakistan may be planning an attack comparable to that of September 11.
There is still no overall political or military strategy to combat Islamic extremism. The Pakistani army tries to suppress some terrorist groups but not, for example, those that target India. Such a selective strategy cannot be maintained indefinitely and poses enormous risks to the entire world.
Since the mid-1970s the ISI has supported extremist Islamic groups in Afghanistan including the Taliban, but that policy may now be changing. Contrary to many predictions, the situation in Afghanistan may be taking a turn for the better. Despite the threat of Taliban reprisals, seven million Afghans turned out on April 5 to vote in the first presidential election in which President Hamid Karzai was not a candidate. This was also the first genuine attempt in Afghan history to transfer power democratically. A remarkable 58 percent of the 12 million eligible voters turned out—35 percent of them women. Although the Taliban did not make a show of force to stop the vote, relatively few people voted in many Taliban-controlled areas in the south and east. Preliminary results released on April 26 show the Tajik leader Abdullah Abdullah in the lead with 45 percent of the vote and his Pashtun rival Ashraf Ghani trailing with 32 percent. Over three thousand cases of fraud still have to be investigated before the count is final.
Since neither candidate had a majority of 50 percent, there will be a runoff election between the two by the end of May. A new government will not be in place before July, which means that a security agreement with the US, which all the candidates have agreed to, will be delayed. The US and NATO want a military force of some ten thousand to stay in the country in order to train the Afghan army and gather intelligence. Such an agreement will be necessary if the US Congress and Europe are to be persuaded to keep the Kabul government financially afloat. Afghanistan needs a minimum of $7 billion a year to pay for its budget and army. In January the US Congress cut by half the $2 billion earmarked for US aid to Afghanistan.
To bring the civil war to an end the new president will try to open talks with the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan is now also keen on such talks because two thirds of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, including members of the Taliban, and there has been talk by Islamists of carving out a separate Pashtun state. Will the Pakistan military put pressure on the Afghan Taliban leaders who live in Pakistan to talk to the new government in Kabul while Pakistan deals with its own Pashtun problem? A lot will depend on whether a much weakened Pakistan still has the power to force the Afghan Taliban to engage in negotiations.
All the recent books I have seen on the Afghan wars have recounted how the Pakistani military backed the Taliban when they first emerged in 1993, but lost its influence by 2000. Then, after a brief respite following September 11, 2001, Pakistan’s military helped to resurrect the Taliban resistance to fight the Americans. My own three books on Afghanistan describe the actions of the Pakistani military as one factor in keeping the civil war going and contributing to the American failure to win decisively in Afghanistan.*
Now in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001–2014, Carlotta Gall, theNew York Times reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade, has gone one step further. She places the entire onus of the West’s failure in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s successes on the Pakistani military and the Taliban groups associated with it. Her book has aroused considerable controversy, not least in Pakistan. Its thesis is quite simple:
The [Afghan] war has been a tragedy costing untold thousands of lives and lasting far too long. The Afghans were never advocates of terrorism yet they bore the brunt of the punishment for 9/11. Pakistan, supposedly an ally, has proved to be perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons. Pakistan’s generals and mullahs have done great harm to their own people as well as their Afghan neighbors and NATO allies. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.
Dogged, curious, insistent on uncovering hidden facts, Gall’s reporting over the years has been a nightmare for the American, Pakistani, and other foreign powers involved in Afghanistan, while it has been welcomed by many Afghans. She quickly emerged as the leading Western reporter living in Kabul. She made her reputation by reporting on the terrible loss of innocent Afghan lives as American aircraft continued to bomb the Pashtun areas in southern Afghanistan even after the war of 2001 had ended. The bombing of civilians was said to be accidental, supposedly based on faulty intelligence; but it continued for years and helped the Taliban turn the population against the Americans.
Before human rights groups or police arrived in remote, bombed villages, Gall was often there first. Thus in July 2002, she writes of driving “for three days over dusty and rutted roads” to reach a village in Uruzgan province that had been bombed during a wedding. Fifty-four wedding guests were killed, including thirteen children from one household, and over one hundred people were wounded. The survivors of this massacre “were collecting body parts in a bucket”—Gall’s quote of the provincial governor that haunted reporters and other observers in Kabul. She continued:
Sahib Jan, a twenty-five-year-old neighbor, was one of the first to reach the groom’s house after the bombardment. Bodies were lying all over the two courtyards and in the adjoining orchard, some of them in pieces. Human flesh hung in the trees. A woman’s torso was lodged in an almond sapling…. Bodies lay in the dust and rubble of the rooms below.
Some of those killed were friends of President Karzai and these bombings infuriated him and caused his relations with the US to deteriorate. As late as 2009 Gall was still covering such disasters, as when US planes bombed the village of Granai, killing 147 people—“the worst single incident of civilian casualties of the war.”
Carlotta Gall was, in effect, a one-woman human rights agency. She spent much time and effort exposing the torture and killing of Afghans taken prisoner by the Americans. This was a highly sensitive issue—the American victors did not expect American media to expose their wrongdoings. But Gall went ahead. She told the heartbreaking story of Dilawar, a naive taxi driver who was wrongly arrested in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, incarcerated in an isolation ward at the US airbase at Bagram, and then beaten to death by his American jailors. She spent many weeks tracking down Dilawar’s family and obtained the death certificate issued by the US Army:
I gasped as I read it. I had been looking to learn more about the Afghans being detained. I had not expected to find a homicide committed by American soldiers.
Nobody was ever charged and the same US team of interrogators was deployed to Abu Ghraib in Iraq—the other site of grisly US treatment of prisoners. Gall’s modesty does not allow her to mention that it was this story that led to the making of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.
All her skills were put to the test when she reported on the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and tried to discover whether senior Pakistanis had been hiding him all along. Methodically adding one fact to another, she concludes not only that some were, which is convincing, but that all the top officials in the military and the ISI knew of his whereabouts, although the evidence she offers for such widespread knowledge is not wholly plausible; and her assertion that there was a specific “bin Laden desk” at the ISIappears, from my own inquiries, to be flimsy.
For many Pakistanis the main failure of the government is that nobody has ever been punished or held responsible either for hiding bin Laden or not discovering him earlier. Gall surmises that the ISI had let it be known that bin Laden’s hideaway was an ISI safe house. That is why nobody ever knocked on the door—a reasonable assumption.
However, the fiercest opposition to her views comes from American officials themselves. They insist, as they are obliged to do, that none of the top Pakistani leaders knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Gall’s conclusion that the Obama administration deliberately kept the ISI’s role in harboring bin Laden secret in order to save the US–Pakistan relationship is difficult to accept for two reasons. The first is simply the propensity of officials in Washington to leak to journalists. The second is that US–Pakistani relations would collapse a few months after the killing of bin Laden over different issues, notably Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. The US therefore would not have been so concerned to protect its relations with Pakistan.
Most states today, including the US and NATO countries, believe that the Pakistani military is no longer in control of the Taliban in Afghanistan or capable of putting decisive pressure on them. The army leaders have too much of a problem at home with their own Pakistani Taliban. Their ability to persuade the Afghan Taliban to make peace with Kabul is very limited. Moreover, the Pakistani military has shown no willingness to kick the Afghan Taliban out of Pakistan and back to Afghanistan. The civilian government is trying to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban but the military is against such talks and would rather use force, a major division in policymaking in Islamabad. There are enormous risks involved, such as the two Talibans merging to fight the Pakistani army.
The Pakistani military belatedly understands that a Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would eventually ensure that Pakistan would find itself with a Taliban government in Islamabad. As Gall recounts, the Pakistani army has spent years propping up the Afghan Taliban, training their fighters, allowing them to import arms and money from the Arabian Gulf and to recruit among Pakistani youth. As Gall shows, the army even decided which tactics the Afghan Taliban should use. The army is now desperate to find a political solution that would send the Afghan Taliban home.
Many army and police officers find themselves confused as they are ordered to protect some Taliban and other extremists and kill others. Pakistani officials are supposed to be loyal allies of the US and they take its money but they also are encouraged by powerful Pakistanis to promote anti-Americanism in society and the army. There has been no adequate explanation for these dual-track policies, which have ravaged state and society and undermined the army internally. Moreover the army is still not prepared to give up its militant stand against India.
Gall writes that Pakistani soldiers “were fighting, and dying, in campaigns against Islamist militants, apparently at the request of America, but at the same time they were being fed a constant flow of anti-American and pro-Taliban propaganda.” Unfortunately she does not acknowledge that there have been shifts in the military’s thinking and that it faces the more open kind of confusion over its strategy and its loyalties that I have described. Her book starts and ends on the same note even though thirteen years have elapsed.
Afghans have observed that the ISI has not interfered in the Afghan elections. Contrary to its policy since the 1970s, it has avoided favoring Pashtun candidates. It has also tried to improve relations with the former anti- Taliban Northern Alliance (NA) warlords it once opposed by meeting with the leaders of Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek groups that were the major components of the alliance. Consequently all the Afghan presidential candidates have softened their comments on Pakistan, avoiding the harsh rhetoric of Hamid Karzai.
Yet for the reasons described by Gall, the Pakistani military still does not comprehend how deeply Pakistan is hated by most Afghans. Even today the worst atrocities and suicide bombings causing civilian deaths are often blamed on the Taliban elements “trained by Pakistanis.” Hatred for Pakistan is possibly even stronger among the Afghan Pashtuns who have been Pakistan’s traditional allies. The Pakistani army must undergo deep self-examination and show considerable humility in dealing with the Afghans if it is to genuinely create an opportunity for peace.
However there are large gaps in Gall’s analysis that cannot be ignored. Pakistan was not the only cause of the failure to control the Afghan Taliban; the failure in Afghanistan has been an American failure as well. The lack of a US political strategy stretched over four administrations. Two Presidents—Bush and Obama—were unable to make up their minds about what to do in Afghanistan or how many troops should carry out which tasks. The overwhelming militarization of US decision-making and the hubris of American generals undermined diplomacy and nation-building; the US failed to curb open production of opium and other drugs. There was constant infighting between the White House, Defense, and State Departments over policy. There was also widespread corruption and waste both in the private contracting system used by the US military and in some of the operations of the US Agency for International Development. The list of such American failures is indeed long, and assigning responsibility for the losses in Afghanistan will occupy US historians for decades.
Gall’s second omission is not to recognize the negative effects caused by the neighboring countries, apart from Pakistan, and their constant interference in Afghanistan. She ignores the Afghan civil war after 1989 when all the Afghan warlords had international backers. She fails to mention that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban while Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Central Asian republics supported the Northern Alliance.
More recently Iran has given sanctuary to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, India is funding the Baloch separatist insurgency in Pakistan, and Afghanistan has provided a refuge to the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The US presence has failed to provide protection for people in the region. Most Afghans will tell you today that what they fear most about the Americans leaving is that intervention from all the country’s neighbors will start again. Gall doesn’t blame neighbors other than Pakistan.
Why did Pakistan adopt policies of intervention in Afghanistan, especially after September 11, when it had essentially lost the game in Afghanistan? There has been a disastrous logic to the military’s policies—which more thoughtful Pakistanis have always resisted.
Here some history is useful. The Pakistan military has used militant political groups as an arm of its foreign policy in India and Afghanistan since the 1970s. This was allowed by the West as part of the cold war. During the 1980s the CIA funded the Afghan Mujahideen and Islamic extremists from forty countries when they were fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was not until September 11 that Pakistan’s use of Islamic extremists as a tool of its foreign policy became unacceptable.
After September 11 General Pervez Musharraf and the military regime believed that they could, for a time, appear to meet US demands by capturing al-Qaeda leaders while avoiding harm to the Afghan Taliban. Musharraf was always treated as a messiah by the Bush administration; but a year after September 11 well-informed Pakistanis knew that Musharraf had started playing a double game with the Americans by covertly supporting a Taliban resurgence.
What was the Pakistan military’s logic in doing so? After the war to oust the Taliban was over in 2001 the military faced the defeat of its Taliban allies and had to suffer the Northern Alliance and its backers—including India and Iran—as victors in Kabul. Musharraf felt he had to preserve some self-respect; and Bush appeared to acknowledge this when he allowed ISI agents to be airlifted out of Kunduz before the city fell to the Northern Alliance and its backers—a series of events well described by Gall. Bush had also promised Musharraf that the NA would not enter Kabul before a neutral Afghan body under the UN took over the city. But as the Taliban fled, the NA walked into Kabul without a fight and took over the government.
The Pakistani military was further angered at Bonn in December 2001, when the new Afghan government was unveiled and all the provincial security ministries were handed over to the Northern Alliance, with Pashtun representation at a minimum. This was the usual outcome by which the spoils of war went to the victors, but for Pakistan’s generals it was further humiliation that bred resentment and a desire for revenge.
The military was equally perplexed about why the US did not commit more ground troops to hunt down al-Qaeda instead of leaving that task to Northern Alliance warlords. The military was convinced that the Americans would soon abandon Afghanistan for the war in Iraq and leave the NA, backed by India, in charge in Kabul.
Bush’s refusal to commit even one thousand US troops to the mountains of Tora Bora where bin Laden was trapped sent a powerful message to Pakistan. By 2003 US forces in Afghanistan still amounted to only 11,500 men—insufficient to hold the country. Five years later in 2008 there were only 35,000 US troops in Afghanistan, compared to five times that number in Iraq.
The Pakistani military’s insecurity about American intentions and the growing power of the NA, India, and Iran led to its fateful decision to rearm the Taliban. It believed that the Taliban would provide a form of protection for the Pakistani military against its enemies. Instead the revamped Afghan Taliban helped create the Pakistani Taliban and the worst blowback of terrorism in Pakistan’s history. It is the Taliban’s terrorism within Pakistan rather than US pressure that altered the military’s position from backing the Afghan Taliban to its now seeking a peaceful Afghanistan.
Gall’s account of the rise of the Taliban is also open to question. She writes that three commanders in Kandahar and Kabul—two of them drug smugglers and one of them a landlord—initiated the Taliban movement. Between 1994 and 1998, in Kandahar and Kabul, I interviewed nearly all the students who were the founding members of the Taliban and the three men she names were never mentioned, except as intermittent financiers. The founders of the Taliban were pious, conservative, simple young villagers who had fought the Soviets as foot soldiers and were now deeply disillusioned with their former leaders for fighting a civil war. They came together to rid Kandahar of criminal gangs. They then traveled around the country asking warlords to help end the civil war and bring peace. When that failed they decided to launch their own movement.
Contrary to Gall’s account that they wanted power over Afghanistan from the first, the Taliban founders initially had only three aims—to end the civil war, disarm the population, and introduce an Islamic system. Until they reached the gates of Kabul in late 1995, they had no intentions of ruling the country. Instead they were demanding a Loya Jirga, or meeting of tribal elders, to decide who should rule. Some, like Mullah Borjan, were actually royalists who wanted to call back the former King Zahir Shah from exile. Gall says Borjan was killed at the behest of the ISI in 1996, although it is widely accepted that he died a year earlier in the first attack on Kabul.
All the founding members of the Taliban I interviewed gave a different account from Gall’s of the rise of their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They all had equal status, the requisite piety, and a strong record of fighting the Soviets. There was no natural commander among them. After much debate they picked Omar as the first among equals, the most pious and apparently the most humble. His status rose only after he insisted that his colleagues swear an oath of allegiance to him. He continues to be powerful. Too much of Gall’s information and analysis on the history of the Taliban seems to reflect the views of the Afghan intelligence service, whose own interpretation is flawed and one-sided.
Today, with Pakistan torn apart by unprecedented violence and the situation in Afghanistan still precarious, the Pakistani military has strong reasons to change its past policies of sponsoring wars fought by nonstate organizations. Some changes are happening, but only at a glacial pace. Serious reform needs to start at the lowest level of the military, at the schools and colleges from which the army is drawn, where drastic curriculum changes are needed. The ISI needs to be brought under a code of conduct and accountability, particularly with respect to its dealings with violent organizations. Its personnel should be trained in political realism rather than in ideological prejudices. Unless changes in the army can be made more quickly, there is still the danger that this nuclear power could slip into chaos.
*The trilogy is: Taliban (I.B. Tauris, 2000); Descent into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Viking, 2008); Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan(Viking, 2012). ↩
southasia.foreignpolicy.com, May 9, 2014
Parnian Nazary, a representative of Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots civil society organization, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee how far both she and the women of Afghanistan have come in just over a decade by recounting a harrowing story of the challenges she faced and the barriers she scaled in order to gain an education under the rule of the Taliban. While expressing her elation that Afghan women no longer have to attend secret schools and surreptitiously teach themselves English like she did, she also emphasized that these successes are fragile and at risk without the sustained support of the international community.
Nazary’s words square with my own experience in Afghanistan. When I first moved there in 2003, land mines were scattered across the once fertile farm land, women were hardly ever seen in public, and less than a million boys and only a handful of girls attended school. After a decade of persistent effort by Afghans and support from the United States and the international community, Afghanistan has changed dramatically. Pomegranates growing in orchards once littered with land mines are being packaged and exported, women actively participate in the Afghan government and civil society, and more than 8 million boys and girls are enrolled in school.
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan has experienced greater improvement in human development — a measure of health, education, and standard of living — than any other country in the world since 2000. Life expectancy alone has increased by 20 years, from 42 years to 62, and maternal mortality has decreased by 75 percent. All this progress came at less than 3 percent of the total cost of the civilian and military effort in Afghanistan.
While these achievements are substantial, Afghanistan still needs our support and attention. It remains a poor country deeply affected by 30 years of war: Half of Afghan families are surviving on less than $1.25 per day. To address this, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is continuing its work with the Afghan government to combat corruption, strengthen Afghan institutions, and encourage business growth and entrepreneurship. At the same time, USAID applies strict safeguards to ensure U.S. dollars are utilized for maximum results as we work with the Afghan government.
But if Afghanistan is to successfully navigate its way out of a cycle of extreme poverty, it will need its women, youth, and civil society to play an essential role. To this end, USAID has made it a priority to focus on these three groups. As such, we will be launching our largest gender program in the world in Afghanistan. The program, known as “Promote,” will help educate Afghan women and turn them into the country’s future business, political, and civil society leaders. At the same time, USAID is working with the Afghan government to bolster institutions of basic and higher education and to increase opportunities for youth to receive the kinds of technical and vocational training necessary to find jobs in the expanding economy. We are also helping to provide civil society groups with new skills needed to effectively address the issues facing their communities with programs such as Promote, which will enable women’s rights organizations and coalitions to influence public policy and social practices.
With an active and engaged citizenry, the many fragile gains Afghans have made can be transformed into lasting successes.
Nazary concluded her testimony by voicing a concern that many Afghan women share: that the international community will abandon Afghanistan. While Afghans are ready to take on the challenges ahead, as demonstrated by the high number of voters who turned out for the April 5 presidential election, she underscored that they cannot tackle them alone. Together with the Afghan people, the United States can help ensure that the remarkable development progress in Afghanistan is maintained and made durable, and that Afghan women like Nazary do not have to study in secret ever again. The risks and sacrifices that the people of the United States have made in Afghanistan in support of our national security interests, and the determination that the Afghan people, particularly women, have shown, demand no less.
Kathleen Campbell is the Acting Deputy Assistant to the Administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. She recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
International Crisis Group Report
Asia Report N°25612 May 2014
The Executive Summary is also available in Dari.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The war in Afghanistan entered a new phase in 2013. It now is increasingly a contest between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Many within and outside the government are more optimistic about stability in the wake of a relatively successful first round of presidential elections on 5 April 2014. However, any euphoria should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the security challenges that President Karzai’s successor will face in the transitional period of 2014-2015. Kabul may find these challenges difficult to overcome without significant and sustained international security, political and economic support.
The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. Ongoing withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts. The insurgents have failed to capture major towns and cities, and some areas have experienced more peace and stability in the absence of international troops. Yet, the increasing confidence of the insurgents, as evidenced by their ability to assemble bigger formations for assaults, reduces the chances for meaningful national-level peace talks in 2014-2015.
A close examination of four provinces – Faryab, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar – reveals underlying factors that may aggravate the conflict in the short term. Historical feuds and unresolved grievances are worsening after having been, in some cases, temporarily contained by the presence of international troops. In Faryab, these are largely ethnic tensions; in Kandahar they are mostly tribal; but in all transitional areas there is a variety of unfinished business that may result in further violence post-2014. Similarly, clashes among pro-government actors may become more frequent, as predicted by local interlocutors after recent skirmishing between government forces in Paktia. The situation in Kandahar also illustrates the way mistreatment of Afghans at the hands of their own security forces, operating with less supervision from foreign troops, breeds resentment that feeds the insurgency. Finally, despite its rhetoric, Pakistan has not reduced safe havens and other support for the insurgency, while Afghanistan’s hostile responses – especially in Kandahar and Kunar – risk worsening cross-border relations.
None of these trends mean that Afghanistan is doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, particularly if there is continued and robust international support. In fact, Afghan forces suffered record casualties in 2013 and retreated from some locations in the face of rising insurgency but maintained the tempo of their operations in most parts of the country. Afghanistan still has no shortage of young men joining the ANSF, offsetting the rising number of those who opt to leave them or abandon their posts. The government remains capable of moving supplies along highways to urban centres. ANSF cohesiveness, or lack of it, may prove decisive in the coming years, and Paktia notwithstanding, only minor reports emerged in 2013 of Afghan units fighting each other. As long as donors remain willing to pay their salaries, the sheer numbers of Afghan security personnel – possibly in the 370,000 range today – are a formidable obstacle to large-scale strategic gains by the insurgents.
That will not stop the Taliban and other insurgent groups from pushing for such gains, however. Despite a short-lived gesture toward peace negotiations in Doha, the insurgents’ behaviour in places where the foreign troops have withdrawn shows no inclination to slow the pace of fighting. They are blocking roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centres. With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks. The rising attacks show that the insurgents are able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the “puppets” or “betrayers of Islam” in the government. The emerging prominence of splinter groups such as Mahaz-e-Fedayeen is a further indication the insurgency will not lack ferocity in the coming years.
For the first time, the insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces in 2013 as they suffered themselves, and several accounts of battles in remote districts suggested the sides were nearly matched in strength. There are concerns that the balance could tip in favour of the insurgency, particularly in some rural locations, as foreign troops continue leaving. President Karzai has refused to conclude agreements with the U.S. and NATO that would keep a relatively modest presence of international troops after December 2014. The two presidential runoff candidates have vowed to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which would in turn allow for a NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). While retaining a contingent of foreign soldiers would not be sufficient on its own to keep the insurgency at bay, its absence could prove extremely problematic. The ANSF still needs support from international forces, and signing a BSA and a SOFA would likely have knock-on effects, sending an important signal of commitment at a fragile time, thus encouraging ongoing financial, developmental and diplomatic support.
With or without backup from international forces, the Afghan government will need more helicopters, armoured vehicles, and logistical support to accomplish that limited objective. Such additional military tools would also permit the government to rely increasingly on the relatively well-disciplined Afghan army rather than forcing it to turn to irregular forces that have a dismal record of harming civilians.
Certainly, the future of the Afghan government depends primarily on its own behaviour: its commitment to the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and other aspects of governance must demonstrate its concern for the well-being of all Afghans. However, responsibility also rests with the international community; its patchy efforts over a dozen years to bring peace and stability must now be followed not with apathy, but with renewed commitment.
To help Afghan security forces withstand a rising insurgency
To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:
1. Sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO.
2. Take urgent steps to reduce casualties among Afghan forces, including a large-scale effort to train police and soldiers in the basics of emergency medical care.
3. Strengthen anti-corruption measures to ensure that security personnel receive their salaries and other benefits, and confirm that ammunition, diesel and other logistical supplies reach Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units.
To the government of the United States:
4. Significantly increase the size of the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) program, so that sufficient ANSF quick-reaction units are available to handle many of the worsening security trends of 2014-2015 and beyond.
5. Find a way, possibly by working with other donors, to expand Afghan capacity for tactical air support, including more helicopters in support of government efforts to retain control over remote district centres.
To all donor countries:
6. Convene a meeting of donor countries as a follow-up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, with a view to expanding annual pledges of support, realising them on schedule and allowing the ANSF to maintain for the time being personnel rosters approximately equal to their current levels. Those ANSF levels are not indefinitely sustainable or desirable, but reductions should progress in tandem with stabilisation.
7. Support anti-corruption measures by the Afghan government to ensure, inter alia, that salaries are distributed to all ANSF members and logistical supply chains function as required.
To reduce tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan
To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:
8. Increase diplomatic outreach to regional governments, including Pakistan, to find ways of reviving peace talks with the insurgents; maintain, at a minimum, lines of communication between Afghan and Pakistani civilian and military leaders; and explore ways to increase bilateral economic cooperation as a way to ease tensions with Pakistan.
9. Refrain from taking direct military action inside Pakistan or supporting anti-Pakistan militants.
To strengthen the rule of law
To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:
10. Reduce reliance on and ultimately phase out the controversial Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, given the ALP’s abuse of power and destabilising effect in most parts of the country.
11. Respond with transparent investigation and disciplinary measures as appropriate to any report of ANSF failure to protect or deliberate targeting of civilians, in violation of obligations under Afghan and international law.
To all donor countries:
12. Assist with programs aimed at encouraging the ANSF to respect the constitution and the country’s obligations with regard to human rights and the laws of armed conflict.
To improve political legitimacy and state viability:
To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:
13. Encourage open public and media discussion and debate of security problems so as to find solutions and keep policymakers informed; and acknowledge that, aside from the conflict’s external factors, internal Afghan dynamics such as corruption, disenfranchisement and impunity also deserve attention.
14. Strengthen efforts to make the Afghan government more politically inclusive, particularly at the provincial and district level.
15. Refrain from interfering in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Independent Complaints Commission (IECC) processes of disqualifying voters and adjudicating complaints in connection with the 2014 and subsequent elections.
16. Direct propaganda messages toward front-line insurgents that publicise the absence of international forces in their areas of operation in order to undermine the logic of jihad after the departure of foreign troops.
To all donor countries:
17. Sustain economic assistance for the Afghan government and work with the finance ministry to encourage growth in customs and other forms of government revenue.
18. Encourage the IEC and the IECC to comply strictly with electoral laws, including requirements to conduct their work in a transparent manner, in the processes of disqualifying voters and adjudicating complaints.
19. Provide diplomatic support for the Afghan government’s efforts to improve relations with Pakistan and revive peace talks, when feasible, with insurgent factions.
Watch “Afghan Elections Through a Gender Lens.” Recorded last week at the New America Foundation, see what Afghan women thought about the April 5 election.
Despite the Taliban’s effort to disrupt the recent Afghan presidential elections, seven million Afghan citizens voted (out of an electorate of 12 million), 36% of whom were women. With the preliminary results of the elections announced on Saturday April 26th, this timely event will take stock of the situation in Afghanistan a month after the elections occurred, with particular focus on women, peace and security.
The progress made by Afghan women over the last 13 years is irrefutable and stands as a testament to the pride, focus and commitment of leaders such as Sima Samar and Belquis Ahmadi. However, the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops, uncertainty regarding future international funding, and continued domestic challenges to women’s progress combine to create an unstable situation in which tenuous gains made by Afghan women could be walked backwards.
The discussion addressed a number of questions, including the leading Afghan presidential candidates’ stances on women’s issues, expectations of Afghan women from the new Afghan government, and examining how the international community should support Afghan women beyond 2014.
Join the conversation online using #Afghanlens and following @NatSecNAF.
Watch the event here: http://newamerica.net/events/2014/afghan_elections_through_a_gender_lens?utm_content=bufferb6b8d&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
The pivotal presidential elections in Afghanistan next April will rest more than ever before on a new generation, as the proportion of the country’s population under the age of 25 reaches 68 percent.
To gauge the potential influence of youth on the elections as well as their attitudes and their degree of political activism, USIP has commissioned two studies that will interview more than 270 young leaders across the most populous provinces.
“The old guard, which has prevented reform, is not ready to relinquish power, and forward-looking youth groups don’t seem to be ready to challenge them,” said Scott Smith, USIP’s deputy director of Afghanistan programs. “The key questions for this election, and therefore for the future of Afghanistan, is whether the ballot box will matter, and if it does, whether the youth vote will be decisive.”
Young Afghan leaders have conducted human rights education in their communities, tracked the national budget to hold elected leaders to account, worked in newly established government ministries, and run for parliament. Take, for example, 29-year-old Naheed Farid, the youngest member of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, who is considered an outspoken supporter of young Afghans becoming more involved in the political processes.
At the same time, some have been frustrated by the concentration of power in the hands of older, established leaders both at home and abroad who often take what the youth see as outmoded, intransigent positions that keep Afghanistan mired in the past.
“Afghanistan has transformed, and both our leaders at home as well as our allies in the U.S. or elsewhere need to start adopting a new set of optics towards the country,” said Haseeb Humayoon, the founding partner and director of QARA Consulting Inc., the first Afghan-owned public relations and political risk consulting firm. Humayoon, who spoke at a June 28 panel discussion at USIP on youth in Afghanistan, previously worked at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, conducting research and briefing members of Congress.
Humayoon is a council member for Afghanistan 1400, a civil-political movement founded in December that aims to establish a political platform for the country’s new generation. Another leading youth-established policy group in Afghanistan is Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), said Rachel Reid, director of the Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, who moderated the panel.
A cautionary tale of a vibrant and thriving culture lost in time, these photographs collected on a community Facebook page in Afghanistan are likely to leave you in disbelief. The country we’re so often shown today is comparable to a broken medieval society, but not so long ago, the barren landscape was dotted with stylish buildings, women wore pencil skirts and teenagers shopped at record stores.
As you browse the photos that capture progress, hope and that rock’n’roll spirit in the air, keep in mind the implications of what happened to this culture in just a few decades.
Above: Afghan women in the 1940s
Typical Kabuli Fashion in the 60′s- 70′s
Mohammad Qayoumi grew up in Kabul during the 60s and 70s and many of his photographs are featured on the Facebook page’s collection. This is the Afghanistan he remembers:
A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
Watch this short documentary film about street harassment in Afghanistan by Sahar Fetrat!
“When I first joined the Afghan Voice’s media training, I had the vision of making a documentary about street harassment. This documentary for me is more than just a 10-minute film, there is a lot in it. There is a big pain in it that all women, especially Afghan women, can feel. This documentary shows only a little of what we see, feel and experience every day.” -Sahar Fetrat
Check out this award-winning, Afghanistan-made full length documentary film produced by Alka Sadat!
A Girl listening to the radio from home, a woman walking at her workplace. The camera follows their steps in parallel, focuses on the mirror they look at, putting lipstick on. Inside the court mistreated women are telling their stories. On television, the report of a terrorist attack, outside, in the city. Mrya Basher is the first woman in Afghanistan to have become a senior provincial investigator officer, a high-responsibility position woman are often considered incapable to carry. By actively supporting mistreated young women she puts her life in serious danger.
Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS
KABUL, Jun 26 2013 (IPS) – Despite impressive advancements in enrolment rates, media reports of gas attacks on girls’ schools, shoddy books, and a lack of classroom facilities continue to mar the reputation of the education system in Afghanistan. Many locals feel that landmark developments such as the enrolment of roughly eight million children – 37 percent of whom are girls – compared to the 900,000 exclusively male students enroled under the Taliban go largely unreported. Other, less obvious changes, such as the gradual removal of references to war and violence from school textbooks, have also escaped media attention, said former human rights commissioner Nader Nadery. Nadery, current chairman of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation, told IPS that between 1996 and 2001, boys-only schools functioning under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan studied material that actively promoted violence. In mathematics classes, for example, he said word problems included such scenarios as: “If you shoot a gun and the bullet travels at X speed towards a soldier standing 500 metres away, how long does it take to kill him?” According to Nadery, tireless work by human rights bodies led to a revision of these texts between 2006 and 2007 to include, among other things, gender-sensitive references that replaced such passages as: “The boy was playing football while the girl was carrying water and washing dishes.” Education Minister Spokesman Amanullah Eman told IPS that youth now learn about hitherto taboo subjects like tolerance and the dangers and diseases associated with drug-use. English and computer skills are also taught in government–funded religious schools, which Eman says about two percent of children attend, including some 15,000 girls. And whereas “religious instruction was given in Arabic under the previous regime, we have now translated all the books into the two national languages: Dari and Pashto,” he added. The past few years have also seen rapid growth in the number of private institutes of both basic and higher education. One of the best known is the Kardan Institute of Higher Education, which was founded in 2003 by four Afghans in “a single room when there were no other private institutions in the country,” said Hamid Saboory, a legal expert and consultant to the university. This alternative to traditional institutions like Kabul University offered short courses in finance, management and business administration and is now one of the most highly respected of the “over 70 private institutions registered with the ministry,” he told IPS. In rural areas, however, educational facilities and services can be difficult if not impossible to access. Some remote areas rely on lectures transmitted through TV to compensate for the lack of qualified vocational trainers, Nadery said. Meanwhile, in the northeastern province of Kapisa, at Al-Biruni University, a number of girls in the law faculty complained to IPS of frequent power outages, and going days without running water in the dormitories. Still, the presence of so many young women in the law faculty, hailing from such far-flung provinces as Farah in the west to Jowjzan in the north and in many cases coming with the blessings of their fathers, is an encouraging sign of slow but sure change. Payvand Seyedali, former executive director of Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE), echoed this observation, but stressed the need to change a law that bans anyone who is married from enroling in the public school system. “This has serious implications,” she pointed out, “for girls who are married at 13,14, 15…who are essentially (forced) to drop out of school.” However, AAE schools that cater specifically to this population found that many husbands, brothers and fathers were often the ones encouraging their female relatives to stay in school, “sometimes even making that a condition of the marriage,” she told IPS. A researcher on ethnic bias in Afghan textbooks who asked not to be named sounded a word of caution about the complexities of creating an “inclusive” education system in a country of 35.2 million people, of whom 42 percent arethought to be Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, nine percent Uzbek and nine percent Hazara. He found that 100 percent of the references to people, groups or dynasties in eighth-grade textbooks are all Pashtun, a pattern that is repeated in other grades as well. Other inconsistencies in the curriculum include gaping holes in national history. For instance, the last 40 years of the country’s history were left out of high school social science textbooks, a decision supposedly motivated by the desire to “promote national unity”, according to the government. Asked about this move, Technical Education and Vocational Training (TVET) Deputy Minister Mohammad Asif Nang said that all parties to the bloodiest part of Afghan history could be impacted by mention of the 32 years of war. “People from the Communist regime, from the Taliban regime, from the Mujahedeen” are still alive, and their children could end up fighting one another, he said. The deputy minister stressed, “Every day we build five schools. Every day we have activities for teachers (to gain more skills).” He lambasted an overly critical media that jumps on flaws in the system and exaggerates their impact. What the country needs during this phase of state-building, he said, is more support, correction of mistakes and adjustments to and reform of the system, a process that risks being derailed by negative media.
What could have been happening in Afghanistan since 2002:
MALI: The U.N. Security Council is considering a draft resolution to approve the creation of a 12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali starting July 1, which would be able to request the support of French troops if needed to combat Islamist extremist threats.
Afghans would need to push for a UN peacekeeping mission for long term stability and independence from US and other dominant powers. The Afghan government is against it as they see it as a threat to their control. But Afghan and international civilians, civil society orgs could be pushing for it.
I left Australia in February last year convinced that international forces should leave Afghanistan, and that all Afghans must feel the same. How ill informed I was. These were assumptions made without having visited the country or having spoken to an Afghan, but I was nonetheless sure of my opinions. Yet every Afghan I spoke with, and there were many over the past 12 months, pleaded that the West remain or civil war would resume.
(Kabul/New York, 11 May 2012) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, reconfirmed the commitment of the humanitarian community to the people of Afghanistan at the end of her four-day visit.
“Afghans in acute need require timely relief and assistance, delivered impartially. We are and will continue to deliver humanitarian assistance where it is needed, but clearly this alone is not enough,” she stated.
More than a third of Afghanistan’s population has personal experience of displacement, including the 5.6 million returned refugees, another 5 million still in neighboring countries, and 500,000 internally displaced as a result of on-going conflict, recurrent and debilitating natural disasters, and the lack of rural development.
In parallel to humanitarian efforts, longer-term investment in human development and prevention measures are urgently needed to reduce vulnerability in the face of these challenges.
“We must also invest in efforts to strengthen the resiliency of communities themselves and the capacity of service delivery institutions,” she added.
“Much has been achieved over the past decade but Afghanistan remains near the bottom ranking of all human development indicators. There is still much more to do,” she said.
During the transition period the humanitarian needs of the people in Afghanistan must not be forgotten.
“Security is a priority. But for the Afghans I met, security is not just about physical security. It is also about the importance of investment in human development and the delivery of critical functions such as livelihoods, primary education, healthcare and the functioning rule of law. They need and deserve our continued support,” Ms. Amos stated.
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: