What Next for Afghan Women?

As U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeds, the question of what will happen to the women of Afghanistan is increasingly urgent.

Afghan women and girls have achieved significant social and economic gains over the last decade. With the support of development funding from the international community, millions of women have acquired an education, participated in community development programs, and gained access to health care.  These achievements are among the few bright spots of the international mission in Afghanistan. They should be protected as foreign troops begin to withdraw and political negotiations seek to end the war.

These developments are discussed in my new updated report, Afghan Women Speak: Enhancing Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan, just released from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Produced and disseminated in cooperation with Women’s Action for New Directions, the report draws from more than 70 interviews in Afghanistan, including those conducted during my trip to Kabul last October. The report sheds new light on the political, social and economic conditions of women in Afghanistan today. It offers concrete policy proposals to sustain the gains that have been achieved as the U.S. and other foreign forces complete their military withdrawal in the coming months.

A copy of the report is available here.

A Somber Milestone in Afghanistan

This week the death toll of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan passed 2,000. As we mourn the loss of so many Americans, it is also important to remember the hundreds of service members from other countries and tens of thousands of Afghans who have lost their lives in a war that has continued now for more than 10 years. For what?

Many consider the war a response to 9/11, but none of the terrorists who attacked the United States on that day were from Afghanistan or Pakistan.  There has been no recorded incident of a Taliban terrorist attack outside the war zone. Al Qaeda has been weakened over the past decade, not from our pursuit of a futile counterinsurgency war, but largely because they have alienated many potential supporters through their indiscriminate attacks against fellow Muslims.

The Taliban regime was driven from power in November 2001, but it has been replaced by a corrupt, feckless regime unworthy of the sacrifice of our troops. The Taliban has revived and is leading what General Petraeus calls an ‘industrial strength’ insurgency, which has regained control over much of the country and has spread to dominate substantial parts of northern Pakistan.

Some Americans believe this war has made our country safer, but our military presence in Afghanistan motivates many to fight us and has strengthened the very extremist groups we seek to suppress. The war has drained hundreds of billions of dollars from our depleted treasury and undermined our credibility and political standing in many parts of the world.

The human and financial costs of the war will continue for many decades here at home, borne by the tens of thousands of troops who sustained serious injuries and the hundreds of thousands who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The one positive note in an otherwise bleak picture is the success of international aid efforts in supporting small but significant improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghans.  If there is anything to be salvaged from more than 10 years of engagement in Afghanistan, it is the message that Afghanistan needs investment in peace and development, not war.

War is not the way to end terrorism. It is long past time to bring the troops home and support an international mission to negotiate a peace settlement in the region.

The U.S. Afghan (In)Security Pact

The security agreement signed in Kabul this week is being touted as a step toward stability and peace but it will likely bring neither. By allowing the U.S. to maintain military bases and forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 it will prolong the war.

Under current U.S. military strategy, which will be ratified at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago, most NATO forces will disengage by 2014, but thousands of U.S. troops will remain at military bases in Afghanistan. This will be ‘counterinsurgency light,’ essentially the same policy as before but with fewer troops: military operations to kill and arrest insurgents, and support for the armed forces of the corrupt Kabul regime. This formula has not worked over the past decade and has little chance of succeeding in the next.

The U.S. strategy has no effective plan for ending what General Petraeus has called an ‘industrial strength insurgency.’  If U.S./NATO forces could not subdue the Taliban with 140,000 troops, how will they succeed with far fewer soldiers? When I was in Kabul last October security specialists said the insurgency is stronger than ever (with an estimated 20,000 armed fighters) and that the Taliban control vast swaths of the country.

U.S. officials have described the security pact as a sign of the American commitment to support the Afghan people. We certainly should not abandon the Afghan people, but keeping thousands of troops there is not the way to help. We can demonstrate our solidarity with Afghanistan through other, more effective ways: pursuing a comprehensive peace negotiation process in the country and the region, continuing to fund successful social development programs, and supporting the rights of women and other under-represented populations.

End the War, Start the Peace

The madness of a futile military mission is reflected in the madness of a deranged soldier slaughtering innocent civilians near Kandahar. In the wake of this incident and the recent burning of the Qur’an at Bagram air base, any hope of winning hearts and minds is gone.

Pressure is building for a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. This is necessary and appropriate, but greater attention must be paid to the peace process. President Obama said we need to withdraw responsibly. Precisely, but what does that mean?

Here are some options:

  • Suspend combat operations and urge insurgents to join in a general ceasefire, as a necessary confidence building measure to facilitate negotiations.
  • Announce a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal linked to progress in political negotiations.
  • Prioritize support for negotiations to achieve a political settlement and power-sharing agreement within Afghanistan.
  • Turn over authority for managing the political transition to the United Nations and support a third party peacebuilding mission and peacekeeping force.
  • Encourage dialogue and peacebuilding efforts within Afghan civil society, and ensure that women have a seat at the table in political discussions about the country’s future.
  • Sustain funding for social development programs that have expanded educational opportunity, access to health care and community economic development for the Afghan people, especially women and children.

End the insanity in Afghanistan

‘Green on blue’ is what the U.S. military calls it. Afghan troops shooting at their supposed American allies. It’s a horrifying threat to U.S. service members that has been growing in recent years. It has become an even greater menace now in the wake of public outrage over the burning of copies of the Qur’an outside Bagram Air Base last week. Another shooting incident occurred on Saturday when two U.S. military officers were gunned down by an Afghan police employee inside the heavily guarded Ministry of the Interior building in Kabul.

You know your military strategy is in trouble when your allies start turning the guns around. Last week about twenty members of the Afghan parliament read an angry statement condemning the Qur’an burning and declaring ‘jihad against Americans is an obligation.’

The White House and the Pentagon say the mission in Afghanistan remains on track and will continue, but privately they are deeply worried, with good reason. The United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in training, equipping and paying the salaries of large-scale Afghan security forces to carry on the fight. That approach has not worked in the past (the Taliban are stronger than ever and Afghan civilian casualties continue to rise), and it is even less likely to succeed now as political support for U.S. policy declines further among people in Afghanistan and here at home.

The only viable solution is a negotiated political end to the war. The Obama administration has taken tentative steps in that direction, but by continuing to pursue combat military operations it is undermining the trust that is necessary for negotiations.

As a gesture of good faith to jump start the peace process the United States should suspend combat operations. U.S. commanders could declare a temporary halt to house raids, combat patrols and bombing strikes, and offer to make this permanent if the insurgents reciprocate by halting their attacks.

Such an approach would allow U.S. commanders to pull troops back to their bases. This would get them out of the line of fire, from both insurgents and Afghan allies, and pave the way for negotiating a sustainable political solution.

Drones and the human cost of war

The debate about drones continues on the pages of Cato Unbound. You can check out the site and become part of the conversation here.

In my most recent posting I counter Daniel Goure’s assertion that drones do not increase the temptation to intervene militarily. I and many others have argued to the contrary, that drones are troubling precisely because they lower the domestic costs of using military force.

We know that concerns about casualties play a role in decisions about military intervention. This is as it should be in a democratic society where leaders are supposed to be accountable to public concerns. Some military operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the ‘Black Hawk down’ disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties government officials sometimes try to hide the human costs of war.  Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force.

Consider the military interventions in Pakistan and Somalia. Without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan or Somalia would be ground operations. These would be much bloodier than drone strikes and far more dangerous. They would carry a high risk of failure.  If drones did not exist, and invasions were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations in Pakistan or Somalia? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaigns of military strikes against Pakistan and Somalia. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

License to Kill

Do drone weapons make war more likely?  Evidence suggests that countries may indeed be more inclined to use military force when they have highly accurate weapons that can be used without risking the lives of their service members. Drone warfare has become a centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Secretary of Defense Panetta has called drone warfare “the only game in town” for suppressing Al Qaida.

The use of these weapons perpetuates the illusion that terrorism can be defeated by military means. It detracts attention from the political solutions and law enforcement measures that have proven to be more effective for that purpose.

I address these and other critical issues surrounding drone warfare in the current issue of Cato Unbound. Read more here


Why not give peace a chance in Afghanistan?

If there is no military solution to end the war in Afghanistan, as many agree, then a negotiated political agreement is the only way out. So what’s being done to advance the peace process? Very little, according to everyone we interviewed on a recent research trip to Kabul.

The Kabul government’s peace and reconciliation process, which began last year, has ground to a halt, according to the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, an independent research center in Kabul. It never had much momentum to begin with, and it was abruptly suspended in September when the head of the High Peace Council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by an insurgent suicide bomber pretending to be an emissary of the Taliban.

The peace process is fake, said a former government official.  The insurgents distrust the government and foreign forces and are not serious about negotiating. The Kabul government has no interest in sharing power with insurgents, and its officials do not want to lose their economic and political privileges.

The United States has made some efforts to encourage talks, but it has also adopted a ‘fight and talk’ strategy, which means shooting at the very people you supposedly want to engage. This is “not helpful to the negotiating process,” said one of the researchers.  U.S. night raids and airstrikes are poisoning the atmosphere that is needed to facilitate meaningful dialogue and confidence building. They are killing mid-level commanders who may be needed to achieve reconciliation.

Pakistan wants a seat at the table and has made clear its ability and intention to derail any negotiating process to which it is not a party.

Meanwhile the average citizen has been sidelined. The Kabul government has not communicated its intentions to the public and seems to have no intention of involving ordinary citizens in resolving armed hostilities. For the Afghan people the transition process has no meaning, said a former official. “The people have no clue” what peace is supposed to mean, he said.

This is the exact opposite of what civil society experts in Afghanistan and the United States have urged. A recent report published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, written by Lisa Schirch of 3P Human Security, lays out parameters for an inclusive peace process that involves all social and ethnic groups within Afghan society. Assuring that Afghan citizens are fully engaged offers a strategy for addressing the underlying causes of the conflict and building a broad base of stakeholders committed to upholding human rights in any negotiated agreements.

Just Back from Kabul II: Women’s Rights

Real progress has been achieved over the past decade in improving the status of Afghan women, especially in the areas of education and health care. Girls and women are now able to go to school and many are taking advantage of that opportunity. Access to health services and maternal care has improved substantially across the country. The National Solidarity Program of community-based economic development has empowered many women to play a more active role in their communities. A quarter of the seats in the Afghan parliament are reserved for women. In Kabul women are more actively involved in public life. These are substantial gains, described by one observer as “irreversible.”

In the all-important area of personal security, however, conditions have deteriorated. During my recent visit to Kabul, member of the Afghan Women’s Network said that the situation is more dangerous and uncertain for women now—despite the presence of 150,000 international troops. Insurgent groups have increased their control over many parts of the country.

Foreign military operations are oriented toward battling insurgents, the women explained, not protecting civilians. “No one protects us in the streets,” said one woman. A researcher exclaimed, “I’d rather trust my life to the thieves than the soldiers or police.” We don’t need policies that are created in Western capitals, said another woman. “We need to be involved in designing and monitoring our own security policies.”

Women have equal rights on paper, but in reality their freedoms are being undermined. Women are threatened not only by the Taliban, said the director of a coordinating agency for relief groups, but by Afghan government officials, the very same agencies Western governments are supporting. “Those guys in the government are the ones who passed the family law,” the agency director said, referring to the Personal Status Law adopted in 2009, a measure that legalizes rape in marriage.

The U.S. has concentrated on building the Afghan National Army and National Police, which will soon number 300,000 troops. This huge security force is unsustainable financially, and it has done little to provide security for Afghan women.

The U.S. is creating local police forces, supposedly to enhance security, but these poorly trained troops are responsible for many abuses, including murder, rape, arbitrary detention and illegal land grabs. These crimes are documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report.

As the U.S. and other countries begin to scale back their military involvement in Afghanistan, the challenge for the future will be preserving the gains women have achieved while ensuring greater protection for Afghan civilians, especially women. That will require a shift in strategy away from military combat operations toward a greater emphasis on development and human security.

Just Back from Kabul

Last week I traveled to Afghanistan as part of a delegation from the Dutch development agency Cordaid. I was there to update the findings of our report last year, Afghan Women Speak, and learn how the security transition and initial stages of Western troop withdrawal are affecting the prospects for peace and human rights.

Entering an active war zone quickens the pulse, but during our brief trip all was calm in Kabul. No attacks occurred in the city, although the steady pace of military operations continued in the provinces, as did reported drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan national police and army troops are visible at many major intersections in Kabul. Amidst the city’s dense traffic we saw a number of ‘technicals,’ Toyota pickups with 4 to 6 armed and uniformed Afghan men sitting in the back, holding automatic weapons and in some instances RPGs.

Only once did we feel vulnerable, while waiting outside the security entrance to a government ministry near the presidential palace, blast walls and guard towers outside all the buildings, our group of six civilians standing exposed on the side of a busy boulevard, warily watching the passing vehicles.

During interviews with more than a dozen Afghan women leaders, researchers, international aid workers and former Afghan government officials, we learned of persistent dangers and threats to the country’s future.

  • Afghan women face continuing repression.  They are witnessing the erosion of previous gains as Taliban control spreads in the countryside and reactionary warlord influence increases within the Kabul regime. The government’s own security forces are often responsible for violations of women’s rights.  Check back in a few days for a more detailed account of what we learned.
  • The withdrawal of foreign forces will produce an economic crisis for the government of Afghanistan, which remains almost completely dependent financially on the U.S. and other foreign governments, especially to pay for its huge 300,000-person security forces.  I wrote about this funding failure in an earlier post.
  • A new security agreement between Kabul and Washington is likely to call for the continued presence of U.S. military forces in the country beyond the 2014 transition deadline. This is seen as necessary to provide security for Kabul, but it could also have the effect of prolonging the insurgency and impeding prospects for reconciliation.

It was clear from what we heard that maintaining security requires more than deploying a large number of troops. It also requires proper governance, functioning courts, the rule of law, and an end to the impunity and abuse perpetrated by Afghan government officials and security forces. If the Afghan people cannot trust their government, no amount of military force will be able to assure genuine security and stability.