The Nobel Peace Prize: A Message of Hope

In recognizing Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is sending two messages: encouragement and hope for Muslim women around the world, and support for the continuing relevance and importance of Gandhian principles of nonviolent action.

I am especially moved by the award to Malala. She has inspired young women in Afghanistan and Pakistan who, like her, aspire to improve their lives through education and who reject the obscurantism of violent extremists.

When I was in Afghanistan a couple years ago doing research for our study, Afghan Women Speak, I met a number of brave women who are working for human rights, including members of the Afghan Women’s Network. They talked about the constant threats they face in the streets, especially the lack of protection for women despite the presence of many troops. One said, “When I leave the house in the morning and say good bye to my children I don’t know if I will ever see them again.”

The attack on Malala was the embodiment of their worst nightmares, but her recovery and resolve and now her receipt of the Nobel Prize offer inspiration that their best hopes can be realized. The extremists want to intimidate and subjugate women by confining them to the home. Malala’s example shows that despite the worst a woman can aspire to and achieve success in determining her own fate.

As we know, people learn best from personal stories. Malala’s story, now reinforced by her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a powerful antidote to extremist propaganda.

Talking with the Taliban

According to Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, the High Peace Council in Afghanistan is developing an ambitious plan of direct talks with the Taliban that could cede to them political control of their southern and eastern strongholds. The plan calls for a ceasefire and negotiations between insurgents and the Afghan government next year. The government of Pakistan is helping to spearhead the initiative and select the leaders of the Taliban and other rebel groups who would take part in the negotiations.

The plan is contained in a Peace Council document, obtained by McClatchy, which states that by 2015, insurgent groups “will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political parties, and [will be] actively participating in the country’s political and constitutional processes, including national elections…. NATO/ISAF forces will have departed from Afghanistan, leaving the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) as the only legitimate armed forces delivering security and protection to the Afghan population.”

News of the peace blueprint combines with other recent developments: Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners, the beginning of talks between the Taliban and their historic enemies in the Northern Alliance, and indications that Obama administration may be lowering expectations for a U.S. military role beyond 2014. Together they suggest that a genuine peace process may be in the offing. Many of the essential ingredients are there—including power sharing between insurgents and the Afghan government.

Opponents of the war should support plans for negotiations and power sharing, but we should also insist on human rights guarantees, protection of women’s rights, and a greater role for Afghan civil society, including women. Political negotiations should be accompanied by an inclusive process of consultation and mobilization among Afghan civilians, so that the governance system in Afghanistan reflects the needs and interests of all elements of society, not just the men with guns.

A Window of Opportunity in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s weekend release of several Taliban prisoners is a clear indication that insurgents and their Pakistani military supporters are ready for talks. The Haqqani network announced last week that it is willing to participate in peace talks under Afghan Taliban leadership. The Obama administration should capitalize on these developments and press for a negotiated end to the war.

Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners came in response to a three-day visit to Islamabad by the Afghan High Peace Council, the body created in 2010 by the Kabul government to oversee peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States could encourage the process by following Pakistan’s lead and acting on the proposed transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar. Turning over the handful of Taliban prisoners being held in Guantánamo would further boost prospects for peace talks.

The administration says that the local parties—the Kabul government, the insurgents, and Pakistan—must take the lead in negotiating a peace agreement, but U.S. leadership is indispensable for achieving progress. Some in Congress and the administration are wary of negotiating with the Taliban for fear of conferring legitimacy on the insurgents. Women in Afghanistan worry that negotiations will empower those who want to turn back the clock on the human rights and development gains of the past decade. These are legitimate concerns, but they are not an argument for opposing diplomacy. The alternative—continued armed conflict and perhaps civil war—will mean further human losses and will jeopardize and ultimately undermine the prospects for development and human rights.  Renewed civil war would be a damning verdict on a costly decade of U.S. intervention.

Opinion polls show that Afghans overwhelmingly oppose a return to Taliban rule. The best guarantee against a Taliban takeover is the inclusion of the Afghan people in a peace process. The Afghan Women’s Network and other civil society groups have called for an inclusive process that provides a role for all significant sectors of Afghan society. Women in particular should be guaranteed a seat at the table. Research shows that peace agreements in which civil society groups have an active role in monitoring and implementation the terms of a settlement are more likely to succeed.

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces will be crucial to the prospects for successful negotiations. The Pentagon is pressing for a security agreement with the Kabul government that reportedly allows for the long-term presence of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops. That could be a deal-killer, since insurgents have insisted that U.S. forces leave. Maintaining a limited number of non-combat troops during the initial transition period may be appropriate—as security assurance for the Kabul regime, and as bargaining leverage to gain Taliban cooperation—but Washington must be willing to accept an agreement that includes complete military withdrawal. We should also be prepared to support the deployment of a Muslim-led interim security force to monitor and implement a peace agreement if the local parties request it.

Many obstacles stand in the way of a negotiated settlement. Even if formal talks begin soon, the process is likely to take many months, perhaps years. All the more reason to get started. The stage is being set, and the time to act is now. President Obama should use some of the political capital from his impressive election victory to exercise leadership for long-term peace.

Solidarity with Malala

It may turn out to be one of those decisive turning points, an act of unspeakable brutality that sparks a wave of public revulsion and unleashes forces of decency against violence and fanaticism.

The savage shooting of 14-year old Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban militant in Pakistan last week was meant to intimidate girls and all those who would dare to speak for freedom and the right to be educated. Instead it has had the opposite effect, prompting widespread revulsion and protest against the Pakistani Taliban.

The attack was specifically targeted at a brave girl whose ‘crime’ was to demand the right to go to school and to condemn extremism and violence in her native region of Swat. In recognition of her courage and commitment to peace Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Razi Guilani last December awarded her the government’s National Malala Peace Prize.

On October 10 a bearded man approached her school bus in the town of Mingora as it was preparing to take students home after morning classes. The gunman shot her at close range firing bullets into her head and leg and also injuring two classmates. The Tehreek-a-Taliban Pakistan later took responsibility for the crime and said she was guilty of ‘being pro-Western’ and ‘promoting secularism.’ Malala is currently recovering from her wounds in a UK hospital.

The shooting has generated nearly universal public indignation. All across Pakistan religious leaders, political officials, newspaper editors and bloggers joined in condemning the shooting. Schools in Pakistan were closed after the shooting in a one-day strike to show solidarity with Malala. Demonstrations in her support have occurred all over the world.

The massive public outcry against Malala’s shooting is a hopeful sign. It illustrates the power of public opinion and mobilized civil society as a force against the scourge of violent extremism.

Let us all stand in solidarity with Malala and with the millions of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and around the world who want freedom and the right to aspire to a better future. They are our best allies in the struggle against terrorism and violence.

Help Afghan Women End the War

Our political leaders say that the military mission in Afghanistan is intended to protect women’s rights, but war itself is a threat to those rights. Last week an air strike in Eastern Afghanistan killed eight women and girls whose only ‘crime’ was to be out in the pre-dawn darkness collecting firewood for their families.

Thousands of innocent people have died since the fighting began in 2001, many of them women and children. More than 3,000 civilians died in 2011, according to UN figures, the highest number yet recorded. Although most of these casualties are the result of insurgent attacks, U.S. actions are also contributing to widespread civilian suffering.

In our interviews with Afghan women over the last two years we found universal agreement that the war must end. The women we met revile the Taliban and oppose their return to power, but they also want the fighting to stop. They realize that they cannot secure their rights in the militarized environment that now exists in the country.

U.S. officials claim they are achieving military progress, but the facts suggest otherwise. NATO troops are facing what General David Petraeus has described as an “industrial strength insurgency.” Taliban forces control much of the countryside. Last week insurgents attacked a fortified base in southern Afghanistan, killing two U.S. marines and destroying or severely damaging eight NATO jets, the largest destruction of military equipment since the war began.

A day later four more U.S. troops were gunned down by their supposed Afghan allies. That makes 51 American soldiers killed by Afghan troops so far this year. These insider attacks are a mortal blow to the U.S. mission. NATO commanders no longer trust their Afghan partners and are restricting joint operations. Efforts to train and arm Afghan forces are increasingly untenable. Why would we want to give weapons to Afghan troops who might turn their guns against us?

It should be blindingly obvious after all these years that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies desperately need a strategy for ending the war.

The first step in such a strategy should be establishing a ceasefire. The United States should halt all military operations and bombing raids, and invite the insurgents to do the same. We should work through the United Nations to support a comprehensive international peace mission to negotiate a political settlement within Afghanistan and a diplomatic compact among neighboring states. We should withdraw our remaining troops as insurgents agree to a negotiated settlement and pledge support for the Kabul regime as it accepts a power sharing arrangement.

Reaching a peace settlement will not be easy and poses many risks, but it is preferable to pursuing an endless unwinnable war. If we really want to help the women and men of Afghanistan, we should assist them in ending the war by building a sustainable peace.

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.

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.

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.