Five years ago, I was in Kabul visiting Afghan women’s groups, including the Afghan Institute for Learning, that had once operated underground schools for girls under the Taliban. The energy of Afghan women and girls was infectious - I answered questions about Shahrukh Khan, joined them in Bollywood songs and listened as they discussed voting in the upcoming 2004 elections.That summer seems like a dream to me now. In 2009, the mood is grim. Women have been forced out of polling stations and suicide bombings and acid attacks against girls, once unknown in Afghanistan are now commonplace. Although women are close to 60 percent of the population and 35 percent of the 15 million registered voters, most are unlikely to vote this year, given the violence that is endemic across Afghanistan.
After five years, $30 billion in aid, and the presence of 150,000 foreign troops, Afghanistan is less, not more secure, especially for Afghan women. It seems high time to demand that the international community review the effectiveness of what, so far, has been a largely military approach to Afghanistan’s many challenges.
While I am encouraged by the Obama administration’s recent shift in strategy towards an increased role for US troops in the protection of Afghan civilians, it begs the broader question of whether top-down military interventions imposed by the global North are the best means for securing a lasting peace in Afghanistan, or for that matter in any foreign country. Unless we are willing to question whether violence can truly ever be effective in bringing an end to violence, it is unlikely that this election will change anything in Afghanistan. It will not bestow legitimacy on Karzai, nor is it likely to bring greater security and safety to ordinary Afghans.
Even in the West, few believe any longer in the rhetoric that foreign troops are in Afghanistan primarily to rescue Afghan women from their oppressive culture and their tribal menfolk. For Afghans the narrative collapses under the harsh reality that in the past year attacks by pro-government or NATO forces kill one in three civilians. This is compounded by the violence inflicted by the Taliban and other armed groups on ordinary Afghans.
This reality has left villages and towns with countless orphaned and maimed children and widows. Afghans have long memories. They remember that the Taliban were nurtured by Pakistan’s notorious Inter services agency, but they also resent the British imposed dividing Durand line, that separates one people, the Pashtuns, across two nation states. They know that Al Qaeda emerged out of a network of non-Afghans who were recruited, armed and trained by US Special Forces and the CIA to fight alongside Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet army. And, they will remind you that it was not until the terrible attacks of 9/11 that anyone in the West cared about improving the lot of Afghan women or sought to engage in nation building.
As President of a foundation advancing the rights of women in over 160 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, I know too much about the suffering women endure in conflict zones. Women and children are disproportionately represented among civilian casualties and make up the majority of the world’s refugees. And, as always, where there are soldiers, women’s bodies will be bought and sold to fulfil needs or simply used and destroyed at gunpoint.
Afghan women have had enough. They are tired of broken promises and of living in a land overrun by foreigners and armed militias. Women parliamentarians like Malalai Joya write, ”the longer foreign troops stay in Afghanistan…, the worse the eventual civil war.” They laugh outright at the argument that further militarization of their society will bring them peace and security. They track the rise in insurgent violence with a parallel increase in foreign military troops.
Today few of them talk about transformation as they did in 2004, when bright-eyed teachers dreamed of re-planting orchards in the Panjshir valley. Even the bravest and most resolute women – teachers, journalists, activists, elected officials who withstood years of Taliban rule – speak wearily and warily of survival. “We want our daughters to get to school safely and we hope women candidates stay alive through these elections”.
What I hear from women on the ground in Afghanistan is that their nation has far too many missiles, aircraft, and automatic weapons and far too few medical clinics, schools, and libraries. Women building peace in Afghanistan agree with President Obama on the need for a temporary stabilizing military presence in this volatile situation — but not without a clear timetable for withdrawal and a defined plan to invest in Afghanistan’s civil and social infrastructure. What is most urgently needed now are not more military troops, but troops of trained Afghan midwives, doctors, horticulturalists, scientists, engineers, teachers, and entrepreneurs. Although many Afghan women will be stopped from voting in these elections, their voices are not silent and their advice should be heeded.
* This article is also featured on CommonDreams.org.