Why is it so hard for people in the anti-war movement to hold two ideas in their heads at the same time? Can’t we want to end the war in Afghanistan and at the same time practice solidarity with its victims? As the Taliban, prompted by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, becomes ever more aggressive, Afghan women and civil society are asking for help to protect the gains they’ve made, but nobody either in the U.S. government or on the left seems to be listening.
Realpolitik has replaced the Bush administration’s rhetoric about bringing democracy to the region. “Afghan good enough” is the magic phrase in Washington. “Look, this is Afghanistan,” one administration official told the New York Times. “Is it going to be Switzerland? No. But is it good enough for Afghanistan? That’s where we need to get to.”
If this entails throwing women overboard, hey, that’s realpolitik. In March 2011, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post asked a senior State Department officer what the policy would be toward women as the United States withdrew. The answer: “Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities….There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.”
The war has cost too much in lives and money to be sustainable, and no one questions that it has been very badly managed. The latest U.S. blunder, according to Human Rights Watch, has been a huge strategic investment in the Afghan Local Police force, which is being trained by U.S. special operations forces. Unfortunately the ALP is full of rapists and thugs who are seldom held accountable for their crimes. The latest horror story is about Lal Bibi, an eighteen-year-old girl who was abducted by an ALP leader in Kunduz province, chained to a wall, and raped, beaten, and tortured for five days in revenge for an offense by a distant cousin. Normally Lal Bibi’s family would have killed her—they may yet do so—but they have gone public and are trying to get justice. Meanwhile the U.S. military continues to express confidence in the ALP.
But if poor U.S. judgment is behind the attack on Lal Bibi, it is equally to blame for the rise of the Taliban; together with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the United States funded them, gave them weapons, virtually created them (in fact, Zbigniew Brzezinski takes credit for this) in the 1990s, when they wanted a proxy to fight the Soviets. People in the United States have some responsibility to make sure that the result of all this intervention is not the Talibanization of the Karzai government.
Further, Obama has committed the U.S. government to providing financial aid to Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. What kind of financial aid should the United States be giving, and what conditions should it place on such aid?
The anti-war movement isn’t discussing these issues. It simply echoes the position of the Obama administration: out as soon as possible and no questions asked. The movement’s entire attention seems to be focused on drones, as if wanting to end the war precludes thinking constructively about peace. Mention women, and somebody will bring up Laura Bush and say that Afghan women need to liberate themselves—as if they hadn’t been struggling to do so, and making inroads against massive odds, for the last hundred years.
Left-wing oversimplifications—along with police militarization and overreaction—were much in evidence at anti-war rallies in Chicago during the NATO conference. Check out this video of Code Pink (I’m not even going to get into the slogan “BUST UP NATO!” on pink hourglass-figure placards, with boobs clearly marked). Here’s the speech:
The leaders of the male summit are meeting now and one of the justifications they have for the war on Afghanistan is is that they are helping women…[crowd boos]…So we are here to tell the leaders of the summit what women really want: clean water, clean air, clean energy, reproductive rights, art and culture valued more than war! Women want justice and peace!
Is this supposed to be what the women of Afghanistan really want—or are we just talking about ourselves here?
In fact, Afghan women have already said what they want loud and clear. Last October, before the NATO meeting in Bonn, Germany, the Afghan Women’s Network put out a position paper, located on their website, containing a blueprint for a transition process that would protect human rights, based on ground-up participation by women and civil society.
After April’s bombings of civilians in Kabul, Nangarhar, Lugar, and Paktia, twenty-two women’s, human rights, civil society, and media groups issued a joint statement, “We condemn 15 April terrorist attacks.” They wrote,
The attacks pointed out the incorrectness of the actions and the strategy of the Afghanistan government and its international supporters under the pretext of reconciliation and demonstrated once again that “Peace without Justice” will be fragile and not last….The government of Afghanistan and the international community give assurances that the Taliban have grown weaker and incapable of fighting. However, events such as the recent terrorist attacks, the summary “customary courts” set up in the provinces that issue death sentences; the cases of stoning, acid throwing, poisoning the drinking water of girls’ schools and other incidents prove this claim wrong.
They said it in again in May, in a report based on a survey of 300 women’s groups done by the Afghan Women’s Network; the report fiercely criticized the U.S. decision to develop the Afghan Local Police and the fact that after eleven years most women still have no access to formal systems of justice.
They said it again in Chicago, at a shadow summit convened by Amnesty International and other groups because Afghan women were shut out of the NATO meeting. The shadow summit sent a letter to Obama with an eight-step plan, which
includes not only women’s participation but also that all negotiation teams include at least 30% women in the “peace” talks; that any agreements with the Taliban include guarantees of women’s rights, a creation of a trust fund set aside for women and administered by women to protect women’s rights and support civil society, and the enforcement of anti-violence against women’s and women’s rights laws.
What can people in Europe and North America usefully do to help? In February, I posed this question to Sima Samar, who set up underground clinics and schools during the Taliban period, was the Karzai government’s Minister for Women’s Affairs until forced to resign, and is now head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Samar said the most important thing we can do is to keep up pressure by advocacy and petitions, to make sure the issue of what happens to Afghan women and civil society stays in the public eye. She also mentioned: continued funding for education; more resources earmarked for human rights; and the need for a women’s college, since women’s families won’t let them go to the men’s colleges.
These demands all seem reasonable and doable, considering the size of the military budget. Even a women’s college, which would require considerable resources, could be possible if taken up by organizations of university women or a consortium of universities.
If anything, such demands should be seen as minimal. At a time when governments see women as “pet rocks,” we need to go for broke rather than scaling back our demands. That way we will at least articulate what we want, and lay some basis for the future.
Recent work by women coming out of other wars has given us new ways to think about post-conflict transition. In 2007, members of the Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations issued the Nairobi Declaration on “Women’s and Girls’ Right to Reparation and the Political Meaning of Caring.” Their words still ring:
From a women’s rights perspective, reparation also corresponds to women and girls’ capacity to rebuild their lives by restoring their dignity and their sense of self. To rebuild their lives not as they were prior to war or conflict, but in a way that transforms sociocultural injustices and structural inequalities that predate the conflict.
The Nairobi Declaration should be read—indeed, memorized—by anyone concerned with what will happen in Afghanistan.
Ultimately peace, and most of the rest of what Afghan women need, has to come from the region; regional partnerships, including those among women’s organizations, will be key to stability in Afghanistan. But in the meantime, a concerted effort should be made by U.S. women and the anti-war movement to support the demands of Afghan women and civil society, as well as to ensure that women have enough security to carry on their work. The least we can do is keep the pressure up for a peace that includes justice, and focus our attention on how the United States can responsibly move from a poorly conceived and stupidly managed war to an intelligently thought-through transition.
Cross-posted from Taxonomy, Meredith Tax’s blog.