Lessons from Afghanistan: Taliban, women, Karzai, and outsiders

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

Sara Nichols is an environmental and political activist, retired environmental attorney, and board member of  Women's Campaign International.    She was a delegate on CODEPINK's recent visit to Afghanistan.  Below she writes about some of the local perspectives and challenges she discovered in Afghanistan.

I thought day one was as interesting as a day could get. But day two was more so. We went to the office of the NGO, Cooperation for Peace and Unity. It’s program director, Mirwas Wardak, talked for over an hour but it seemed like 5 minutes. Have you ever thought about “donor harm”? Sounds like an oxymoron but the US made it a reality. One particularly interesting example is what happened when the US donated money to the Muhajadeen to publish schoolbooks. Great idea! The only problem was that the books were a compendium of violent acts. “If there are five Russian soldiers and you kill two of them, how many are left?” Elementary school math. A little gore makes the brain work better?

CPAU is researching the sources of radicalism and, guess what? We are part of the problem! Bad governance with no accountability (eg, Karzai) and the presence of international forces (eg, US) create radical Afghans. (Go to www.cpau.org and get an eyeful) This is not to say that Afghans love the Taliban. They don’t. They just hate their government and foreign occupation—the way we have been doing it—more so!

We keep hearing about security, justice, education and economic development, mostly in that order. In every case, though, security is the overarching concern. The Taliban, oddly, offers a perverse kind of justice and therefore enjoys a loyalty that is otherwise hard to comprehend. Though more often than not the justice they deliver is itself unjust, it is swift.

People see the Karzai government as a huge engine of corruption where the wealthy and powerful get away with whatever they want, often at the expense of the people. Here’s the rub: people KNOW that the occupiers are going to leave before the Karzai government can make them secure. As a result, many maintain “good” relations with the Taliban in anticipation of the time when the Taliban inevitably will be resurgent.

To say this country and its problems are complex is to define understatement. Most of the people with whom we have met believe that civil war will follow a withdrawal of foreign troops if their own military is not effectively trained. They want us here--but don’t.

Mirwas is convinced that Pakistan is at the core of our dysfunctional policy. The sanctuary that Pakistan provides the Taliban on its borders, he insists, serves to empower the Taliban. They believe that the US will not risk endangering its relationship with nuclear-loaded Pakistan. And Pakistan keeps the Taliban fat and happy, essentially flipping the US the middle finger.

That said, nothing can really change for the good if the government continues to be controlled by dishonest, corrupt people, especially when those people are being supported by the country’s biggest donor—the United States.

On that cheerful note, we left for a meeting at a UN compound where the women who work there regularly get death threats. As a feminist, I am often frustrated by the shallowness of my country’s commitment to women’s rights. By comparison, the UN’s commitment is deeply shallow! Yet these intrepid UN representatives in Kabul are pushing forward on their investigation into how women are being used—and abused—in the enduring conflict that is Afghanistan.

It is a myth that women voted in any appreciable numbers in the last “election”, seen by everyone with whom we spoke as a total fraud. In fact, there was a massive failure around the participation of women in the election. The civic education necessary to bring them into the process was virtually absent. One in ten women’s voting places, which are separate from men’s, were not even staffed. There were voting stations that never even opened which nonetheless had huge tallies. Fraudulent elections do not define democracy—or, sadly, maybe that’s exactly what they do.

The UN spokespeople, with whom we met, have the daunting task of trying to build civic and professional options for women in a country where women are not even perceived as a real constituency. One of the most blatant examples of that reality is the Shia Personal Status Law. Signed into law by Karzai in the spring, it infamously legalized marital rape. The law also made it illegal for a female to exit her home without the company of a male family member. Illegal for a woman to speak in public with a male not related to her. And it even created an official Vice and Virtue Police.

Enraged, an astonishing group of 300 women did the unheard of, risking their lives and mounting a protest outside one of the mosques built by Mullah Ayatollah Mosheni, a warlord whose puppet in the Parliament, Mohammad Taj, is the principle backer of the law. Many more women tried to join the protest but were blocked by Mosheni supporters from getting there. Over 1,000 angry men poured out of the mosque and started throwing stones at the women. Fortunately, the police had the sense to intervene before the demonstration turned tragic.

Karzai agreed to listen to the women and form a commission to revise the law. No woman was on the commission and no woman has been allowed to see the results. Karzai is not alone, Richard Holbrook routinely holds meetings in the region without so much as one woman participant. Apparently he never read the UN Security Resolution #1325 which states that “all parties to a conflict” must be represented in political negotiations. Your tax dollars at work! We have to start demanding, “Where are the women?”

Women in Afghanistan who assume roles outside the home run a serious risk of being assassinated. They are being killed simply because they are women and the rising acceptance of this phenomenon should horrify any civilized person. Afghan culture virtually dictates the abuse of women. Physical and economic security is an Afghan woman’s main concern. And the US is only pouring bucket-loads of money into too many wrong places.

The entrance to our next stop was surreal. In front was an open sewer—ubiquitous in Kabul—with rubble and garbage strewn in every direction—also ubiquitous in Kabul. The street was badly rutted and unpaved—the norm in Kabul. We entered the battered looking building to find a tiny dark room that lead to some rather odd, old stone steps that took us down into a beautiful garden. The backside of the building was almost Victorian. We reentered another part of the building to find ourselves in a conference room dominated by a huge table with 14 very cushy leather chairs around it. In came Mirahmad Joyenda, a Member of Parliament who doubles as the head of The Foundation for Civil Society and Culture. Did he ever have an agenda!

He thinks Afghanistan needs more troops but only in consultation with the Afghans. He believes that any additional troops should be dispatched to the borders—especially the one with Pakistan. Security is his main priority. The only way real way for the country to become secure is through building the nation’s military and police. And that is not going to happen unless the government offers more pay than the Taliban offers. Even with that, the cost of one US soldier in Afghanistan equals the cost of 60-70 Afghan soldiers. He said Pakistan is a major source of support for the Taliban.

He wonders how we could get 400,000 troops trained in Iraq in less time than it has taken to train 60,000 Afghan troops, many of whom are lured away by the Taliban for higher pay. In a country where 60% of it people live on less than a dollar a day and the illiteracy rate approaches 75%, is it any wonder that the Taliban can be so attractive?

There are 42 countries doing “work” in Afghanistan. He said none shares information or intelligence with the others. Many are there purportedly to alleviate women’s status. Yet he thinks women outside Kabul are worse off now than they were in 2000. The former head of the Afghan Women’s Network in Kandahar was murdered last month for implementing a music program in the girls’ school where she taught.

Our next stop was the Afghan Civil Society Forum where its director, Aziz Rafee, a very gentle, soft-spoken highly intelligent man, gave us a tidy list of crises facing Afghanistan today. Afghans do not trust their government or each other. They live in deep poverty where a family of five needs at least $200 a month to get just their basic nutritional needs met. Yet they can expect to earn no more than $50 a month. Seventy-five percent of families have only one worker. Think what our economy would look like if 50% of the population—women—were out of the work force. Dependent on outside countries for much of what is supplied in the country, the government cannot provide even a small percentage of the country’s technical or industrial demands. Afghanistan cannot even pay for its own elections.

Echoing what the MP told us, there is no coordination among the dozens of countries plying their forms of good will in Afghanistan, a victim of conflicting, uncoordinated agendas. There needs to be some entity coordinating all the aid aimed at Afghanistan that rarely hits its mark.

The Taliban, whose core mandate is to prevent effective government, is represented in Parliament but I was unable to find out the exact number. But they do form a critical mass. Aziz told us that 100% of the Taliban in Parliament is Pashto, a tribe from the south. Karzai and 85% of the Ministers are Pashto as well. Eighty percent of the money spent by government goes to the south and only 20% goes to the north. One ethnic group with so much control makes a unified country nearly impossible.

As a victim of war—he lost his wife to the Northern Alliance and his 18 year-old son was paralyzed in an attack—he spoke movingly about the need for justice, a concept sorely lacking in his country. To have justice Afghans need security. To have peace, they need justice, education and nutrition. With Karzai, he says, justice is not even on the horizon.

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