Photo: Ann Jones
This is a personal story, and it’s hard to tell because nobody knows how it will end. I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, where I volunteered with two small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) staffed by Afghan women: widows, university students, teachers. I’ve gone back to Afghanistan to work with those women almost every year—except for part of 2010 and 2011, when I embedded with the US military instead, to learn more about its “mission” in the country. The military was so out of touch with the actual Afghanistan that I may as well have been on the moon.
I went back to Kabul again in January, eleven years after first meeting my Afghan colleagues, and more than a year since I had last seen them. I thought I would find them changed, and I did—but not as I had imagined. I was worried about their future. They’re worried too, but they’re also stronger and more determined than ever.
On my first morning back at the office, I walk into a staff meeting on “contingency planning.” Just ahead looms 2014, when the next presidential election will be held (in April), as well as the departure of most American and foreign troops by year’s end. My colleagues tell me about the results of a local poll. Of the Kabulis asked how “things” will be after 2014, 25 percent say “better,” 25 percent say “the same” and 45 percent say “worse.” (Anticipating hard times, 36,000 Afghans left the country in 2011, while an estimated 50,000 followed in 2012, most of them entering neighboring countries illegally by dangerous routes.) In addition, everyone says the government to come will be “even more conservative” than the ultraconservative government of President Hamid Karzai now in place. Although Karzai, like his “angry brothers” of the Taliban, is a Pashtun who keeps his wife at home, he has managed, with his colorful multiethnic costume and fluent English, to appear far more liberal than he is to the West. The next government, Afghans think, will drop the disguise and jettison women’s rights just as the US State Department did in 2011 (when, as an anonymous official said, it dumped those “pet rocks” from its policy rucksack).
We sit together, talking, in the long shadow cast by these dire predictions. In the last few years, as President Obama looked for a way to end the war, some American-led women’s organizations in Afghanistan turned hawkish. They argued that American forces are needed to protect Afghan women and the gains they’ve made during the last decade. I was on the other side of that argument, convinced by work in multiple conflict zones that war is not good for women. There was no evidence that the everyday problems of women in Afghanistan—poverty, religious tyranny, child marriage, sexual assault, enslavement, domestic abuse, confinement, death by childbirth—could be solved by armies. But there was no evidence either that these political, social and economic problems—involving questions of power, equality and human rights—could or would be fairly addressed by a government of men who thought much like their Taliban brothers. The much-publicized “gains” of women here owe more to the work of NGOs than to the Afghan government, while Karzai himself had done little to advance, and much to impede, women’s progress.
With 2014 on the horizon, I wanted to learn from my colleagues—these smart, trustworthy old friends—what they believe they have gained in the last decade, and what they now stand to lose—or keep.