As the coalition I’m working with–Get Afghanistan Right–continues to make the case that the Obama administration would be wise to rethink its plan to escalate militarily in Afghanistan, I’vetried to engage the arguments made by some feminists and human rightsgroups who believe that such an escalation is necessary to protectAfghani women and girls. I share their horror when I read stories likethis one by New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describing an acid attack against girls and women–students and their teachers–at the Mirwais School for Girls. But how will escalation or increased US troop presence improve their security or make their lives better?
I thought it would be important to speak with someone who has experienceworking on the ground with Afghan women’s organizations. Kavita Ramdasis President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. For 15 years she has worked with groups like the Afghan Institute for Learning–which serves about 350,000 women and children in their schools, health care centers, and human rights programs.
This is what Kavita said:
We’re hearing from groups we’ve worked with for over a 15 year period now, on the ground inside Afghanistan and with Afghan women’s groups andPakistan as well.
First, I think it’s remarkable that our approach to foreign policy –not just for the last eight years, but with regard to Afghanistan andPakistan in general over the last thirty years–has been almost entirelymilitary focused. There hasn’t been any willingness to take a cold hardlook at how effective or ineffective that strategy has been in whetheror not it has helped stabilize the country. And there has been muchless attention paid to whether this militaristic approach has doneanything positive for the women of Afghanistan. It’s doubtful whetherAmerica’s foreign policy has ever had the welfare of Afghan women atheart. As many Afghani women have said to us, ‘You know, you didn’teven think about us 25 years ago,’ and then all of a sudden post 9-11,we’re sending troops to Afghanistan and ostensibly we’re very concernedabout women. But there’s very little willingness to really look at theimplications of a military strategy on women’s security. It is veryimportant to begin with the following question: If the strategies thatwe used up to this point have not succeeded in ensuring the safety andwell being of women and girls, what makes us think that increasedmilitarization with 30,000 additional US troops is somehow going toimprove the situation and security of women in Afghanistan?
The second question is, what has been the role of the existing troops in Afghanistan with regard to the situation and the security of women? In general, what happens when regions become highly militarized, and whenthere are “peace-keeping forces,” militias, as well as foreign troops–which isNATO and the United States, primarily? In most parts of the world,highly militarized societies in almost every instance lead to badresults for women. The security of women is not improved and in manyinstances it actually becomes worse.
What do I mean by that? Take for example Afghanistan. In 2003, almost every woman’s group I met with in Afghanistan, which was already a fewyears after the initial invasion, said that although they were verygrateful for the fact that the Taliban was gone, the presence of foreigntroops in Afghanistan in general and in Kabul in particular had highlyincreased the incidence of both prostitution as well as trafficking–it’s not one in the same thing. Prostitution in the sense of–beingsomething “voluntary” because very poor women and girls would come down,particularly from the countryside where villages are in a state ofabsolute dire impoverishment…there’s very little to eat, very littleproduction…I talked to so many women and women’s organizations who’vesaid, young girls sleep with a soldier in Kabul for $40, $50, which ismore than their mothers could make as a teacher in a full month. That’sthe incidence of prostitution as a function of–people call it in thewomen’s movement “survival sex.” The trading of sex for food on asurvival basis.
Then there is also trafficking which actually also increases becausewhen there are military settlements, camps, barracks…criminalelements start bringing in women–forcibly or coercing them underother guises. Girls–in this case mainly from the Uzbek and Hazaratribes, as well as a number of Chinese girls in Kabul–are actuallytrafficked in to fill the “needs” of foreign troops. Very few Afghanscan afford to actually pay for these kinds of services, so you have asituation where the main customers are the military troops.
Then you put on top of this the fact that there are all kinds of other armed militias and gangs moving around freely in the countryside becausethe more foreign troops there are, the more resistance there is going tobe from indigenous forces–whether it’s the Taliban, different kinds ofmujahideen, different groups of ethnic tribal factions. Throughouthistory, whenever foreign troops are present, there will be resistanceagainst those foreign troops in one way or another.
Those militias and militant groups are also armed, roaming andwandering, going randomly into villages, and targeting women as theyplease by sexually assaulting and raping. As for the incidents thatyou’ve been hearing about–whether it was the girls who got acidsplashed on their faces that you read about in The New York Times–these incidents have been going on for the last four or five yearsacross the country. Girls going to school and teachers have beenattacked, and under very various pretexts. Either the Taliban,mujahideen or various factions are attacking them for being “morallyloose” or “promiscuous.” These people are armed–and because war tendsto infuse large amounts of testosterone into large groups of men, livingand wandering around together–this does not create the safest ofenvironments for girls in villages, for schoolteachers, for women of anykind–women working in the fields. And so, what we’ve been hearingreports of are random sexual attacks on women in villages, on girlswalking to school, on teachers or other women who are working. So,attacks on women have increased, for all sorts of reasons–the mostcommon one that we hear in the West is “Oh, these Islamicfundamentalists don’t want women to work or study and so they’reattacking them.” But there are plenty of people who don’t really carewhether it’s about Islam or not, they’re just interested in showingtheir power by sexually abusing women.
One has to be very clear-eyed about why we are sending 30,000 troops.Quite frankly from a US government perspective, it’s because webelieve that the “bad guys”–Al Qaeda–are running riot inAfghanistan and somehow that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the extremistsin Pakistan are all one in the same, and they’re all collectively badguys, so we need to go fight them.
I wish we could say to President Obama, “Yes Afghanistan needs troops–but it needs troops of doctors, troops of teachers, troops of PeaceCorps volunteers, and troops of farmers to go and replant the fruitorchards. For anyone who grew up in India or Pakistan, Afghanistan wasthe place where you bought the best, incredible dried fruit in theworld. Those orchards have been completely devastated. Afghanistan wasnot a country that just grew poppy for opium sales. It was a countrythat was forced into selling opium because it had nothing else.
So, we need a different kind of troop deployment in Afghanistan, we need a massive deployment of humanitarian troops. We need to invest inAfghanistan’s economic infrastructure, in its agriculture. These arevillages where people are literally not able to piece together anythingthat comes close to a subsistence living. Afghanistan is a country inwhich the maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the worldafter Sierra Leone. Why are we not sending in teams of doctors andmidwives to train local women? We’re not talking about a GermanMarshall Plan for Afghanistan. Instead, we’re talking about–withouta very clearly defined “enemy”–sending in 30,000 troops to look forthis shadowy enemy and we’re not even clear about what that enemyrepresents. Afghanistan has a very long and very proud history of havingthrown out every foreign invader that was ever unfortunate enough to tryto subdue them. Yet every political leader suffers from this historicalamnesia, and seems to lack the willingness to look at the corestructures within Afghanistan society. Afghanistan is a verynon-centralized nation of very unique and independent small groups andclans that have never had a formally centralized government.
Returning to this argument that sending in troops is being done because,”we have to save the women,” is exactly what George Bush cynically didin his use of that as a kind of justification. I think the ObamaAdministration has to be very, very careful not to fall into this trap.Yes, there is an incredible need to make a difference in Afghanistan,but more military presence is not the solution. More presence, yes. More dialogue, yes. More engagement with both Pakistan and Afghanleaders and different factions, yes. More genuine investment in thelong-term economic growth and development in Afghanistan, absolutely. But none of that is what is being promised. What is being promised is30,000 US troops and the accompanying support systems, including theHalliburton companies that will supply, feed and look after them.
This then creates another effect which is very important to remember.You then have a group of people, who are foreigners, who do not speak orunderstand your language or your culture, who are allegedly therefighting the bad guys, who are members of your own people. These”outsiders” feel like occupiers – they live in relative comfort withaccess to food -all the trappings of what looks like a luxurious life. When the vast majority of that population is living on less than $1 aday. This creates a huge amount of resentment. You walk around any ofthese American camps in Iraq or Afghanistan — huge areas of land whichare cordoned off–and there are SUVs and guys full of body armor andmachine guns. Inside it’s like a little America with the PX, hamburgers,and TV for the troops to watch whatever they want. Meanwhile, outside,Afghan children on the street are still playing with cluster bombs thatwere dropped by the American army in 2001–they risk being blown up,and losing their sight, their limbs, their fingers.
I think about how this country has been systematically denuded of itscore resources–both human capital and natural capital, and it makesme grieve. Kabul used to be a place with incredible trees. Everybodywho lives there now will tell you all the trees have gone. WhatAfghanistan needs is truly a massive Marshall Plan. No one is talkingabout that. I don’t see anyone holding this government of Hamid Karzaiaccountable for what is absolutely endemic corruption. You talk to anywomen’s groups and they will tell you that in order to go to a meetingin any ministry, just to get into the door, you have to pay a bribe. Togo to the 1st floor you have to pay a bribe, to get into the room youhave to pay a bribe. It is at a level of corruption that is trulyextraordinary…. Do we want a situation in which the Afghani peoplewill actually welcome the return of the Taliban because it will finallyusher in some kind of law and order?
We have to be very careful in making these assumptions. Anotherquestion I would ask is to what degree has there been any consultationwith any aspects or representatives of Afghan civil society, i.e.women’s rights organizations, human rights organizations on the groundin Afghanistan, or with teachers, doctors, professionals about what isneeded in Afghanistan today? Or, with others who have any sense ofwhether the presence of these additional foreign troops will simplyserve to isolate someone who is already seen as a puppet of theAmericans? Or will it give him any credibility? I doubt it will givehim any credibility. And then what?
What would you say to those who say, “I agree with you that we needhumanitarian troops — troops of doctors, troops of midwives, etc. Butwe can’t do that until there’s more security and the only way to getmore security is to send more troops”?
I actually think that is just a bogus argument. This is not to say thatthese places aren’t dangerous or difficult–but to Third World ears itsounds like the argument of Westerners who don’t want to put their ownlives at risk. When I went to Kabul in 2003, India had sent doctors,nurses, buses–and it was really interesting to see the differenceamongst common Afghans, how they saw where US money had gone and wherethey saw Indian money had gone. Indian development aid was seen in thefleet of over 150 Tata buses–Tata is a company that manufacturesbuses and cars in India–over 100 buses had been sent over landthrough Pakistan. Pakistan actually allowed safe passage of thosebuses. And they were the buses that actually connected cities to eachother. And every day Afghans took those buses to go to work, they usedthem to get around. And they had a sign–[the buses] just said Tata–and everyone knew those buses were from India. Kabul hospital hasabout 60 or 70 Indian doctors and nurses who were sent by the Indiangovernment and they are assigned over there. Now, is it just that”Third World” peoples’ lives are less important so it doesn’t matter, sowe can send them into insecure situations? I bet you if you asked theCuban government to send doctors to Afghanistan, they would. I’m notsure the American government would like to have them there but I’m surethey would go. I think saying “we have to wait until it’s secure and wecan’t send anybody”, it’s a very weak argument. And, of course, youdon’t just send anyone, either troops of soldiers or troops ofhumanitarian workers without asking what local people want and whattheir priorities are. You sit down, like in 2002 when different groupscame together to write a constitution. You see what is and isn’tworking in Afghanistan. Bring all the warring factions together–atleast ask–which hasn’t even been tried!
We’re just accepting that the way to get security is with the presence of more guns. If I have more guns than you then that makes me secure.It actually doesn’t. It doesn’t make us more secure. Because as soonas the other person gets more guns he’s going to come and try to takeyou out any way. We know this from gang warfare. This is how gangsoperate in urban centers of the United States. Having more weapons andmore troops doesn’t necessarily make you more secure.
What makes you secure is feeling that you have some legitimacy and some credibility amongst people in the communities where you live. Right nowI don’t think the Americans have a shred of that credibility. The USdid have that credibility right after the fall of Taliban. Things hadgotten so bad that even though people knew that the US came out ofselfish reasons post 9-11, they were still willing to give the US thebenefit of the doubt. And at that point the US moved on to Iraq–instead of investing in the rebuilding of Afghanistan–which really it owed Afghanistan after the 35 years of misery that it put Afghanistan through by “fighting a proxy war against the Russians via Afghans.” We didn’t commit any troops in that last hot war of the cold war era. No Americans were killed fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. But they certainly seeded a global jihad. US funds and Saudi funds supported a military dictatorship in Pakistan and put people like Osama Bin Laden and others through the ISI training camps, where they learned to fight the “godless communists”. Now they have turned their sights on theirerstwhile funders–the US and its allies are now the infidels.
Although it does not seem like it, I believe that there are realalternative options that could be considered by President Obama and thisnew administration. Given all the goodwill in the world towards Obamaright now, there is a little window of opportunity, in which I believeother nations would give the new administration the benefit of thedoubt. If they said, “Let’s sit down with Pakistan and Afghanistan; andIran has to be part of that conversation too and talk about what we cando to try to improve the situation.
What are the priorities of thepeople of Afghanistan? What do they most need at this time?”
I’m quite sure that the people of Afghanistan would not say that what we most need is 30,000 American troops eating food enough to feed each ofour families ten times over.