Looking for a way out of Afghanistan? Maybe it’s time to try something entirely new and totally different. So how about putting into action, for the first time in recorded history, the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325?
Passed on October 31, 2000, more than a decade ago, that “landmark” resolution was hailed worldwide as a great “victory” for women and international peace and security. In a nutshell, SCR 1325 calls for women to participate equally and fully at decision-making levels in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconstruction. Without the active participation of women in peacemaking every step of the way, the Security Council concluded, no just and durable peace could be achieved anywhere.
“Durable” was the key word. Keep it in mind.
Most hot wars of recent memory, little and big, have been resolved or nudged into remission through what is called a power-sharing agreement. The big men from most or all of the warring parties—and war is basically a guy thing, in case you hadn’t noticed—shoulder in to the negotiating table and carve up a country’s or region’s military, political, and financial pie. Then they proclaim the resulting deal “peace.”
But as I learned firsthand as an aid worker in one so-called post-conflict country after another, when the men in power stop shooting at each other, they often escalate the war against civilians—especially women and girls. It seems to be hard for men to switch off violence, once they’ve gotten the hang of it. From Liberia to Myanmar, rape, torture, mutilation and murder continue unabated or even increase in frequency. In other words, from the standpoint of civilians, war is often not over when it’s “over,” and the “peace” is no real peace at all. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious “rape capital of the world,” where thousands upon thousands of women are gang-raped again and again, although the country has officially been at “peace” since 2003.
In addition, power-sharing agreements among combatants tend to fray, and half of them unravel into open warfare again within a few years. Consider Liberia throughout the 1990s, Angola in 1992 and 1998, Cambodia in 1997 and Iraq in 2006–07. At this moment, we are witnessing the breakdown of one power-sharing agreement in the Ivory Coast, and certainly the femicidal consequences of another, made in 2001, in Afghanistan.
It is this repeated recourse to war and the unrelenting abuse and neglect of civilians during fleeting episodes of “peace” that prompted the Security Council to seek the key to more durable solutions. They recognized that men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth—notably control of a country’s natural resources—while women included at any level of negotiations commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society. Women are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, healthcare, education and the like—all those things that make life livable for peaceable men, women and children anywhere.
The conclusion is self-evident. Bring women to the table in decision-making roles in equal numbers with male participants and the nature of peace negotiations changes altogether. And so does the result. Or at least that’s what the Security Council expects. We can’t be sure because in more than a decade since SCR 1325 was enacted, it has never been put to the test.
At the time, at the exhilarating dawn of a new millennium, the whole world applauded SCR 1325 as a great achievement of the United Nations, pointing the pathway to world peace. Later, when men in war-torn countries negotiated peace, often with the guidance of the UN, they forgot all about it. Their excuse was that they had to act fast, speed being more important than justice or durability or women. At critical times like that, don’t you know, women just get in the way.
Peace? Not a Chance
My special concern is Afghanistan, and I’m impatient. I’d like a speedy conclusion, too. It’s been nine years since I started doing aid work there, and in that time several of the young Afghan women who were my colleagues and became my friends have died of illnesses they would have survived in better times under the auspices of a government that cared about the welfare of its citizens. Even its women citizens.
Yet now, whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of SCR 1325 to American big men—thinkers, movers and shakers—who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object. They know the theory, they say, but practice is something else again, and they are precluded from throwing their weight behind SCR 1325 by delicate considerations of “cultural relativism.” Afghanistan, they remind me, is a “traditional” culture that regards women as less than human. As Westerners, they say, we must be particularly careful to respect that view.
Yet the eagerness of Western men to defer to this “tradition” seems excessive, and their tenderness for the sentiments of bearded men who couldn’t clear airport security in Iowa City strikes me as deliberately obtuse, especially since very few of the Afghan men who actually governed Afghanistan between 1919 and 1989 would have shared their sentiments.
Afghan culture is—and is not—traditional. Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of internal Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women’s complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy, cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as “bad and evil persons” who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Afghans still remember Amanullah and his modern, unveiled Queen Suraya for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.
Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared King Amanullah’s modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike. But at least since 1979, when the United States and Saudi Arabia joined Pakistan in promoting the ideology and military skill of Islamist extremists who sought to return the country to the seventh-century world of the prophet, Afghanistan’s liberal modernists have taken flight for North America, Europe, and Australia.
Last summer in Afghanistan I talked with many progressive men and women who were running for parliament, hoping to push back against the inordinate power of the Afghan executive in the person of President Hamid Karzai. To them, he seems increasingly eager to do deals with the most extreme Islamists in opposition to all their progressive dreams for their country.
Yet in August, when President Karzai flagrantly stole the presidential election, President Obama telephoned to congratulate him and the United States officially pronounced the fraudulent election results “good enough.” We might ask: In this contest between entrenched Islamist extremists and progressives who favor equality and democracy, why is the United States on the wrong side? Why are we on the side of a mistaken notion of Afghan “tradition”?
Our Big Man in Kabul
In 2001, the US and by extension the entire international community cast their lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after one of those power-sharing conferences in Bonn, Germany, to which, by the way, only two Afghan women were invited. We paid hundreds of millions of dollars to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai’s men stuffed the ballot boxes. Now, it seems, we’re stuck with him and his misogynist “traditions,” even though a growing number of Afghanistan watchers identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the United States faces in its never-ending war.
We could have seen this coming if we had kept an eye on how President Karzai treats women. George W. Bush famously claimed to have “liberated” the women of Afghanistan, but he missed one: Hamid Karzai’s wife. Although she is a gynecologist with desperately needed skills, she is kept shut up at home. To this day, the president’s wife remains the most prominent woman in Afghanistan still living under house rules established by the Taliban. That little detail, by the way, should remind you of why you ought to care what happens to women: they are the canaries in the Afghan political coal mine.
And what has President Karzai done for the rest of the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.
That’s the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan, including such highly respected non-governmental organizations as Oxfam, CARE and Save the Children. The Afghan researchers who did the study conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders, and female leaders locally, provincially, and nationally.
The report notes that President Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the “Taliban-style” Shia Personal Status Law, enacted in 2009, which not only legitimizes marital rape but “prevents women from stepping out of their homes” without their husband’s consent, in effect depriving them of the right to make any decisions about their own lives. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed to all citizens in the Afghan Constitution, which was passed in 2004 as part of a flurry of democratic reforms marking the start of Karzai’s first term as elected president. The democratizing spasm passed and President Karzai, sworn to defend that constitution, failed to do the job.
In fact, Karzai’s record on human rights, as the HRRAC report documents, is chiefly remarkable for what he has not done. He holds extraordinary power to make political appointments—another indicator of the peculiar nature of this Afghan “democracy” our troops are fighting for—and he has now had almost ten years in office, ample time to lead even the most reluctant traditional society toward more equitable social arrangements. Yet today, but one cabinet ministry is held by a woman, the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, which incidentally is the sole government ministry that possesses only advisory powers. Karzai has appointed just one female provincial governor, and thirty-three men. (Is it by chance that Bamyan—the province run by that woman—is generally viewed as the most peaceful in the country?) To head city governments nationwide, he has named only one female mayor. And to the Supreme Court High Council he has appointed no woman at all.Karzai’s claim that he can’t find qualified women is a flimsy—and traditional—excuse. Many of his highest-ranking appointees to government offices are notorious war criminals, men considered by the great majority of Afghan citizens to have disqualified themselves from public office. The failure of many of his male appointees to govern honestly and justly, or even to show up for work at all, is a rising complaint of NATO commanders who find upon delivery of “government in a box” that the box is pretty much empty.
If fully qualified women are in short supply, having been confined and deprived for years thanks to armed combat and the Taliban government, isn’t that all the more reason for a president sworn to uphold equality to act quickly to insure broad opportunities for education, training, jobs and the like? The HRRAC report sensibly recommends “broad sociopolitical reform” to provide “education and economic opportunities for real women’s leadership.” Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former minister of finance, former president of Kabul University and presidential contender, spoke in favor of such a “sensible and regular process.” As he noted, however, “Our government is not a sensible government.”
Flimsy, too, is the argument that Afghanistan’s cultural traditions eliminate women from public service. Uzra Jafari, the mayor of Daikundi, reports that the city’s inhabitants did not believe a woman could be a mayor, but they soon “accepted that a woman can serve them better than a man.” “Social obstacles can be overcome,” she says, “but the main problem is the political obstacles. We have problems at the highest levels.” The problem, in other words, is President Karzai, the only person in Afghanistan who has the power to install women in political offices and yet refuses to do so. In short, the president is far more “traditional” than most of the people.
Without the support of male leadership, women leaders (and their families) become easy targets for harassment, threats, intimidation and assassination. When such threats come from the ultra-Islamist men who dominate the Afghan parliament, they prevent women parliamentarians from uniting in support of women and, in most cases, from speaking out as individuals for women’s rights. Death threats have a remarkable silencing effect, disrupting the processes of governance, yet President Karzai has not once taken a stand against the terrorist tactics of his cronies.
The Brotherhood of Men
Let’s acknowledge that there are limits to what the West can and cannot do in the very different and more traditional culture of Afghanistan. Judging by what we have already done, it seems to be perfectly all right for the West—a k a the United States—to rain bombs upon this agrarian country, with its long tradition of moderate Sufism, and impose an ultraconservative Islamist government and free market capitalism (even at the expense of indigenous agricultural markets) through the ministrations of thousands of highly paid private American “technical assistants.” But it is apparently not okay for any of those multitudinous, extravagantly paid American political and economic consultants to tweak the silken sleeve of President Karzai’s chapan and say, “Hamid, my man, you’ve gotta get some more women in here.” That would be disrespectful of Afghan traditions.
I don’t buy it. What we’re up against is not just the intractable misogyny of President Karzai and other powerful mullahs and mujahideen, but the misogyny of power brokers in Washington as well.
Take, for example, the second most popular objection I hear from American male experts on Afghanistan when I raise my modest proposal. They call this one “pragmatic” or “realistic.” Women can’t come to the negotiating table, they say, because the Taliban would never sit down with them. In fact, Taliban, “ex-Taliban,” and Taliban sympathizers sit down with women every day in the Afghan Parliament, as they have in occasional loya jirgas (deliberating assemblies) since 2001. Clearly, any Taliban who refuse altogether to talk with women disqualify themselves as peace negotiators and should have no place at the table. But what’s stunning about the view of the American male experts is that it comes down on the other side, ceding to the most extreme Taliban misogynists the right to exclude from peace deliberations half the population of the country. (Tell that to our women soldiers putting their lives on the line.)
Yet these days every so-called Afghanistan expert in Washington has a plan for the future of the country. Some seem relatively reasonable while others are certifiably delusional, but what almost all of these documents have in common is the absence of the word “women.” (There are a few tiny but notable exceptions.)
In the Looney Tunes category is former diplomat and National Security Council Deputy Robert D. Blackwill’s “Plan B in Afghanistan” appearing in Foreign Affairs, which calls for the US military to flee the south, thus creating a “de facto partition” of Afghanistan and incidentally abandoning—you guessed it—”the women of those areas,” as well as anyone else in the south who wants “to resist the Taliban.” This scenario may call to mind images of helicopters departing the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, but Blackwill clings to his “strategy,” calling the grim fate of those left behind “a tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for outsiders to change.”
In the relatively reasonable category is the plan of the Afghanistan Study Group: “A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan.” Its first recommendation says, “The US should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.” Whoops! No mention of women there. And power sharing? We know where that’s headed. Afghanistan, the undisputed small arms capital of the world, might easily spontaneously combust into civil war.
But what becomes of women? Even Matthew Hoh, who resigned his position in 2009 as a political officer in the foreign service to protest US policy in Afghanistan, and now heads the Afghanistan Study Group, can’t seem to imagine bringing women to the negotiating table. (He says he’s “working on it.”) Instead, the study group decides for women that “this strategy will best serve [their] interests.” It declares that “the worst thing for women is for Afghanistan to remain paralyzed in a civil war in which there evolves no organically rooted support for their social advancement.” Well, no. Actually, the worst thing for women is to have a bunch of men—and not even Afghan men at that—decide one more time what’s best for women.
I wonder if it’s significant that the Afghanistan Study Group, much like the Bonn Conference that established the Karzai government in the first place, is essentially a guy club. I count three women among forty-nine men and the odd “center” or “council” (also undoubtedly consisting mostly of men). When I asked Matthew Hoh why there are so few women in the study group, he couldn’t help laughing. He said, “This is Washington. You go to any important meeting in Washington, it’s men.”
Maybe the heady atmosphere engendered by all those gatherings of suits in close quarters was what inspired Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to abandon all discretion recently and declare that the promise of equal protection in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution does not extend to protecting women against sex discrimination. If states enact laws discriminating against women, he opined, such laws would not be unconstitutional. (You can be sure some legislators have gotten right to work on it.)
That opinion puts Justice Scalia cozily in bed with former Chief Justice Shinwari, President Karzai’s first appointee to head the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who interpreted Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution, which calls for men and women to have equal rights and responsibilities before the law, to mean that men have rights and women have responsibilities to their husbands. (Could this mean that the United States is a traditional culture, too?)
Women leaders in Afghanistan complain that their government does not see them as “human,” but merely uses them as tokens or symbols, presumably to appease those international donors who still rattle on about human rights. George W. Bush used Afghan women that way. Obama doesn’t mention them. Here in the United States you take your choice between cynical exploitation, utter neglect and outright discrimination.
In Afghanistan, Karzai names a High Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban. Sixty men. The usual suspects: warlords, Wahhabis, mujahideen, long-bearded and long in the tooth, but fighting for power to the bitter end. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network reports that among them are fifty-three men linked to armed factions in the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s including thirteen linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, currently allied with the Taliban. An additional twelve members of the High Peace Council held positions in the Taliban’s Emirate government between 1996 and 2001.
Under some international pressure, Karzai belatedly added ten women, the only members of the High Peace Council with no ties to armed militias past or present; they represent the interests of civil society, which is to say the people who might actually like to live in peace for a change and do their utmost to sustain it. The United States signed off on this lopsided council. So did Hillary Clinton, a woman who, as secretary of state, has solemnly promised again and again never to abandon the women of Afghanistan, though she never remembers to invite them to a conference where international and Afghan men decide the future of their country.
Okay, so my modest proposal doesn’t stand a chance. The deck is stacked against the participation of women, both there and here. Even I don’t expect men in power to take seriously the serious proposition that women must be equally and fully involved in peacemaking or you don’t get durable peace. Too many men, both Afghan and American, are doing very nicely thank you with the present traditional arrangements of our cultures. So, searching blindly for some eventual exit and burdened by their misbegotten notions of “peace,” US and NATO officials busy themselves repeatedly transporting to Kabul, at vast expense, a single high-ranking Taliban mullah to negotiate secret peace and power-sharing deals with President Karzai. American officials tout these man-to-man negotiations as evidence that US strategy is finally working, until the “mullah” turns out to be an imposter playing a profitable little joke on the powers that be. Afghan women, who already suffer the effects of rising Taliban power, are not laughing.
Consider this. We’re not just talking about women’s rights here. Women’s rights are human rights. Women exercising their human rights are simply women engaging in those things that men the world over take for granted: going to school, going to work, walking around. But in Afghanistan today—here’s where tradition comes in again—almost every woman and girl exercising her rights does so with the support of the man or men who let her out of the house: father, husband, brothers, uncles, sons. Exclude women from their rightful equal decision-making part in the peacemaking process and you also betray the men who stand behind them, men who are by self-definition committed to the dream of a more egalitarian and democratic future for their country.
The sad news from Afghanistan is that a great many progressives have already figured out their own exit strategy. Like generations of Afghans before them, they will become part of one of the world’s largest diasporas from a single country. Ironically, I’ll bet many of those progressive Afghan men will bring their families to the United States, where women appear to be free and it’s comforting to imagine that misogyny is dead.
[Note on further reading: The HRRAC report on “Women and Political Leadership” can be found online in .pdf format by clicking here.]