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Helping Afghan women and girls

The Nation
February 3, 2009
Katrina vanden Heuvel
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've tried to engage the arguments made by some feminists and human rights groups who believe that such an escalation is necessary to protect Afghani women and girls. I share their horror when I read stories like this 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 experience working on the ground with Afghan women's organizations. Kavita Ramdas is 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 and Pakistan 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 and Pakistan in general over the last thirty years -- has been almost entirely military focused. There hasn't been any willingness to take a cold hard look at how effective or ineffective that strategy has been in whether or not it has helped stabilize the country. And there has been much less attention paid to whether this militaristic approach has done anything positive for the women of Afghanistan. It's doubtful whether America's foreign policy has ever had the welfare of Afghan women at heart. As many Afghani women have said to us, 'You know, you didn't even 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 concerned about women. But there's very little willingness to really look at the implications of a military strategy on women's security. It is very important to begin with the following question: If the strategies that we used up to this point have not succeeded in ensuring the safety and well being of women and girls, what makes us think that increased militarization with 30,000 additional US troops is somehow going to improve 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 when there are "peace-keeping forces," militias, as well as foreign troops -- which is NATO and the United States, primarily? In most parts of the world, highly militarized societies in almost every instance lead to bad results for women. The security of women is not improved and in many instances 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 few years after the initial invasion, said that although they were very grateful for the fact that the Taliban was gone, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan in general and in Kabul in particular had highly increased the incidence of both prostitution as well as trafficking -- it's not one in the same thing. Prostitution in the sense of -- being something "voluntary" because very poor women and girls would come down, particularly from the countryside where villages are in a state of absolute dire impoverishment...there's very little to eat, very little production...I talked to so many women and women's organizations who've said, young girls sleep with a soldier in Kabul for $40, $50, which is more than their mothers could make as a teacher in a full month. That's the incidence of prostitution as a function of -- people call it in the women's movement "survival sex." The trading of sex for food on a survival basis.
Then there is also trafficking which actually also increases because when there are military settlements, camps, barracks...criminal elements start bringing in women -- forcibly or coercing them under other guises. Girls -- in this case mainly from the Uzbek and Hazara tribes, as well as a number of Chinese girls in Kabul -- are actually trafficked in to fill the "needs" of foreign troops. Very few Afghans can afford to actually pay for these kinds of services, so you have a situation 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 because the more foreign troops there are, the more resistance there is going to be from indigenous forces -- whether it's the Taliban, different kinds of mujahideen, different groups of ethnic tribal factions. Throughout history, whenever foreign troops are present, there will be resistance against those foreign troops in one way or another.
Those militias and militant groups are also armed, roaming and wandering, going randomly into villages, and targeting women as they please by sexually assaulting and raping. As for the incidents that you've been hearing about -- whether it was the girls who got acid splashed on their faces that you read about in The New York Times -- these incidents have been going on for the last four or five years across the country. Girls going to school and teachers have been attacked, and under very various pretexts. Either the Taliban, mujahideen or various factions are attacking them for being "morally loose" or "promiscuous." These people are armed -- and because war tends to infuse large amounts of testosterone into large groups of men, living and wandering around together -- this does not create the safest of environments for girls in villages, for schoolteachers, for women of any kind -- women working in the fields. And so, what we've been hearing reports of are random sexual attacks on women in villages, on girls walking to school, on teachers or other women who are working. So, attacks on women have increased, for all sorts of reasons -- the most common one that we hear in the West is "Oh, these Islamic fundamentalists don't want women to work or study and so they're attacking them." But there are plenty of people who don't really care whether it's about Islam or not, they're just interested in showing their 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 we believe that the "bad guys" -- Al Qaeda -- are running riot in Afghanistan and somehow that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the extremists in Pakistan are all one in the same, and they're all collectively bad guys, 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 Peace Corps volunteers, and troops of farmers to go and replant the fruit orchards. For anyone who grew up in India or Pakistan, Afghanistan was the place where you bought the best, incredible dried fruit in the world. Those orchards have been completely devastated. Afghanistan was not a country that just grew poppy for opium sales. It was a country that 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 in Afghanistan's economic infrastructure, in its agriculture. These are villages where people are literally not able to piece together anything that comes close to a subsistence living. Afghanistan is a country in which the maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world after Sierra Leone. Why are we not sending in teams of doctors and midwives to train local women? We're not talking about a German Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. Instead, we're talking about -- without a very clearly defined "enemy" -- sending in 30,000 troops to look for this shadowy enemy and we're not even clear about what that enemy represents. Afghanistan has a very long and very proud history of having thrown out every foreign invader that was ever unfortunate enough to try to subdue them. Yet every political leader suffers from this historical amnesia, and seems to lack the willingness to look at the core structures within Afghanistan society. Afghanistan is a very non-centralized nation of very unique and independent small groups and clans 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 did in his use of that as a kind of justification. I think the Obama Administration 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 Afghan leaders and different factions, yes. More genuine investment in the long-term economic growth and development in Afghanistan, absolutely. But none of that is what is being promised. What is being promised is 30,000 US troops and the accompanying support systems, including the Halliburton 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 or understand your language or your culture, who are allegedly there fighting the bad guys, who are members of your own people. These "outsiders" feel like occupiers - they live in relative comfort with access 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 a day. This creates a huge amount of resentment. You walk around any of these American camps in Iraq or Afghanistan -- huge areas of land which are cordoned off -- and there are SUVs and guys full of body armor and machine 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 that were 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 its core resources -- both human capital and natural capital, and it makes me grieve. Kabul used to be a place with incredible trees. Everybody who lives there now will tell you all the trees have gone. What Afghanistan needs is truly a massive Marshall Plan. No one is talking about that. I don't see anyone holding this government of Hamid Karzai accountable for what is absolutely endemic corruption. You talk to any women's groups and they will tell you that in order to go to a meeting in any ministry, just to get into the door, you have to pay a bribe. To go to the 1st floor you have to pay a bribe, to get into the room you have to pay a bribe. It is at a level of corruption that is truly extraordinary.... Do we want a situation in which the Afghani people will actually welcome the return of the Taliban because it will finally usher in some kind of law and order?
We have to be very careful in making these assumptions. Another question I would ask is to what degree has there been any consultation with any aspects or representatives of Afghan civil society, i.e. women's rights organizations, human rights organizations on the ground in Afghanistan, or with teachers, doctors, professionals about what is needed in Afghanistan today? Or, with others who have any sense of whether the presence of these additional foreign troops will simply serve to isolate someone who is already seen as a puppet of the Americans? Or will it give him any credibility? I doubt it will give him any credibility. And then what?
What would you say to those who say, "I agree with you that we need humanitarian troops -- troops of doctors, troops of midwives, etc. But we can't do that until there's more security and the only way to get more security is to send more troops"?
I actually think that is just a bogus argument. This is not to say that these places aren't dangerous or difficult -- but to Third World ears it sounds like the argument of Westerners who don't want to put their own lives at risk. When I went to Kabul in 2003, India had sent doctors, nurses, buses -- and it was really interesting to see the difference amongst common Afghans, how they saw where US money had gone and where they saw Indian money had gone. Indian development aid was seen in the fleet of over 150 Tata buses -- Tata is a company that manufactures buses and cars in India -- over 100 buses had been sent over land through Pakistan. Pakistan actually allowed safe passage of those buses. And they were the buses that actually connected cities to each other. And every day Afghans took those buses to go to work, they used them to get around. And they had a sign -- [the buses] just said Tata -- and everyone knew those buses were from India. Kabul hospital has about 60 or 70 Indian doctors and nurses who were sent by the Indian government and they are assigned over there. Now, is it just that "Third World" peoples' lives are less important so it doesn't matter, so we can send them into insecure situations? I bet you if you asked the Cuban government to send doctors to Afghanistan, they would. I'm not sure the American government would like to have them there but I'm sure they would go. I think saying "we have to wait until it's secure and we can't send anybody", it's a very weak argument. And, of course, you don't just send anyone, either troops of soldiers or troops of humanitarian workers without asking what local people want and what their priorities are. You sit down, like in 2002 when different groups came together to write a constitution. You see what is and isn't working in Afghanistan. Bring all the warring factions together -- at least 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 soon as the other person gets more guns he's going to come and try to take you out any way. We know this from gang warfare. This is how gangs operate in urban centers of the United States. Having more weapons and more 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 now I don't think the Americans have a shred of that credibility. The US did have that credibility right after the fall of Taliban. Things had gotten so bad that even though people knew that the US came out of selfish reasons post 9-11, they were still willing to give the US the benefit 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 their erstwhile funders -- the US and its allies are now the infidels.
Although it does not seem like it, I believe that there are real alternative options that could be considered by President Obama and this new administration. Given all the goodwill in the world towards Obama right now, there is a little window of opportunity, in which I believe other nations would give the new administration the benefit of the doubt. If they said, "Let's sit down with Pakistan and Afghanistan; and Iran has to be part of that conversation too and talk about what we can do to try to improve the situation.
What are the priorities of the people 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 of our families ten times over.
2009 The Nation
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