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"To fight is not the solution"

Are those calling for withdrawal selling out Afghanistan’s women?

“To fight is not the solution. We have a mouth and a brain, we should talk.” Afghan Women’s Affairs Minister, Dr H.B. Ghazanfar
“Freedom, democracy and justice cannot be enforced at gunpoint by a foreign country; they are the values that can be achieved only by our people and democracy-loving forces through a hard, decisive and long struggle.” Afghan women’s rights activist Zoya.

Recently, I overheard a significant figure in the UK anti-war movement bemoaning the collapse of the US peace movement. The source of his angst was the decision by Code Pink – a major player in the US anti-war scene – to backpedal on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Its shift – from “rapid” to “responsible” withdrawal – followed a delegation to Kabul which met with a wide range of Afghan women. “Don’t they know that there are plenty of Afghan feminists calling for withdrawal?”, he asked.

A dangerous vacuum?

In fact Code Pink is well aware of such views, having helping to publicise recent speaking tours by both the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women (RAWA) and the courageous female Afghan MP Malalai Joya (see PN 2513).

There seems little reason to doubt that Code Pink’s shift is motivated by genuine fears that an abrupt departure of foreign forces could result in a dangerous security vacuum leaving women especially vulnerable. They are surely right to be concerned.

Feudal-like conditions

Nonetheless, no-one should be under any illusions regarding the current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan. A recent UN report, Silence is Violence: End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan, noted that while “rhetoric and empty promises expressing concerns about the plight of Afghan women are common... deeply engrained discrimination... effectively condemns the majority of Afghan women to feudal-like conditions.” Moreover, “Afghan women and girls rank among the world’s worst-off by most indicators, including maternal mortality, life expectancy” (Human Rights Watch).

No surprise

This grim picture should come as no surprise. After all, much of the country is already controlled either by the Taliban (whose record on women’s rights hardly needs repeating) or by the brutal warlords the US brought to power after the 2001 invasion.

The latter, it should be recalled, were responsible for one of the darkest chapters in the history of Afghan women, namely the 1992-1996 civil war, whose viciousness contributed to the emergence of the Taliban.

Avoiding civil war

Given these ugly realities, it’s unclear that conditions for most Afghan women would radically deteriorate following a withdrawal, unless the country descends into a major civil war. A negotiated settlement with the Taliban – favoured by most Afghans and most Britons, but opposed by the US and Britain (see PN 2514) – is probably the best way of avoiding such an outcome.

Beards and burqas

In preliminary talks with the Afghan government, the Taliban have reportedly “agreed to soften their position on such things as beards and burqas” – for example, refraining from banning girls’ education – and it is known that one of their core demands is the creation of a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations (see PN 2514).

None of this should be taken at face value, but it is at least conceivable that Kabul – likely to suffer worst following a withdrawal – could become a neutral space, secured by a genuine peacekeeping force.

Almost inevitable

Code Pink is now focussing on opposing further escalation (opposed by 73% of Afghans), calling for a “an exit strategy based on all-party talks, regional diplomacy, unconditional humanitarian aid, and time lines promising an American and NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

There is probably little to distinguish this in practice from the call for “troops out now.” Even the Sunday Telegraph’s defence correspondent notes that “a power-sharing deal will have to be done with the Taliban if Afghanistan is to have any semblance of a peaceful future.” (Sean Rayment, 23 August)

The departure of British forces would have a huge political impact, helping to bring forward the day when the US will negotiate its way out. Some sort of deal looks inevitable. The question is how many bodies will be piled up to postpone this outcome.

Topics: Women | Afghanistan