Afghanistan: Should We Stay or Should We Go?
We have a community in Flushing, Queens, where the Afghan community is concentrated, where we celebrated the Afghan New Year yesterday. It's a thriving community. The fact that male and female leaders there have come together to partner with Women for Afghan Women, which is unwaveringly dedicated to women's rights, wouldn't have happened when we started nine years ago. It has taken a lot of painstaking work to earn the trust of the community and create those inroads.
Over the last five to six years, we have also been working in Afghanistan. So far, we have family guidance centers in three cities. This year we're expanding to two more. In each of those cities we have walk-in centers for men and women, though predominantly women, who have experienced human rights violations. We have lawyers, social workers, peace workers, volunteers. Overall we have a staff of 120 in the country, and it is 100 percent local, as is our staff in Queens.
The strategies that we pursue for each human rights case are community-based. [Afghanistan] isn't a place where you can advocate that a woman stand up for her rights and go get a job and her own apartment. So we work within the family. If it's a domestic dispute case, we bring the couple together with elders to mediate. If the woman is in danger of her life, we have secret shelters in each city and we take the women there. But in as many cases as possible we find alternative solutions: a brother, an uncle, an aunt, somebody who can harbor this woman for as long as possible, who can help her look for work.
When our organization made its first inroads in Afghanistan in 2003, we didn't yet have a presence on the ground, but we went there because the country's constitution was being drafted. We already had held two large conferences here in New York, and we'd made contacts both in the grassroots and in government. We were able to make a critical contribution by bringing women together to talk about the constitution and how it would affect women. We brought together rural activists from every corner of the country to Kandahar, and we had the first women's rights conference in Kandahar in 2003. These women, most of whom were illiterate and who had never been to school, came up with a Women's Bill of Rights, a list of demands that they hoped would be included in the nation's constitution. We then went back to Kabul and brought these very women to the constitutional commission with their Bill of Rights.
[More recently, when] the Elimination of Violence Against Women bill was blocked by the same government that passed this heinous shi'ia law—which has made rape within marriage legal and allows a man to demand sex from his wife every four days—a woman parliamentarian came to our shelter with the wife of an ambassador. Our executive director brought women who are staying in our shelter out to talk to the parliamentarian and they said, "We want to talk to those men in parliament who are blocking this bill. Bring them to us, we would like to tell them our stories and tell them why this is important."
I think we have an intuitive sense as an organization with one foot in the West of when to step back and allow the community-based leadership to flourish, and when to use our clout. Our work is absolutely rooted to the community, and yet we would not waiver if some leader, some imam, puts forth the idea that women's rights are not to be promoted. We will not compromise on our core ethics as we do our work.
We are calling right now for the security of the work we are doing. We know that the Taliban's strength is increasing and becoming more and more of an obstacle to our efforts. We also know that, as modest it is, over these nine years we have seen progress. We have. The fact that in every place we are active we have been able to build relationships with courts, police, ministries of justice—institutions that without the right relationships would be our enemies—the fact that they are referring women to us and that women come is progress. And men come, too.
I can never forget a man who came with nothing—a man from a struggling poor family brought his 5-year-old daughter on a 14-hour bus journey. She had been raped. The two of them were shells of themselves when they got to us. He came to us and said, "I will not rest until justice is done. Help me." And we did. Our lawyers fought that case and the rapist was put in jail. The father now keeps a little room in our shelter; the girl is eight; they are still with us because the family has received death threats.
To us there's no question that our work, and the work of so many organizations like us, would become impossible overnight [if troops withdraw]. Especially in a place where [the United States is] hugely responsible for the devastating situation, there's no question that we need to help bring security to that country before we leave.
Yes, I agree that there must be an exit strategy. But part of that exit strategy has to be that the country is on its feet, that the country can govern itself, that the country can secure its borders, that the people are engaged, that there isn't paralyzing poverty. It is not okay to leave today and allow the bloodbath that will ensue the next day to happen. You just can't do that.
I want to read a couple of paragraphs from our executive director that opened our last e-newsletter:
As I write this update, U.S. troops are fighting to wrest control of Helmand from the Taliban. Just recently, on February 25, insurgents attacked an Indian guesthouse in the center of Kabul. A three-hour gun battle took place and 16 people were killed. These dreadful events are a prelude to the chaos that will ensue if the Taliban are not driven from this country; a chaos that will spread throughout the region and into the world. The work we and other human rights defenders are doing in Afghanistan would not be possible in any Taliban-controlled area. In fact, if the Taliban assume control of Afghanistan, we and NGOs like ours will have to flee the country, and the progress that has been made on behalf of women and children will have been for naught. That is why Women for Afghan Women supports the troop surge.
We do so reluctantly, for we are not pro-war. We have learned many things during our 8 years here. We know that without a commitment to development—aimed at education, employment, and women's rights—that is equivalent to or even greater than the military investment, the surge will ultimately fail. The majority of Afghan people want these things, and they want peace. We know that the commitment of the developed world to Afghanistan must be for the long term—at least as long as it took women in the developed world to get the vote (Swiss women finally achieved it in !). We believe that after 30 years of war, they have earned our help to recover and prosper.
I think I can tie these two presentations together quite well. The reason I was invited to this panel is because, [as director of the New Strategic Security Initiative, which runs the Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub,] I wrote a piece called "A Commitment Strategy for Afghanistan." I've worked in Congress for 12 years, with both Democrats and Republicans—when there were progressive Republicans. I want to see progressives in the room instead of in the street on Afghanistan policy. I feel that if we are not in the room, shaping the environment and the discussion about U.S. national security policies, we are going to be left in the wilderness, like [we were for] 30 years after the Vietnam War. I think that is one of the reasons we have a 30-to-1 imbalance between military and civilian spending.
It is my belief that in today's world Afghanistan is emblematic of many of the problems that face us. We live in a globalizing world, and we really haven't defined security yet. It is a world where relationships are about more than borders, where security is about people much more than machines, where our policy needs to be about inclusion and persuasion more than isolation and coercion. We are better prepared today to fight Napoleon than Bin Laden. We have not left the Cold War behind.
Our military, in fact, is the most progressive foreign policy agency we have in our government. I've worked with the Army for the last 12 years. The Army—and the Marines especially—know that they are picking up the slack for other agencies that are not being funded. The military is doing a lot of development work that it shouldn't be doing, and frankly that the military does not want to do. Progressives are never going to have better cover than they do today to make the case for fully transforming U.S. national security priorities and policies. Our cover is General Petraeus himself. Our cover is General McChrystal himself.
The reason I wrote "A Commitment Strategy for Afghanistan" is because I feel that language like "exit strategy" simply doesn't match the situation over there. When I talk to progressive organizations they say, "of course we don't mean to end the humanitarian commitment." But today you can't have a humanitarian commitment without having some kind of military presence. That's just true. Our military presence there is a condition; it's not a choice. The percentage of women in Afghanistan who have health care has gone up by tens of percentage points in the last 10 years. At least part of the reason for that is the military presence there.
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