Letter from the Road #38

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Voices from Kabul


So ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

I recently returned from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and am surrounded by my journals, magazine articles, blog snippets, position statements from peace groups, everything written in the New York Times about Afghanistan, and copies of some of the more than 200 emails I received in response to my last Letter from the Road: Confessions of a Peace Activist.  It looks like my old dorm room at term paper time.

All of this material confirms my impression that the debate about whether to “bring the troops home now” or “surge” with more troops is misleading the national conversation. They are easy slogans but both sides of the debate tempt us to believe there is a quick resolution to our involvement in Afghanistan.

I believe it is time to stop thinking of Afghanistan either as a war to be won or abandoned. Our foreign policies there do not exist in a vacuum.  Instead we need to acknowledge the responsibility the United States has for bringing about the current situation and recognize that our role is now to cultivate a long-term healing relationship with Afghanistan – for the good of the Afghan people, the stability of the region, and for the long-term interests of the United States and the world as a whole.

We cannot ignore the facts that over the past three decades the U.S. armed Afghanistan’s fundamentalist war lords, ignored the huge build-up of its drug trade, failed to help rebuild the country after its invasion in 2001, tolerated Pakistan’s continued support for Taliban terrorists, and bombed its villages for the past eight years. If the U.S. turns its back on the Afghan people now it will not only bring about more violence and injustice but also betray the principles we hold most dear. We helped to break it and now we must help to mend it.

How can we do this? Here are a few central issues that I heard from Afghans during my visit:

The Builders
For guidance we must start by listening to the non-governmental organization (NGO) workers – especially the Afghans – who have been working for years to re-build the country. They are part of the culture, and are trusted. They are under daily threat of kidnapping and death and yet fear is not diminishing their determination. Unfortunately, they are rarely consulted by policy makers or military commanders. These are the people working in child welfare, teacher training, women’s empowerment, capacity building, civic education, agriculture development, and peacemaking. They understand all the dimensions involved in “human security,” which includes a military presence but in service to long-term non-military goals such as justice, jobs, health, and education.

The Women
As a woman from the U.N. Fund for Women (who asked to remain unnamed) told us, “This conflict has been waged on the backs of women – it is about control of women.” This is not a side issue. A frequently mentioned concern of women is that the Taliban will set a pre-condition for any potential talks that no women be allowed to participate. When our peace delegation asked what we might do, she said, “Keep asking ‘Where are the women?’

There is a recurring proposal that comes before the Afghan government at the behest of Taliban supporters to set up a “department of virtue and vice.” There is also the much talked about “Shia Family Law,” which among scores of other repressive rules, says there is no such thing as marital rape, that a woman is required to obey her husband in all his needs, and that she cannot go outside the home without a male family member. This law, which is being strongly contested by women’s organizations, is being promoted by fundamentalist Shia religious groups in Iran.
The women we spoke with kept reminding us: there will be no democracy if it only involves men. When asked if we western women may be forcing something on the women of Afghanistan that they don’t want, a UNIFEM spokeswoman said, “There is no one who, when asked, does not want freedom.”

The international community has an important role to play here. All negotiations, public policies, and foreign aid must include the women of Afghanistan. President Obama should lead the way here by asking, “Where are the women?”

The Aid
Reconstruction and development have to be at the top of the list of U.S. policy initiatives in Afghanistan. At present, for every American dollar that goes to Afghanistan as aid, 60% comes back to the U.S. in corporate contracts and high salaries. This can of course be reduced by seeing that most aid money goes to Afghans. But that is easier said than done – USAID, for example, doesn’t give funds below $25 million. This limitation, plus overwhelming reporting requirements, means that only larger international corporations can make use of this money.

With the use of so many large foreign independent contractors and subcontractors the public interest needs of the Afghan people and culture can get lost. Furthermore, between the emphasis on large private contractors and the problems of government corruption there is little money available to build up the effectiveness of government agencies and provide adequate pay to Afghan personnel.

Afghanistan needs schools, hospitals, clinics, roads, sanitation systems, wells – these must be built as much as possible by Afghans, or with Afghans and used as a means of investing them in the reconstruction effort.

The problem here is that the Taliban are against all efforts of capacity building and consequently rural Afghans are often afraid to join in the work of reconstruction. To overcome this resistance, aid must be combined with protection, and involve Afghans in the process from the ground up. Perhaps a way forward here is to concentrate on certain key areas in which progress can then function as a model for other regions.

The Government
By all accounts the weak and corrupt Karzai government contributed significantly to the growth of the insurgency. By definition weak states cannot meet the basic needs of their population. They cannot consolidate authority over all their territory and they don’t have the resources to provide security.

After 30 years of war the Karzai government was too weak from the beginning to survive without international support. We didn’t provide that support after the invasion. As a result over the years people have lost faith in the government being able to provide the essentials of social functioning. Since they identify America with the current national government we also are no longer trusted.

Failure of governance is also a problem at the provincial level. Professor Aram Mir Ahzar, director of the Independent Commission for Peace and Reconciliation, told us that one of the problems with getting the Taliban to put down their guns and join the government is because “We can’t keep them safe.” When a Taliban fighter comes in (and reportedly 8300 have joined the peace commission so far), he is given $200 to return to his village and a card from the national government saying he should be given a piece of land and helped to find work. However the governor of the province may be a former Northern Alliance commander, a drug smuggler, or simply unsympathetic to this process and either kills the person or “disturbs their family” instead. Not surprisingly Taliban have stopped coming in.

Restoring civil politics in a multiethnic state shattered by war is difficult because the years of war destroyed the possibility of cooperation. Provincial people keep their relationship with the Taliban or the Northern Alliance for security and for fear they may come back into governmental power. As long as we threaten to withdraw or give a timetable for withdrawal without an adequate Afghan army or police this dynamic will continue to undermine a viable national government.

The U.S., NATO, and the U.N. cannot ignore the corruption and poor planning in the Karzai government. It is causing massive discouragement among Afghans and feeding distrust in American involvement and intention. The U.S., NATO, and the U.N. must, as a condition of all military or economic aid, make purging the most egregious corrupt officials and their militias from the government a priority. This will go a long way in renewing respect for America among Afghans.

Most public discussion in the U.S. at the moment focuses on the important role of military forces in Afghanistan, but according to some of my informal conversations, while military and paramilitary forces play a key role in maintaining safety for society, the police are perhaps the most critical force in peoples everyday lives. According to General Stanley McChristal’s  counter-insurgency strategy, the Afghan and international military forces may be able to penetrate and protect an insurgent area, and if well sustained with adequate troops may reduce guerilla activity. But as history shows, once a local situation becomes untenable for insurgents, the Taliban simply transfer their activity to another area and the problem remains unsolved. A viable indigenous police force with a permanent presence in urban and rural areas is a critical component of counter-insurgency in the long term.

At Camp Eggars I spoke with two British soldiers with NATO forces whose job was to train the police force in Kabul.  How was it going?  Well, it is complicated by the fact that Afghan police have not received formal training for two decades. The job of training was turned over to private contractors like DynCorp who were not up to the job. A real governmental strategy for training police did not exist until 2007, and the fact is most Afghans can’t read. “How can I train a policeman if he can’t write a police report?” It will take a decade to do this. A long time – and yet it needs to be done if people are to be safe after the international forces leave.

Getting It Right
Based on the above challenges and Afghanistan’s history, the U.S., NATO, and the U.N. need to work at multiple levels simultaneously to achieve security:

·    learn from and partner with NGO’s and local entities in development;
·    involve women  in all aspects of rebuilding;
·    confront corruption and build capacity in good governance;
·    train an Afghan army and national police force;
.    stop the flow of drugs and drug money;
·    work diplomatically with regional partners to undermine the Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan.

Reading over these notes I admit the whole situation can discourage me at times. It is an interlocking puzzle of dysfunctional systems. So why not let the Taliban have the country? Or let the warlords “cut it up” as Thomas Friedman recommended in a recent New York Times article?

For me, these suggestions ignore the human costs involved. I can’t stop seeing the faces and hearing the stories of the people I met in Kabul. The “let them work it out” scenarios promise only more war, personal violence, and refugee displacement which could easily be worse than what is happening now. If the past is any guide this violence could go on for a very long time, further destabilizing the whole region, including the Pakistan-India stand off.

The people I met in Afghanistan do not want another civil war, a narco-state, or a repressive women-hating regime. Nor do they want a long-term foreign occupation – but they do want help in rebuilding a secure, functional country.

Walking away from Afghanistan now perpetuates the idea, to both U.S. citizens and the rest of the world, that all we are willing, and able, to do in a country is to destroy and kill, achieve our limited idea of “mission accomplished” and walk away.  As we know this only increases recruitment for the growing global terrorist network.  Reconstruction, education, jobs and development are our most powerful anti-terrorism tools. And Afghanistan is a place to demonstrate our commitment to these goals.

I continue to believe that international troops have a roll to play in protecting civilians and development efforts, securing roads, training an Afghan army and national police, and securing the border with Pakistan. It is hard for me to see how Afghanistan can achieve these goals without military support at this time.

I bow to my good friends in the peace movement who tell me our government is incapable of living up to our values and engaging in nation-building in a positive way. They have some history behind them and may prove to be right.  However, I believe that everything outlined above is possible with long-term commitment and care. I hope my government and its allies are up to it for the sake of the Afghan people and the world.

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