In Afghanistan, a mounting sense of failure – and a flash of hope

Calls to scale back military efforts further in Afghanistan are growing. That could leave Afghan women vulnerable to a Taliban backlash. Yet many remain optimistic that this is just the beginning of their story. 

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters/File
Afghan women arrive at a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registration centre in Kabul in September.

When the Taliban battled their way into Kunduz last month, it brought into sharp relief why the American military mission in Afghanistan is failing – and why it is still so needed. 

In many ways, the offensive was a rerun, not only of the Taliban attack on the city a year ago, but in a larger sense of every Taliban offensive since the United States-led invasion of 2001. 

The fact that towns like Kunduz continue to be overrun after years of US fighting and training of Afghan forces suggests the mission is not working, many analysts say. 

But for Manizha Naderi, the reestablishment of government control could hardly have been more important. 

Ms. Naderi is the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, an organization that runs shelters for girls who have fled their families because they don’t want to be the child bride of a 60-year-old man, or who are being abused by their in-laws.

One of the Taliban’s first orders of business in Kunduz, she notes, was to begin hunting for the organization’s girls – whom they considered fallen, disobedient women – as well as the workers who were helping them. 

“They went door-to-door, saying they would be killed,” Naderi says. “They are still just as against women as they always were.” 

It is a portrait of the unappealing choices in America’s longest war. 

After 15 years of fighting, any clearly definable sense of “victory” is as far away as ever. “Past gains are eroding,” warns a recent report from the top congressional watchdog for the war, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This includes steps backward in stamping out poverty, unemployment, violence, the gender gap, and, most visibly, the Taliban.

The trend lines argue strongly, some military experts say, for the next administration to chart a new, more realistic way forward, including fewer US troops on the ground. That could mean a peace deal with the Taliban.

But in the calculus of war, withdrawal has moral consequences, just as declaring war does. For Afghanistan’s women, that means facing a future with fewer rights and, in many cases, perhaps becoming targets for revenge. 

Some worry about a return to Taliban days. But others take a bracing but longer view, seeing the past few years as merely the beginning of a twisting path that they never expected to finish in a generation. 

“A lot of people are losing patience, saying, ‘Yeah, it’s time to pull out. We did enough,’ ” says Naderi of US forces. “But it’s going to have a big impact on the women of Afghanistan if US troops leave the country.”

The sound of gunfire in Kunduz

The fact is, Afghan forces alone might not have been able to oust the Taliban from an area like Kunduz. US Army Green Berets fought for days to free the city. 

When Kunduz fell to the Taliban, Women for Afghan Women’s 64 staff members in the city had to be evacuated, along with clients. 

“We were getting calls from the police, and the Department of Women’s Affairs, saying that when these women came to them for help, they didn’t have any place to put them,” Naderi says.

“Clients were feeling very afraid, telling us, ‘Take us somewhere safe. We came to your shelter to be safe,’ ” recalls Jamshid Rahimi, an administrative assistant for the organization who joined ​the organization​ after studying sharia law in university and concluding that women were integral to societal progress, and that he wanted to help defend their rights​. 

During Mr. Rahimi’s phone interview with the Monitor from Kunduz, he reports sounds of Taliban gunfire in the suburbs. 

Today, one-third of the country’s districts are either under insurgent control or influence or at risk of coming under it, according to US forces in Afghanistan.  

The uptick in violence is the biggest challenge to women’s progress, since it makes families more protective and conservative, says Sharon Woods, SIGAR’s chief of staff, ​who traveled to Afghanistan earlier this year to interview more than 40 women. “One of the problems they all expressed was that the men are taught that they have to protect their family – if a person is killed or hurt, it reflects poorly on them.”  

As security has deteriorated, support for equal access to education for women has steadily fallen. In 2006, 8 percent of Afghans disagreed with the idea​, compared with 21 percent of people in 2015. 

Enthusiasm for representation of women in political leadership is slowly declining, too, from a high of 51 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2015.

Although the US has committed “at least $1 billion for activities intended to improve the conditions for Afghan women,” 15 years after the ouster of the Taliban, “Afghanistan remains one of the worst places in the world to be a woman,” concludes the SIGAR report. 

“It’s going to be difficult for Afghanistan to get to that social progress level – and for [aid] dollars to reap benefits – until it gets rid of this insurgency,” adds Caitlin Forrest, a counterterrorism researcher at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. 

'We're fighting the same war'

But getting “rid” of the insurgency looks like an increasingly remote proposition. 

“The insurgency is stronger than ever,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who last served in 2015 as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The average age of the guy we’re killing is still 19 or 20 years old. So we’ve lost in terms of messaging, and a new crop of these guys keeps flowing in. We’re fighting the same war year after year – we’ve been doing it since 2001.”

It is a realization that crystallized for Mr. Dempsey when he was serving as the officer in charge of operations for his infantry brigade in 2009. The commander of US forces in the country, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was asking subordinates, “What would you do differently if you had to stay until we won?” 

The idea was intriguing, but it was also a “trick question,” Dempsey says. The way to win was to have troops stay in Afghanistan for longer tours. The seven-to-12 month rotations made it easier for Afghan officers to expertly “handle” US officers who were never there long enough to fully understand the complex network of Afghan relationships. But longer rotations were a political nonstarter. 

“There’s no greater supporter of counterinsurgency than me, but after 15 years of war, we have to say: The military is not a capable counterinsurgency force.” 

The Pentagon’s promotions and priorities show that it is still committed to fighting conventional military battles with peer competitors, not counterinsurgencies. 

So what sort of presence might the US military leave in Afghanistan to avoid abandoning it altogether? 

Ideally, it would be the State Department, with the Pentagon taking a big step back, Dempsey says. The US military would ensure no sanctuaries for terrorists but would largely withdraw and tolerate a Taliban presence that had come to some peace agreement with the government.

'Don't give up on us'

Could Afghan women live with that scenario? Possibly, says Aarya Nijat, a policy analyst researching the effectiveness of women’s leadership programs in the country with the United States Institute of Peace. 

A peace deal “may require women to cover themselves more, or place limitations on the kind of activities women can engage in,” she concedes. “But if we don’t have a deal, we continue war.” 

Some Afghan women remain stubbornly positive. For one, there are continuing signs that women are gaining.

“Five years ago, when we announced a job in a number of provinces for a female case worker, it wasn’t possible to find,” says Majia Nasim, the country director for Women for Afghan Women. “Now we can see more educated women. If we announce a job, we can attract more female applicants who want to work.”

When SIGAR’s Ms. Woods traveled to Afghanistan earlier this year, she found the women she interviewed to be surprisingly optimistic. 

“They said, ‘It’s tough, and it’s not going to get easy in the short term, but don’t give up on us,’ ” she says. “They have a lot of hope that their country is going to change, that their country is going to get better. I kind of expected when we spoke with them that it would be much more gloomy.”

More than getting bad guys

That surprising outlook includes a critical eye on the role of US forces. Without question, the US military presence has helped to provide important opportunities for women, says Ms. Nijat. “But I do think that women’s conditions and the processes that will ensure those conditions will change is a long-term process that is going to take decades, if not centuries.” 

After all, for many women outside of Afghanistan’s small, urban elite, a return to the Taliban might not mean that much. “They just want it to get better, to have electricity, sustained gas, so they don't have to cut wood, carry water,” says Nijat.

One assumption behind military force in Afghanistan was that, “by removing the bad guys like you do in the movies, then everything will be fine. We didn’t think of this as layers and layers of patriarchal culture.” 

Allauddin Khan/AP/File
Afghan women wearing burqas wait for transportation in Kabul.

Nijat recalls textbooks from her childhood, which included, among their lessons, interludes of “valuable sayings,” one of which was: “Never share your secrets with women, because they don’t deserve to know your secrets.” 

“I ask this question myself: What will happen if the Taliban gets a peace deal? How different are they, really, in their thinking about women and democratic values? Not a lot different than now,” she says.

The focus on women’s rights has created resentments among many men, she adds, creating a backlash. More men must be brought into the process, which takes time.

But she sees the stirrings of a more global culture in Afghanistan, and that gives her cause for hope. She works with government ministers who once had strong affiliations with the Taliban, and this “new generation of jihadis” does think differently. 

"They travel, they have bank accounts in different countries” Naderi says. “They have loyalty to how their fathers taught [them], but at the same time they say, ‘We want to move on and live our lives.’ ”

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