Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace: Ideology and difference

“In Afghan history the communists had an ideology and the Taliban had an ideology, they were fighting for something they believed in. It is good to believe, to have an aim. You didn’t see that with the mujahideen, or even now. In the communist time the people in key positions had just a few possessions, they didn’t want to misuse government property, or to have bribes. It was the same at the beginning with the Taliban. Now, the government does not have a strategy, an ideology, a goal. This is a disaster. Where is the sense of value, the spirit of building a country, the honour?” (Exgovernment employee, now NGO worker, Kabul, 2003)

During the twentieth century the outside world has offered Afghans a succession of ideological frameworks as models for change. From the revolutionary to the regressive, however, the transformations that these ideologies imply have provided a pretext for conflict, rather than a focus for unity. This experience helps to explain why many Afghans feel ambivalent towards ideas or values that lie outside of, or are perceived to intrude on, their collective frame of reference.

Islam and the sense of belonging to a community, group or tribe have shaped how Afghans relate to their immediate environment and how they deal (or not) with alien ideology. Until the jihad this remained relatively unchallenged. The impact of the technologyinspired vision of the 1960s and 1970s that, it was hoped, would catapult the country into the modern world, was confined primarily to an urban elite. Despite the push for liberal values by some educated Afghans, the social base of liberalism was always very narrow. However, by the mid1970s, the social foundations of the old order were eroding and both Islamist and communist parties were actively organizing, especially among the students and the armed forces. When the Afghan communists took power in 1978, their attempts to move rural communities from feudalism to socialism sparked a nationwide jihad that had its roots in local reactions to what were perceived as intrusions on established values and traditions. This uprising in turn provided a base from which the various parties could organize and recruit as political and military organizations.

As Soviet support for President Najibullah dried up, he was forced to buy support through the militias and to make accommodation with a range of Afghan groups that did not subscribe to communist ideals. By the 1990s little was left of the communist policies the regime once fought for. Meanwhile, on the other side of the frontlines, the common cause that had held together the resistance groups for more than a decade evaporated with the departure of the Soviet troops. This lack of unity was already manifest in the deep differences that existed within the interim government that briefly replaced Najibullah’s regime. By the time that the full successor administration, the Islamic State of Afghanistan, came into being, disunity had descended into bitter internecine fighting. As old scores were settled and allegiances between groups shifted, it was difficult for Afghans to distinguish between ideology and political expediency; peace remained a mirage.

It was into this landscape that the Taliban first emerged, offering to restore stability and order to those parts of the country beset by anarchy. As with the mujahideen who had preceded them, they portrayed themselves as protectors of the faith, and it was with an appeal to a ‘true Islam’ and a reassertion of Afghan identity and traditions that they staked their claim to govern the country and issued a series of edicts that aimed to codify the terms of their rule. Although their vision of Afghan society was routinely portrayed as an anachronism, their attempts to draw on their past resonated with the values of many conservative rural communities. With time, however, the uncompromising imposition of their interpretation of Islam came to be seen by many as equally intrusive as the depredations of the factions that they had replaced. While most Afghans are deeply conformist in their belief and attach great importance to rituals such as regular prayer, the notion of the state-which, in time, the Taliban claimed to represent-imposing strictures over this belief was seen as an anathema to all but the most conservative Sunni elements of society. In particular the activities of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, which was established (allegedly under the influence of Saudi clerics) during the late 1990s, came to be seen by some Afghans as intrusive. Virtue has customarily been protected at the level of the family, community or tribe, not imposed from the outside, and certainly not by the state.

While the Taliban edicts covered issues from law and order to property ownership, it was those that imposed requirements for prayer, dress and social interaction that were the most intrusive, particularly on the urban population. But it was the formal exclusion of women from employment and girls from education that triggered a response from the aid community.

Confronting the Taliban

The first real confrontation occurred in 1995 after the Taliban had taken Herat and banned girls from attending school and women from working. Agencies saw this as a direct attack not only on their values but also on what they believed to be universal rights. Finding it impossible to continue running programmes in keeping with the agency’s principles, the British NGO Save the Children suspended its programmes in health and education, while UNICEF took a policy decision not to fund education in parts of the country where girls were barred from going to school. This provoked a debate as to whether withholding resources to try and achieve change was simply a denial of education to boys, or whether it represented a shift of the organizations’ resources to parts of the country where they could be better used.

It was not until the Taliban took Kabul a year later that the issue of their restrictions on women and girls hit the headlines. Even then few aid organizations were prepared to speak out. One exception was Oxfam, whose country representative defended women’s rights on CNN and went on to announce that Oxfam would close its programme in Afghanistan if the Taliban did not moderate their position. Oxfam formally suspended its Kabul programme on 4 October and issued a press statement saying that Oxfam would ‘work with women in Kabul, or not at all’. Despite attempts to rally other agencies to the cause, there was little enthusiasm for following suit.

The Logar water supply project was Oxfam’s major programme in the capital. The scheme, originally built in 1970s, had been badly damaged and looted after the mujahideen took over the city in 1992, and its repair and recommissioning seemed a logical response to the city’s worsening water problems. Its rehabilitation, at a cost of several million dollars, had the potential to restore piped water to 40 per cent of the city’s residents. For Oxfam, however, committed as it was to gender equity and with a firm belief that programmes to provide safe drinking water were of little benefit without concomitant programmes of health education with women, proceeding with work on Logar without the involvement of women made no sense.

The Taliban, however, proved impervious to pressure and Oxfam had little idea what to do next. Despite the hardline stand taken on CNN, the agency was not prepared to pay the price of closing its country office. There were also strong differences of opinion within the organization as to whether Oxfam should in fact be suspending work on Logar. While one side argued the stand on gender, others argued the humanitarian case for supplying safe drinking water to the city’s residents. In the end those advocating suspension won the day and the official position became that Oxfam would not undertake programme work in the capital but would maintain its country office there, believing it could have an influence on the Taliban’s behaviour through a programme of advocacy and bearing witness, aimed largely at donors and the international community. Its female Afghan staff, meanwhile, remained at home on full pay. By this time a number of other NGOs had found ways of employing their female staff, through redefining them as health workers or letting them work from home. Oxfam’s representative in Kabul refused to adopt this strategy, holding that without express permission for Oxfam staff to resume their jobs they would be at risk. She also refused to explore the compromise of having female staff from the Ministry of Public Health undertake the programming with women, insisting that Oxfam had the right to employ its own female staff. Oxfam’s male staff, however, were soon back at work-the contradiction of which seemed lost on those who advocated taking a hard line on the gender issue. It was believed that the Taliban would eventually decide they wanted the water project sufficiently to agree to Oxfam’s terms; but they refused to relent. In spring of 1998 Oxfam ceased to pay the salaries of its female Afghan staff, who by this time had been at home on full pay for eighteen months. An independent evaluation of the project, which was critical of the organization’s actions, was suppressed.

Other organizations fared no better in attempts to confront the Taliban. Neither Save the Children nor UNICEF achieved any change on the position of girls’ education, and Save the Children ended up closing its Herat office. It then moved to Mazar i Sharif, thinking it could continue to run programmes for women in a Northern Alliancecontrolled part of the country. The programmes were only just up and running when the Taliban attacked Mazar, precipitating a period of fighting and instability that only ended eighteen months later when they finally captured the city.

In the meantime, a number of other aid agencies in Kabul tried to negotiate their way around the stream of regulations issued by the Taliban. It was clear from the way in which some agencies were able to deal with their official counterparts that there was no clear Taliban partyline on the work of external aid agencies. Neither did it seem that the restrictions were deliberately intended to make their presence untenable, so that agencies would leave. Many Afghans who continued to work in the administration negotiated to retain the support of aid agencies in their work and thereby managed to continue employing women, notably in healthcare. Even the hardline Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was the most prolific in issuing edicts, was not immune to arguments about need and allowed emergency programmes such as distributions to widows to continue. The edicts did, however, combine to make it a difficult working environment, especially in Kabul where the lines were most strongly drawn. Even here, there was potential to explore differing interpretations of the restrictions, but the agencies that had the savvy to explore it were few. Outside the cities, where edicts were less keenly observed, it was often easier to continue activities, and a number of agencies focused on places where they felt they could still get something done.

The very diversity of the NGO community made it difficult for them even to agree, much less hold, a common position on issues. Despite intense soulsearching, the respective positions and priorities of the NGOs ruled out a common strategy on how to work (or not) under the watchful gaze of the Taliban. The severest test of their resolve came in the summer of 1998, when in a context of worsening relations the Taliban issued a directive that all NGOs should move their offices in the Kabul Polytechnic. The official reason for this decision was that it would enable NGOs to make better use of available resources by sharing common services and reducing their overheads, while allowing the authorities to ensure effective security-which they had been repeatedly reminded was their responsibility. Most NGOs refused to move and claimed that the proposal infringed on their operational effectiveness. Just as with Oxfam and the Logar project, few aid workers seemed to have thought through what they would do if the Taliban did not back down-which they did not. Instead, they ordered the closure of most NGO offices in Kabul, resulting in an exodus of expatriate staff to Pakistan.

As had been the case earlier, few agencies were prepared to lose their programmes in Afghanistan, especially as the capture of Mazar i Sharif and Hazarajat in the weeks following the NGO retreat from Kabul had limited the options for working in areas outside Taliban control. Most agencies soon started negotiating terms for their return to Kabul and, forming a consortium, they met a demand that they deposit money into an account to cover the costs of the repairs to the polytechnic buildings, where work soon began. As a condition of the agencies’ return to Kabul and reopening of their offices and programmes, the Taliban insisted that they all sign statements agreeing to relocate to the polytechnic. Few refused. However, concern for the security of international staff following the death of Lieutenant Calo (see Chapter 4) meant that it was months before most NGOs fully returned to Kabul. By the time they did, the Taliban had moved military personnel into the now partially refurbished polytechnic buildings, leaving the NGOs free to return to their original offices. In the aftermath of this episode, the more seasoned aid workers reflected that a different strategy might have got them to the same place with a lot less trouble. Although lessons were clearly learned within the NGO community, the same was not the case with UN headquarters, which pushed for ‘tough’ stands in subsequent standoffs with the Taliban.

The UN and the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan

The many difficulties the assistance community experienced in trying to work out how to relate to the Taliban coincided with a growing concern about the evident failure of international political, assistance and human rights strategies to work effectively in the cause of peace in Afghanistan. At the same time the UN was struggling with the wider issue of what role it should play globally in countries with longrunning conflicts. This had already prompted the Secretary General to consider proposals for systemwide reform (Macrae and Leader 2000), as part of which a decision was taken to use Afghanistan to test an innovative approach in the form of a Strategic Framework for Afghanistan. In seeking to link the political and assistance efforts, the underlying assumption was that an impartial political strategy could be pursued. The cost of this became clear only later. Acknowledging that the system did not know if assistance was part of the problem or the solution, the Strategic Framework set out a series of objectives, based on common ‘rightsbased’ principles which were endorsed by the UN and donors alike. These principles represented the terms on which international assistance could be provided in the country, and stated that assistance should not be subject to any form of discrimination. In asserting that cooperation would be extended only to authorities that ‘fully supported’ the principles contained in the UN Charter, the Strategic Framework attempted, on the Afghan stage at least, to transform what had started as ad hoc reactions to discrimination into a coherent systemwide policy (UN 1998b).

Integral to the Strategic Framework from the beginning, and later to be elevated to the status of one of its three pillars (the other two being politics and assistance), the concept of rights was always key to attempts to define a principled stance in negotiating with the Taliban. Rights became the lens through which assistance was viewed, whether it was the question of humanitarian space (the right to assistance) or discrimination against women.

Behind the response to the string of edicts issued by the authorities in Kabul and Qandahar lay a game of game of catandmouse, as aid workers looked into the implications of restrictions, while testing the resolve of the authorities to enforce them. This is perhaps best illustrated by the furore that surrounded the edict issued early in 1998 that required expatriate Muslim women working in Afghanistan to be accompanied by a male relative or mahram-as was already the case for their Afghan colleagues. Within the international community, there were those who held that the mere application for a visa for an expatriate Muslim woman was unacceptable (even though all visitors needed a visa) as it risked discrimination because the Taliban might ask for her mahram to be identified. Meanwhile, those who were trying to negotiate the revocation of the edict were quietly assured by their Taliban interlocutors that the requirement was unworkable and would not be applied. The issue of a visa in June 1999 to the (Muslim) gender adviser for the UN without any question of a mahram suggested that the Taliban had again provided the rope with which the aid community tied itself in knots.

With the spotlight on the behaviour of the Taliban, acts of war came under increasing scrutiny. The issue of scorchedearth tactics in the Shamali plains north of Kabul during 1999 illustrates some of the problems encountered in trying to put this rights focus into practice. The rich, densely populated Shamali plains, which straddle the road north from Kabul, had been devastated in fighting between the Soviets and the resistance after 1979 and had witnessed widespread displacement. While there had been a significant return of refugees during the mid1990s, the continuing conflict in the area had discouraged extensive reconstruction. As fighting intensified along the frontlines at the end of July 1999, residents of the affected areas fled north to the Panjshir or south to Kabul. Both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance appealed to the international community for support in assisting these displaced people. The numbers involved lent credence to the stories of those displaced of forcible clearances of villages by Taliban fighters. Worse still, there were reports of the systematic burning of homes and vineyards, as well as the felling of fruit trees, apparently to render the area uninhabitable.

As was routine, the UN issued calls for both sides to show restraint; it also added its specific concerns for the protection of civilians. Prompted by the Northern Alliance’s claims of 200,000 displaced people in the Panjshir valley, the initial focus of the relief efforts was on the largely Tajik population who had been displaced north. The figures were, however, soon found to be a gross exaggeration-the actual numbers were in the tens of thousands. The Alliance also portrayed the Taliban advance as an act of ethnic cleansing, despite the fact that many Pashtun communities had also been forced out of their villages in the Shamali plains.

Meanwhile, some 30,000 people had made their way either on foot from the southern side of the frontlines in Shamali to Kabul, or had been trucked there by the Taliban. Most found refuge with relatives in the city. The fraught experience of managing camps for the displaced during the interfactional fighting of the mid1990s prompted aid agencies in Kabul to refuse requests from the Taliban to establish camps for those fleeing Shamali. Moreover, in setting up camps, they feared being accused of facilitating forced displacement. While UN field staff tried to extract from the Taliban guarantees that the villagers might return to their homes in Shamali as a precondition for providing assistance to those sheltering with families, those with nowhere to go were brought by the Taliban to the compound of the former USSR embassy in southern Kabul. Faced with this, aid agencies could do little but attempt to render the bleak ruins of the embassy blocks habitable for 13,000 of the displaced, most of whom were ethnic Pashtuns. The embassy site, which became a focus in the city for visiting delegations, divided the humanitarian community between those who perceived the relief effort as an uncomplicated response to need and a vindication of core humanitarian principles, and those who felt that as the Taliban had caused the problem they should deal with the consequences. One of the few issues on which the Taliban and those aid agencies who agreed to assist families in the embassy compound agreed was on exclusion of the press, which they feared would run stories of agencies being complicit in forced depopulation. No such concerns, it seems, troubled visitors to the second compound for the displaced, set up by the Northern Alliance in an unused textile factory on the north side of the frontlines.

For the Kabuli families who took in the majority of the displaced there were no such dilemmas. They had themselves sought refuge in Shamali during the turmoil in Kabul after 1992 and it was a straightforward obligation to look after those in need. As one elderly woman arriving in Kabul, having lost the village house that had only five years earlier been a refuge for her relatives from Kabul, said ruefully: ‘My house is nothing; we rebuilt it after it was destroyed by the communists and again after the mujahideen and shall do the same after the Taliban; what is important is family.’

Trying to engage It was in the midst of this confusion that a UN team was despatched to Kabul in May 1999 to try to reach agreement with the authorities on an operational framework for UN agency activities in the country. The very initiation of negotiations on a Memorandum of Understanding (UN 1998a) with the Taliban was regarded by some as an accommodation with unacceptable values. On the other hand, there were those who genuinely believed that guarantees from the Taliban of appropriate levels of operational independence would allow access to vulnerable populations. In many ways both parties needed some form of agreement. The Taliban needed to maintain what they perceived as an appropriate level of control in order to ensure that assistance activities were carried out without contravening Islamic traditions. The UN, on the other hand, needed to show that ‘principled’ engagement could result in a relaxation of the more intrusive restrictions, including the ban on female employment and education. Although the gulf between the two positions was clear, the Taliban needed the UN, which in turn needed a written agreement on which to base continued activities in the face of increased political hostility towards the regime. The memorandum, which was negotiated over ten days between the UN and Taliban teams, was distinguished as much by substantive differences in the English and Pashtun versions of the document-the latter intended to mollify the Taliban’s hardline constituency-as by the common ground that it staked out.

Few in the aid community were happy with the memorandum. Certain of its provisions, such as Article 13 that stated that ‘women’s access to, and participation in health and education, will need to be gradual’, were met with righteous indignation. Even though this gradualist approach represented the reality of the situation on the ground-where universal access was clearly not feasible overnight, as much because of shortage of resources as restrictions-the wording was perceived to be a betrayal of international human rights standards (Physicians for Human Rights 2001).

In many ways, the controversy that followed the signing of the memorandum was rather convenient for the Taliban, for whom the very notion of a written agreement with the UN, no matter how vaguely worded, was something of an anathema. In the ensuing discussions, which went on for months, about the implementation of its provisions, they were justifiably able to claim that the international community could not agree on what they wanted for Afghanistan.

The continuing failure of the UN to sort out either its position or its tactics was borne out by yet another longstanding controversy, this time regarding widows’ bakeries. Believing that there were a significant proportion of vulnerable femaleheaded households in need in urban areas-particularly when formal employment was ruled out under the Taliban-the aid community directed a significant amount of assistance to them.

Unfortunately, international workers failed to understand Afghan social relations. The Afghan custom is for a widow to be remarried to a close relative of her late husband, or simply taken in by relatives. They therefore were not in need of food assistance simply because of loss of a husband. But twenty years of war and associated relief efforts have taught Afghans that the way to obtain relief is to define yourself into whatever category is currently receiving the goods. So if the international community were giving food to ‘widows’, Afghans were quite prepared to define their social categories (though not their practice) accordingly. It was, of course, very difficult to distinguish who was a real widow with no family support and who was a widow in a, quite possibly welloff, family group.

Over and above this, there was evidence of serious corruption within WFP, including widows’ bakeries cards being sold by their own staff. The scale of abuse was such that it was picked up by representatives of the Taliban who-even though it was hardly in their interests-urged WFP to undertake a review of beneficiaries, to enable resources to be used more effectively.

Feeding widows had, however, become the UN’s symbol of what was possible in the face of Taliban intransigence and was therefore sacrosanct. Although both ICRC and CARE had acknowledged similar problems with their own feeding programmes and had taken action to clean out the corruption, the World Food Programme resisted calls to review the beneficiary lists-a cleanup that risked drastically reducing the scale of a programme that was portrayed as a lifeline for Afghans in the city. By the summer of 2000, the issue had become a source of real contention, with WFP finally acknowledging the need for reassessment of beneficiary lists, but arguing that the severity of the drought justified a more liberal attitude to food distribution. In summer 2001, in the face of growing evidence of malpractice, WFP agreed to resurvey on condition that its own female staff would carry out the housetohouse surveys. Pointing out that it was WFP staff who were in fact part of the problem, the Taliban proposed the involvement of surveyors from the Ministry of Public Health, who had undertaken similar joint surveys with, among others, the ICRC. WFP refused, and publicly threatened to close the programme. Despite the likely impact that this might have on legitimate beneficiaries of the urban feeding programme, the Taliban called the UN’s bluff and announced that they would attempt to identify alternative sources of food. With their flagship programme in jeopardy, WFP overnight found the ability to compromise.

An alien way of looking at the world

“So much more do they attend to granting favours than respecting rights.” (Elphinstone 1815)

In the absence of meaningful political dialogue, aid programmes had by the second half of the 1990s become the lens through which the world viewed the country, and their values were the yardstick against which Afghans-and specifically the Taliban-were to be measured. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the ideology of rights that was at the heart of the first major confrontation between the Taliban regime and the international community, and which remained central throughout.

The claim of the human rights movement is that its values are universal. Yet this is a concept of human rights that stems from a peculiarly western, individualist view of the world. A person is seen as an individual agent and his or her rights are conceived in those terms. In Afghanistan, as in many nonwestern countries, a person is embedded in his or her social environment, and rights can be constructed only on this basis. At the most fundamental, these relationships constitute the immediate family and a whole network of close kinship relationships; for some they also constitute the wider network of tribe. Any action by an individual to claim his or her rights has to be judged in relation to its effect on these relationships, a balance struck between what is gained and what is lost. Decisions are structured less by what you want as an individual than by what your family needs or expects of you. We have been struck on more than one occasion by Afghan friends describing how, despite good jobs abroad, they had returned to Afghanistan because of changes in family circumstance. No regret was expressed, or any sense of having done something particularly virtuous; it was just how it was. Duty was followed without question. The issue of responsibilities towards others structures the moral universe more than claims to rights for oneself. Any strategy to increase the rights of individual Afghans needs to acknowledge this, to recognize that moral universes can be structured in different ways that are equally legitimate, though not always compatible.

If we didn’t understand their worldview, they were certainly perplexed by ours. Returning from a first trip to the West, Afghan friends often spoke of their shock at the fact that homeless people are forced on to the streets, or parents committed to institutions in their old age rather than being cared for at home. You do not sleep on the streets here, even in bombedout Kabul; nor do old people die alone. There is puzzlement at westerners’ claims to the higher moral ground on issues of human rights while behaving in their own countries in ways which are perceived to be deeply immoral.

It was not simply that values differed; it was also how concepts such as ‘rights’ and ‘principles’ were presented and negotiated. The Taliban’s refusal to moderate their position over the Logar water project was portrayed by some as a callous disregard for human lives, but the problem lay more in the way in which the differences in belief were handled. Oxfam, like other NGOs, worked within an essentially western framework that believed that the way to get decisions changed was to apply pressure on the party whose behaviour they sought to alter. While politicians and corporations in the West might be susceptible to such tactics, it was to prove completely counterproductive with the Taliban. Not only did they perceive it as an attempt to dictate-rather than negotiate-the terms of engagement of a significant international investment in their country, but the confrontational manner in which the issue was handled made it impossible for the Taliban to change their position without loss of face. In Afghanistan, the successful resolution of problems does not come from confrontation but from negotiation, from a recognition that no one must lose face, from the crafting of a solution designed to appear as if everyone has ‘won’. A change of position is not acknowledged, because that would be to admit fault. Many Taliban edicts were quietly forgotten like this, as with the kites that always fluttered over Kabul despite having been banned. That is how things are resolved, not through the formal revocation of edicts that were too often demanded by agencies that failed to realize that such action was not possible. Seen from this perspective, Oxfam’s demand for formal permission for women to go back to work only ensured that this would never happen.

The aid community’s failure to make progress was also in part due to a pervasive tendency to overestimate its own importance and influence. We often saw ourselves as powerful because of the resources we controlled, and which we believed the Taliban needed in order to build their domestic legitimacy. Yet the amount of money involved was not that great, compared, for example, to the smuggling economy, nor did it speak to those issues that were uppermost on the Taliban agenda. As one study at the time put it: ‘The aid community, from donors to field workers, often seems to have difficulty in seeing beyond its own relatively limited sphere of influence’ (Fielden and AzerbaijaniMoghadam 2001).

Had aid agencies been more able to see themselves as but a small part of a bigger picture, they may have made more progress. They might also have got further had aid workers understood that Afghans saw them as guests in their country; indeed, some aid workers were happier to portray themselves to the outside world as frontline fighters. They were under intense external scrutiny to hold a ‘principled’ position, while at the same time delivering assistance in an environment with as many mixed signals as there were edicts, and where the rules of engagement, on either side, remained far from clear.

The mutual failure of the Taliban and the international community to understand each other, is also vividly illustrated by the contentious issue of the ‘space’ that was claimed for humanitarian action in the country. Previously, in the absence of an assertive central authority, there had been few official limits on the activities of humanitarian groups, which had negotiated with the various factions for access to populations in need. The questionable legitimacy of many ‘counterpart’ commanders was ignored, and their predatory behaviour often perceived simply as the price of working in a warzone. In an effort to reassert Afghan sovereignty in the areas that they controlled, the Taliban were thus faced by aid agencies that believed they had a right to intervene on their own terms, anywhere.

In Afghanistan as elsewhere, aid agencies increasingly used the language of human rights to define their own agenda in other people’s countries. The notion that there might in fact be common ground to be explored between the principled approach of the aid community and the values espoused by the Taliban was inconvenient, given how much was by now invested in the differences. Unwittingly in many cases, there was as much energy spent on widening the gaps between ‘them’ and ‘us’ as on working towards a common cause.

The nature of the human rights discourse itself also contributed to the problem, particularly around the contentious issue of protection. Human rights activists tended to see only the immediate situation, and to define those affected as individual victims in need of protection. But in the context of the widespread abuse of civilians during the Afghan conflict, the situation was usually more complicated than that. There were certainly many victims, but they, or their fathers, husbands or sons, were often also complicit in the fighting, or they were associated with groups that had committed earlier acts of atrocity, and therefore were targets for revenge. This is not to suggest that revenge does not constitute abuse, but to acknowledge the need to understand that layers of conflict, abuse and dispossession often overlap, and to be evenhanded in condemnation.

The second difficulty was that international human rights standards were developed in relation to territorial wars between state armies, where there was a clear distinction between military and civilians. But in Afghanistan, as with other examples of what have been termed ‘new’ wars or ‘network’ wars (Duffield 2001b), the conflict had dissolved boundaries between people, army and government. In the context of loose affiliations that made up the armed groups, the customary distinctions between military/civilian and combatant/noncombatant became blurred.

The final, and perhaps most serious, problem was that rights quickly became another item in the toolbox of those who were party to Afghanistan’s wars. The Afghans were savvy political actors and it didn’t take them long to work out that ‘rights’ was a button they could press to draw attention to their cause-as was exemplified by the accusations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Shamali. Wellmeaning human international rights workers who knew little of the country and spoke even less of its languages were easy to lead by the nose. Rights thus became corrupted into a tool of war, manipulated with considerable success by some parties to the conflict.

Just as the West’s morality often puzzled the Afghans, so too did their approach to the restoration of law and order. If there was one basic right that those who had lived through the reign of terror exercised by the mujahideen groups between 1992 and 1995 wanted to realize, it was the right to basic security. Public executions in the sports stadium in Kabul, which had frequently been staged to popular acclaim during the mujahideen era, suddenly became a symbol to the outside world of Taliban inhumanity. Many Afghans, however, supported the Taliban’s hardline approach towards law and order. While undeniably often carried out without due process, the summary justice that was meted out seemed to represent the only way to halt the predatory violence of the factions. In the absence of functioning courts and legal systems, due process was clearly a distant prospect. A person has, perhaps, to have lived with real fear to comprehend why the denial of rights to a few people was considered a small price to pay for the restoration of law and order. In a country where the judicial system had largely broken down, the question became the very basic one of: their right to a fair trial, or our right to live in safety in our homes? Yet despite the fact that the Taliban’s uncompromising approach towards law and order rendered much of the country safe, the absence of due legal process was seized upon as an excuse to characterize them as savage. Their adherence to shari’a law was also held up by some as evidence of their barbarity, although when it was the stated policy of the previous administration it had passed without comment.

The attitude of the international community to the justice issue was also at times simply confused. When a UN military observer was assassinated in Kabul in 1998, the day after the US missile attack on Khost, the Taliban were urged to bring the culprits to justice. Indeed, among other issues, this was one of the preconditions for discussions about the return of UN expatriate staff evacuated from the country in response to the incident. When the alleged culprits were identified and the Taliban leadership offered to hand them over to the UN, they were told that they should be dealt with according to Afghan law. When the death sentence (which had been on the statute book for murder well before the Taliban) was passed on the culprits, the UN were faced with the prospect of an execution in their name. The issue was quietly dropped.

Could it have been different?

For those of us who worked in Afghanistan during the Taliban years, the question remains: could we have played it better? If we had started from a greater understanding of how things worked, rather than determinedly trying to bend a proud people to our version of the world, would we have got further? Often we made it more difficult for the more moderate elements within the Taliban to deliver because we insisted on proclaiming victory. We also placed key Afghan staff who were the translators and interlocutors with the Taliban in an impossible position.

What if, for example, instead of confronting the problem of restrictions on healthcare facilities for women headon, we had paid more attention to the potential of exploring the notion of femaleonly spaces? After all, western feminists have clamoured for years for the right to female doctors in their own countries. Similarly, given that western researchers have long argued that females perform better when education is provided in girlsonly classes, could we have better explored opportunities for the negotiation of segregated facilities? Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, credited the strict dress code and segregation of the sexes at university with opening the doors to emancipation, saying that once universities became places where fathers could send their daughters without worrying about ‘moral corruption’, then society began to change (Guardian, 10 November 2003).

In Afghanistan we rushed to defend the right to mixed facilities. The Taliban, it was assumed, were just making a rhetorical commitment to femaleonly provision, with no intention of actually implementing it, and those donors and agencies who considered such options were condemned as ‘accommodationist’. While the Taliban (or at least some of the Taliban, for like any other movement they were rarely all of one voice) may well have just been saying these things, they were hardly unique in this; most people playing a political game have a tendency to massage the truth they present to their constituency. The question remains, could we have achieved more by taking them at face value and trying to establish wellresourced femaleonly services? Certainly there was a problem, in that little existed in the way of femaleonly provision and to deny access to mixed facilities at times meant denying access to anything at all. But there were also indications that by negotiating step by step, facility by facility, by basing arguments in Islamic discourse and choosing words carefully, it was possible to make progress. One example was the nursing college in Jalalabad, where the local health authorities, faced with the prospect of a dwindling number of trained staff, found ways to resume admission of female trainees by ensuring segregation of courses. Despite the opportunity that this represented for Afghan women to receive better care, acknowledged by many Afghan professionals at the time, attempts by WHO to support the courses were greeted at the time with dismay by some expatriates.

Should we also, as Nancy Dupree suggests, have talked more to men?

“If men do not understand what you are doing with the women they are going to come up with some bizarre ideas. I remember a health project among the refugees where the women had six weeks of basic training. At the end of the training each graduate was given a plastic basin and a cake of soap. Immediately, the men were grumbling: ‘What are they doing in there? They are training our women to be prostitutes! Why else would they need a basin and a bar of soap?!’…If the women cannot go to the bazaar to buy soap, you must depend on the men of the household to do it. And if he does not understand the importance of it, he isn’t going to buy the soap. The emphasis must be on the whole family, not on individuals.” (Dupree 1998: 13-14)

The history of reform for women in Afghanistan is as old as the history of the state, and as contentious. Notions of female emancipation have long been associated with foreign interference, and have not only met with fierce resistance from tribal leaders but have not infrequently led to the downfall of the regime sponsoring change. More than a century ago, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) introduced the first laws to attempt to align customary practice with Islam (Dupree 1984: 306). Using the dictates of the Qur’an, he forbade child marriages, forced marriages, the levirate (marriage of a widow to her deceased husband’s brother), exorbitant brideprices and marriage gifts. He upheld hereditary rights for widows and ruled that women could seek divorce. Despite this, customary practices prevailed. Amanullah, grandson of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, took reform further, advocating monogamy, the removal of the veil, the end of seclusion and compulsory education for girls. He even supported higher education for females; and in October 1928, for the first time in Afghanistan’s history, a number of women went abroad, to Turkey, to study nursing. Both Amanullah’s wife and his sister spoke out publicly on the subject of equality for women. Speaking at the 1927 Independence celebrations, Queen Suraya said:

“Independence has been achieved. It belongs to all of us…Do not think, however, that our nation needs only men to serve it. Women should also take part as women did in the early years of Islam. The valuable services rendered by women are recounted throughout history, from which we learn that women were not created solely for pleasure and comfort. From their examples we learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam.” (quoted in Dupree 1984: 308)

Afghan history is indeed full of accounts of heroic women whose actions and words rallied men at times of national crisis. From writer and political adviser Zaynab, daughter of Mirwais Hotak, standing at the bastion of Qandahar with her brothers when the city was besieged by the Persians, to Malalai holding her banner aloft at the battle of Maiwand in 1880 to prevent the tribal armies from retreating from the British, the poet heroine is an enduring symbol. Conservative leaders were not, however, much impressed with the lessons of history and they revolted against Amanullah. His successor, the Tajik Bacha i Saqao, insisted that women return behind the veil and it was to be thirty years before this imposition was once again removed.

The 1950s saw progress in schools and healthcare for women and the 1964 constitution gave them for the first time the right to vote. Increasing numbers of educated women began working in government and all manner of businesses (though, unlike southern Asia, not in manual labour, as this would dishonour both her and the male relative who let her do such a thing). Nevertheless, most urban women were still secluded even in the 1970s, and the changes had little impact on the countryside. While many women continued to exert influence, most did it indirectly through the men in their family. Many of the moves for reform continued to be spearheaded by progressive men, and there was little in the way of an indigenous women’s movement (Dupree 1984).

Undercurrents of dissent continued to exist. In 1968 conservative members of parliament proposed a law prohibiting females from studying abroad, and in 1970 two conservative mullahs protested at public signs of the emancipation of women by shooting at the legs of women in western dress and splashing them with acid. It was not the last time such things were to happen, for at least one Afghan woman working on women’s education in Peshawar in the 1990s had acid thrown in her face.
Despite the opposition, progress continued until the Saur Revolution of 1978, though much of it remained confined to Kabul. With the PDPA’s takeover of power, women, especially young women, were mobilized to serve ‘the cause’, and in the internal struggles within the Communist Party women’s issues were used by both sides in their claims to ascendancy. But reform ran ahead of society. Even in the urban areas people were shocked at the dress and behaviour of some women, while in the rural areas the campaign to eradicate illiteracy proved to be the spark that lit the fire of jihad: men were not having their women herded into literacy classes, and especially not mixed literacy classes. As the various mujahideen groups battled for power, between themselves and later against the Taliban, women’s honour and their position in society again became mobilized as a rallying call.

Maybe a more careful reading of Afghan history would have taught us that change cannot be forced, from the outside or from within. The description by David Edwards (2002) of how the ultimate failure in Afghanistan of both the communist regime and its enemies was at least in part due to their failure to learn the lessons of the past, applied as much to the international community as to Afghans: ‘There were many such lessons, including one about how Afghans treat outsiders who try to control their homeland and another about how they feel when people in authority interfere in their domestic affairs.’

This does not mean that Afghanistan is a society locked in its past, incapable of change. The same Afghans who fought a jihad against the communists in part because they forced through policies for educating girls, could, twenty years later, when faced with the rules of the Taliban, be heard defending the rights of their granddaughters to education. When asked why, most spoke of the experience of receiving education as refugees in Pakistan or Iran, of how it opened people’s eyes from the narrow confines of their valleys. Change came because people saw for themselves, and made a choice.

The legacy of confrontation

The legacy of this confrontation remains with us to this day. The demonizing of the Taliban, as part of the campaign to justify the overthrow of the regime, has created a caricature of all who stand in the way of the new order. Not only have the battlelines been drawn between the forces of conservatism and those of enlightenment, but dissenters are portrayed as the embodiment of all that is wrong with Afghanistan.

The confrontation led to an oversimplification of complex issues. Nowhere was this more clearly shown than with the controversy surrounding women’s rights. Restrictions came to be seen simply as an imposition of the Taliban, a result of their obscurantist version of Islam. The underlying logic was that once the Taliban had gone, so too would the restrictions. This notion underpinned most outsiders’ thinking on the issue, even though many aid workers would, if challenged, admit that it was not quite this straightforward. Not only were many of the restrictions rooted in practices that had long prevailed within the more conservative elements of Afghan society, but war had made Afghanistan more conservative. Even in urban areas many women could not go back to what they were doing ten years ago, and younger women in particular were likely to face restrictions. For many women, for example, a mahram was necessary if they were to travel; not because of the Taliban restriction but because their family demanded it. Now in postTaliban Afghanistan, the edicts have gone but the restrictions remain, and some of the agencies that in the past shouted loudest about women’s rights have failed to provide the conditions that would enable Afghan women to work. Consideration of where female staff would stay when they went to the field, or if they were asked to relocate to somewhere outside their home area, were simply not addressed by most agencies.

It is, perhaps, telling that the burqa, the compelling signifier of rights denied under the Taliban, remains an enduring symbol of what has not changed in the new Afghanistan. Images of shrouded women flooded the western press during that period, but the ubiquitous blue garments are still inconveniently visible. Even the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice remains, albeit that its methods of enforcement are now more subtle. Many women still wear the burqa out of custom, or say they have just come to feel more comfortable that way, but for many there is no choice, they say simply, ‘We do not feel safe’. Even educated women do not always feel they can choose. Dr Annise Gul, a medical doctor and powerful defender of women’s rights, now in charge of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Badakhshan province, sheds her burqa only once within the safety of her clinic or office. When asked if she still has to wear it, she smiles ruefully, and says in a matteroffact way ‘We do’.

The legacy of confrontation also lies in opportunities wasted. The sheer amount of time and effort spent on the catandmouse game of principles with the Taliban was enormous. But time was not the only price. Expressing outrage may be cathartic, but it does not relieve anyone of responsibility to those who suffer. While there is no question that many of the Taliban’s actions and policies constituted a denial of rights and were, both to many Afghans and by international standards, unacceptable, the strategy and tactics that were employed in the cause of change were all too often not those that were likely to benefit Afghans. As the UN’s senior human rights adviser noted: ‘Taliban gender politics had unleashed an aid agency gender war that was characterized by unending battles, skirmishes, and propaganda that further complicated the task of defining-and giving effect to-a workable policy framework’ (Niland 2003: 19).

The value in UNICEF’s denial for five years, in the name of principles, of support to education for Afghans inside the country came to be questioned by Afghan women and men who failed to see the logic of a policy that deprived boys of education in retribution for the Taliban denying this to girls. ‘How’, they asked, ‘will a generation of uneducated Afghan men help in promoting women’s rights?’ ‘Wasn’t the lack of education in the refugee camps one reason so many boys went to the madrasas, the very institutions that helped to form the attitudes of the Taliban?’

Women’s rights was not the only place where there was a price to pay. Western handling of the human rights issues connected with the war took a heavy toll on the West’s claims to impartiality. In trying to link its humanitarian and political work, the UN increasingly jeopardized the humanitarian effort. By the time that the coalition declared war, the ground had been laid for animosity towards an assistance community that was seen as partial.1 Just as the Taliban had become evil to the West, so too had western agencies become the enemy to them. The price for this is being paid today: UN and NGO staff are seen as legitimate targets for attack because they are deemed to be complicit with the US project.


  1. That the first international aid worker to be killed was an ICRC staff member sadly does not detract from this argument as, for all ICRC’s cherished and wellmaintained impartiality, neutrality and independence, at the end of the day we are all viewed in the same light.

(Source: Chris Johnson & Jolyon Leslie, “AFGHANISTAN: The Mirage Of Peace,” Zed Books, London – New York, 2004)

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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