Afghanistan: Sense of failure, flash of hope

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Anna Mulrine Grobe

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 re-establishment of government control could hardly have been more important. Ms. Naderi is the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, an organisation 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 organisation’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. 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 travelled 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.
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. “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. 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.’ ”
— Courtesy: The CS Monitor