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The Biggest Danger to Women's Rights in Afghanistan

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When people in the US talk about the scourge of violence against women in Afghanistan, discussion tends to stop cold at one word: culture. As if culture is some sacred terrain upon which we dare not tread. The flawed syllogism goes like this: misogyny is endemic to Afghan culture. We can’t criticize that culture without reinforcing a racist agenda and justifying US military intervention. Therefore, we can’t take a stand against misogynist violence in Afghanistan.

We can argue the assumptions embedded in that logic, but ultimately, the culture conversation misses the point. Afghan culture may be misogynist, but so is every culture. There’s nothing unique about the suffocation of women’s potential to live as full human beings, backed up by extreme violence and justified by religion and nature. The difference between Afghanistan and any other place is the extent to which women have succeeded in winning rights and transforming culture in the process.

What, then, is obstructing progress for Afghan women? For one thing, women who seek to exercise their basic rights are systematically hunted down and killed. A new United Nations report grimly confirms what women in Afghanistan have been telling us all year: women are being harassed and even assassinated for holding jobs, speaking out for their rights or simply appearing in public without a male chaperone. Women politicians, teachers, nurses, artists, aid workers, journalists and other professionals are being targeted by ultra-conservatives aiming to create a society in which women have no rights and no role in public life.

Despite the danger, Afghan women continue to demand their rights. Remember the hundreds of women who took to the streets of Kabul in April? They took their lives in their hands to protest a new law sanctioning marital rape.

Ultimately, though, Afghan women’s prospects for transforming their society are undermined by the US-led war. In fact, many Afghan women activists identify the war as the biggest danger to women’s rights in Afghanistan

Over the past eight years, uncounted numbers of women and their family members have been killed, displaced and terrorized. The war has had a disproportionate impact on women, who have had to sustain family life and meet everyone’s needs for food, water, childcare and a host of other services through years of violence, constant insecurity and grinding poverty. In addition to endangering women’s lives, the war has eroded the political space for women to advocate for their rights.

That’s why the Feminist Majority Foundation’s endorsement of the US war in Afghanistan is so perplexing. The FMF rightly argues that the US owes a tremendous debt to the people of Afghanistan, having induced 30 years of war and misery there. They’ve got the history right, but the conclusion wrong. US guns, bombs and military occupation cannot bring about a society based on human rights. However, a US commitment to education, sustainable agriculture and equitable economic development just might.

Those kinds of policies are what’s needed to reinforce a beleaguered but vibrant Afghan women’s movement, including courageous activists involved in securing food, housing, healthcare and education for women and families, defending women’s shelters, holding peace demonstrations, demanding women’s full participation in public life and fighting for interpretations of Islam that support women’s rights. No foreign military occupation is going to do those things. Afghan women themselves will have to do it.

Through our Afghan Women’s Survival Fund, MADRE is working to support the women who risk their lives to defend women’s human rights.  For more information about the Fund and how you can help, click here.

*Cross-posted on myMADRE.

When one hears a compelling tale of war and loss in Afghanistan from NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson or the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall, one wants to understand where and in what context these stories took place. Some might get a bit confused about how one part of the country is suffering combat while other parts are enjoying revival.

Here is a quick reference guide to Afghanistan, region by region, which should help Afghan Watchers better understand how war and peace coexist in the tumultuous country as of July 2009. (Map link coming soon)

US-led International and Afghan forces pursue a strategy of consolidating control over the central region, then pushing south and east into traditional Taliban strongholds, under-staffing the north since it is traditionally anti-Taliban. However, the Taliban have a counter-strategy of avoiding frontlines altogether, attacking politicians, police stations and military convoys in all parts of the country including the north. The insurgent strategy at first seems illogical. Why waste costly weapons and valuable manpower attacking areas of the north they can’t possibly woo? Well, imagine what would happen if 30,000 US forces currently concentrated on 19 provinces are forced to re-distribute 5 or 6 more provinces without any additional troops? Their current strongholds will be under-staffed and therefore more vulnerable. To complicate this forward probability is the suggestion by many Afghans that the presence of the international forces is itself one reason many otherwise impartial young men join the insurgency. Here are some recent articles which sum up the regions.

NATIONAL. Troop Surge across the central region and eastern and southern fronts:  

SOUTHERN FRONT. “Helmandis Braced for Taleban Battle”:  

ONCE PEACEFUL NORTH. “Insurgency Gaining Ground in Afghan North”:  

Central Government Strongholds Still Facing Resistance

The Afghan Government’s center of power is in the long-time capitol, Kabul. US-led international forces remain focused on holding Kabul despite continued terror attacks and raids by Taliban insurgents. Meanwhile, large swaths of the central mountainous region remain under Afghan government control with Afghan and international security bases, but continue to suffer hit-and-run attacks by insurgents based in the rural areas. Here life is cyclical. During the winter as insurgent attacks dissipate, many people are optimistic enough to invest in new enterprises, plan their future. But each spring, insurgent attacks return, Afghan troops block roads to search vehicles, leading to a tense mood through autumn.

KABUL. Nadene Ghoury reports for PBS Frontline World, “Afghanistan: Law and Order”:  

PANJSHIR, WARDAK, GHAZNI, ZABUL, PARWAN, KAPISA, NURISTAN, NANGARHAR. While the central government controlled provinces range from Panjshir, the high valley long-controlled by Tajiks once led by the North Alliance commander Ahmed Massoud which remains behind the government, to Nangarhar, the province hosting a periodically secure roadway through Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass to Pakistan which is sometimes put on high alert for Taliban raids.

The Eastern Front

The mountainous northeastern Afghan-Pakistani border has hosted great shifts in political power since the beginning of Afghanistan’s civil war in 1979. It is important to understand that each mountain valley hosts a different political context with some communities attempting to remain neutral, others trying to placate all sides in the conflict to avoid destruction, and others remaining steadfast partners with one of the fighting sides. While local farming and herding communities have often remained rooted on their land for decades, if not centuries, the fighting groups tend to migrate in and out depending on their battlefield successes and failures. Most commonly, Taliban fighters, sometimes backed by Al Qaeda advisors or partners, will meet with councils of elders for each of the isolated highland communities and try to woo them to their side until US-backed Afghan forces compel them to flee for safety in the nearby Tribally-Administered autonomous areas of northwest Pakistan.

KUNAR & KHOST. Here’s an interesting US military dispatch series which presents the region from that perspective, Matt Dupee’s Long War Journal:  


The Southern Front
After an initial focus on the Taliban base of Kandahar and long-time capitol of Kabul in 2001, US-led international and Afghan forces put the brunt of their fight on the eastern border with Pakistan. By 2009, a revised surge strategy has led to Operation Khanjar, a broad campaign to liberate the southern provinces of Helmand and southern Kandahar from the Taliban. Disputed Uruzgan province may be next.

HELMAND & KANDAHAR. IWPR‘s Dayee and Tassal report “Helmandis Braced for Taliban Battle”:  


Taliban Strongholds in South, Where There are Few International Forces
While US-led international forces have backed Afghan government forces in its struggle to control the northeast, central, and south central parts of the country, Afghan forces still plea for additional international support to secure troubled Farah, where US forces are building a presence, and Nimroz, the remote desert region on the Iranian border where Afghan government forces face the Taliban backed only by a few loyal tribal leaders. This region is best known for the recent, tragic civilian casualty incident in Farah.

FARAH. Jason Motlagh reports on the US airstrike on Farah which went awry, for PBS Frontline World: 

NIMROZ. Few Western journalists are covering this vital, troubled province.

Long-Peaceful Areas in the North and West Now At-Risk for New Conflict
Northern Afghanistan, from the northwestern desert province of Herat to the northeastern alpine province of Badakhshan, has long been anti-Taliban. This is largely because of three reasons. First, the Taliban leadership has long been seen by northern Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hezaras, Kuchis, and Wakhis as an ethnic Pashtun-led organization. Second, northerns tend to have more moderate Islamic views, largely due to tradition but also related to the relations many Tajiks and Uzbeks have with their ethnic brethren in post-Soviet central Asia. Finally, ethnic Tajik and Uzbek strongmen created mini-kingdoms in parts of the north , choosing to treat the Taliban as a foreign political force. While Massoud dominated the Panjshir Valley, Rabbani dominated the northern provinces of Takhar, and Badakhshan, Dostum ran Mazar/Balkh, and so on. Today, times have changed as many young men without income or future prospects are becoming angry at the presence of foreign troops and considering joining the insurgency.

KUNDUZ & JOWZJAN. IWPR’s Abdul Latif Sahak reports that the Taliban have taken the town of Chahrdara, Kunduz, and threaten Jowzjan in a region formerly assumed to be solidly pro-government:  

HERAT. Jason Motlagh reports on under-reported civilian casualty incidents in areas including Herat for Time Magazine:,8599,1900842,00.html  


As time marches on, one will very likely see the political situation evolve, so stay tuned to changes to the above summary.
NPR's David Gilkey journeyed with US Marines and other photojournalists out to the frontline only to be trapped by endless firefights. Miraculously, despite repeated ambushes, few of any foreign troops or journalists were killed. Check out the first dispatch sent by cell phone:  
Karzai is a Pashtun, of the Durrani tribe. Hekmatyar is a Pashtun-Kharoti. Academics and journalists love to throw these details out to add context to a story. But what does it mean politically for Afghanistan and its people’s pursuit of peace? Here’s a quick guide to how Afghanistan’s tribal leadership, justice and dispute resolution system works, with links to the best related online media:

Marakas, Jirgas, and Shuras, Oh My

The Pashtun, Tajik, Hezara, Baluchi, Kuchi, Turkmen, and other ethnic groups of Afghanistan share a traditional societal structure academics call “segmentary lineage”. Others call it “tribal society.” Like many Arabs, Punjabis, Somalis, Chechens, and other groups, the people of Afghanistan have a long reliable path to peace in their traditional dispute resolution mechanism, which functions along their network of traditional tribes and clans which is, collectively, more powerful than the fledgling government. Yet many global decision-makers postpone talk with the tribal network and focus first on the state at risk of forging a law or agreement no one plans to follow.

When an Afghan family runs into a challenge—a wedding, birth, harvest, murder, rape, fistfight, stolen chicken, discovery of an alien spaceship, or what-have-you—the father does not go first to the state police or mayor, he typically goes to his bloodline elder.

Depending on the difficulty of the challenge or dispute, the elder may decide to elevate the issue to the bloodline village council (maraka, in Pashtun), the tribal council representing the local collection of related tribal clans of the same language group (qawmi jirga, in Pashtun), or even an ad hoc regional council (shura). If there is an issue of great national importance, either for a single ethnic group or across ethnic groups, the leading elders may call a grand national council hearing (loya jirga). Tajiks and others typically use the Arabic word, majlis, for similar councils.

Only if the traditional bloodline representatives, applying traditional or customary law (Pashtuns call theirs the narkh; and their sub-code for personal behavior, pashtunwali) with the aid of their Islamic advisor (most follow the Hanafi school, but the ultra-conservative Taliban follow a Salafist code), will the elders bring the issue to the state. Here’s a great introduction to the Pashtun traditional dispute resolution system, followed by a link to a list of Pashtun tribes:

Tribal Alliances and Relations with Fighting Groups

Knowing how to quickly navigate the tribal network from the bottom-up has enabled the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and many mujahedin groups before them to secure the loyalties of, or some would say to blackmail, local leaders much faster and for longer periods than foreign armies and urban bureaucrats, who typically negotiate from the top-down, have been able to.

However, since 2003, the ruling government of Afghanistan has teamed up with NATO and aid agencies to carry out an enormous, hybrid civilian-military collaboration with tribal councils called the “National Solidarity Programme” (NSP). It is one of the largest efforts in history of an international force seeking to rapidly merge or interweave traditional, Islamic, and state representational and justice systems in a country. See more about the NSP, followed by how the Afghan government is structured, here:

Many tribal leaders now get a chance to hear presentations not only from the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or unrelated aid agencies operating in the area. They now also get contrasting series of Powerpoint seminars from NSP aid workers as well as the Afghan government which hopes integrating the tribal with the state will enable Kabul to forge and secure alliances more successfully than the Taliban.

Difficult Choices for Local Leaders

It ain't as easy as choosing between liberal economic opportunity and an ultra-conservative Stone-Age poverty. Frontline village leaders along the Afghan-Pakistani and Afghan-Iranian border often face a harrowing choice which could lead to their community’s salvation or destruction.

Even if a village leader wishes to pursue peace or even join one side in a conflict, his first loyalty must typically be to his community’s tribal affiliation. Collectively, the tribal alliances then must choose whether to pick a side, remain neutral, or pretend to be on the side of whomever shows up that day.

The NSP/Government or Taliban delegations typically come as political or even as humanitarian missions. They park their cars by the hard top highway and hike up a narrow mountain path, lugging laptops, hand books, and rifles (though aid workers with the NSP usually do not and should not go armed) until they reach the outer line of farmers or herders.

The first local man to spot the delegation goes himself or sends his son up to the head of the maraka, a traditional bloodline council of elders, who either calls a militia to scare the delegation away or, more often, prepares a place for the council to host the group for tea.

The first group to query the local council before any major fighting erupts in the area is usually the Taliban. Sometimes there is rumored to be a representative from Al Qaeda. The Taliban delegation knows how the traditional law and decision-making process works and they are led from the battlefield; that is why they are the first to make their plea. They argue in their special way how the local tribal group, and its autonomous militia, should support the Taliban for God, country, etc, or face mysterious fate, x.

Then the combined NSP team arrives, a bit higher tech, a bit less armed, to make their case. Where the Taliban offers salvation, the NSP team offers economic integration and greater regional decision-making power.

At this point, if the tribal leaders choose to be neutral, they will continue to get approached from both sides who may return with greater motivational tools or more painful choices. If the tribal leaders pick one side, very likely the next months will bring some form of violence form the side which was rejected. To pretend to be on both sides would guarantee that the winner will remember their support, but to be discovered as a collaborator with the enemy could bring even greater destruction than choosing a side.

While the Afghan government and international forces are relying on the NSP and related civil-military efforts to sell the most attractive package to gain the trust and support of local tribal decision-makers, Pakistan, modeled on Iraq with US backing, is bolstering their offer by offering the tribal councils weapons with which to arm their local militias in exchange for their alliance. Here’s more on that:  

To best comprehend this campaign to win the trust of thousands of local tribal councils, imagine an election campaign in which your community has to vote in a block and whichever party you do not vote for may show up one day and arrest all of the male leaders or simply burn the village down.

If you have more information, preferred links, or would like to discuss this, please add your comments below.
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While Western governments, media-consumers, and soldiers tend to focus their attention on the civil conflict rocking Afghanistan, most Afghans are more concerned with their local markets. The global economic crisis has surely slowed the march toward recovery in the region, but there is another dimension to Afghan market woes, the increasing economic and cultural divide.

This past spring, my Afghan colleagues and I drove down to the Lycee Maryam shopping area in suburban Kabul to buy a suitcase to ship files back to the home office in Washington, SC. My folks back home imagined a rough-neck huddle of street toughs armed with Kalashnikovs selling a bag of beans. But they would be pleasantly shocked to find that Kabul’s markets are modern and growing despite the war.

The otherwise mundane task of buying the suitcase presented a grand opportunity to explore how the market had changed through the war period since my economic research four years earlier. Back then, research I conducted in Kabul, Kunduz, and Tajikistan pointed to a relationship between security barriers and hunger.

Food prices could be affected when the area was isolated due to fighting near the main road, when police extorted bribes from traders, or when opium production raised incomes for some while reducing the local production of affordable food. If you're curious, here are some video snapshots of Kabul’s shopping environment:

The BBC offers a positive view of the Kabul food market:  

Kabul’s old town market, in normal times, with more raw footage:

But here’s the  view of the same market, wintertime, but with bombs bursting:

The Kabul shopping mall is not only a radical departure from the norm, it may be the future:  

And for you economists out there, here’s a means of following staple food prices:

The challenge of the market right after the Taliban’s fall from power was primarily for traders to overcome security risks just to fill markets with mass consumption goods which sustained lives. Traders would risk bringing in what they knew for sure that all families would want to buy: rice, wheat, cooking oil, salt, tea, onion, turnip, lentils, tomatoes, sheep, chicken, auto repair tools and parts, cooking fuel, and then, after the sure things were selling, they’d procure new and diverse products to fill other needs.

The Taliban, in its austere vision of society, had prohibited recorded music, images of humans or animals, and modern conveniences, so from 1996-2001, there were very few fashion, technological, or recreational supplies in the market. By 2004, traders were making up for lost time.

When the Taliban fled to the mountains, and the northern and more moderate members of Afghan society returned to run the marketplace in the early 2000s, the market opened up more broadly to technology, entertainment, and the arts, but supply was of course dependent on how many people were willing and able to buy. This year, as I trekked through the muddy streets from shopping plaza to shopping plaza, I found the market unrecognizable from four years earlier.

Chinese everything can be found now in the shiny malls, Indian actress look up from posters and DVDs. But for those still either committed to the Taliban’s ultra-conservative vision, or convinced they should maintain it for fear of the movement’s wrath upon a potential return to power, the market is a pasture filled with difficult decisions.

What is newly available is often too expensive for those of traditional livelihoods, prohibited to the very religious, or offensive to those who've never seen such things before. While the moderates, former socialists, and the new America-philes are excitedly filling up on the latest technology, DVDs, music, fashion, cafes, wedding palaces, thai food, and frozen dinners, the traditionalists among them are likely furious that they cannot enjoy or afford any of the new windfall. It is one of the daily tensions – economic as well as spiritual – that one sometimes forgets to consider or cover in war reporting when documenting the pursuit of peace and its many political barriers. What do you think?

For more on Afghan market evolution, the BBC still covers it best at  while the UN maintains the best compendium of economic indicators at

What the U.S. Should Do in Afghanistan

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CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans interviews Mariam Nawabi, an Afghan-American attorney, social entrepreneur, and activist about Afghan women and Congress’ rush to pass another $94 billion for war this week. Nawabi is a founding member of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group, a national network of Americans who wish to engage in dialogue with policymakers regarding development and security in Afghanistan. She served as senior adviser to the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce and Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce from February 2006 until April of 2007. From January 2004 to January 2006, she worked at the Embassy of Afghanistan, serving as Commercial & Trade Counsel. This interview was originally published at Huffington Post. 

Afghan Women Are Killed for Demanding their Rights

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Women in Afghanistan are routinely denied basic human rights, including education, healthcare, freedom from violence, and freedom of movement. Afghan women who fight to change this reality are attacked and even assassinated by ultra-conservatives.   

Meanwhile, US airstrikes that kill civilians further endanger Afghan women and their families.  They also increase the power of the Taliban and other reactionary forces as more Afghans turn to them for protection from the United States.

Each woman who is targeted and killed is meant to serve as a warning to any woman who would dare to stand up for her rights. Yet Afghan women continue to do just that.  MADRE is supporting their courageous struggle through our Afghan Women's Survival Fund.

Below, we profile a few of the women who have been killed or threatened for daring to demand their rights.

Call it a Massacre, Not a Mistake

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Yesterday, as many as 150 people were killed by US warplanes while they were huddled in their houses in Farah, Afghanistan.

So today, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with President Obama, US officials in Afghanistan are heading to the site of the latest US massacre.

No Moral High Ground in the "War on Terror"

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On Wednesday and Thursday, May 6 and 7, Barack Obama will host Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the White House for this administration's first trilateral summit.

The Indian news agency, Press Trust, says the summit "is considered to be a crucial element in the US' 'war against terror' in the region, especially in Afghanistan where the US is sending thousands of troops this summer to fight the Taliban."

The Courage of Afghan Girls

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This is the latest in a long line of recent stories demonstrating how threatened the Taliban and other ultra-conservative extremists are by the notion of women's empowerment.

That girls' education is a key to women's empowerment is one of the main lessons of people-centered development policies. Education is a human right of all girls and boys. But girls' education is also the surest way to raise a generation of women who can earn their own income, participate meaningfully in decision-making in their families, communities, and country and go on to become mothers who have a much higher chance of raising healthy, educated children.

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