AFGHANISTAN: If There's No Peace in Afghanistan, It's Women Who Will Suffer Most

Friday, October 5, 2012
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

Tuesday's New York Times carried a fascinating article on its front page about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan:

The once ambitious American plans for ending the war are now being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves in the years after most Western forces depart, and to ensure Pakistan is on board with any eventual settlement.

The chances of a functioning peace in Afghanistan have always been slim, but the Obama Administration made its task harder by announcing the 2014 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals.

As I wrote when Obama announced his Afghan strategy in December 2009, the deadline gave the Taliban an incentive to lie low, allow the troop surge to achieve modest gains, wait for the withdrawal to start, and then quickly regain all the territory they'd lost since 2001. The Obama Administration told me and other similarly skeptical journalists that the U.S. would leave behind a peace treaty that precluded such an outcome. But now, the Times reports, Administration and NATO officials are beginning to see that setting the deadline has made negotiating that peace all but impossible:

Critics of the Obama administration say the United States also weakened its own hand by agreeing to the 2014 deadline for its own involvement in combat operations, voluntarily ceding the prize the Taliban has been seeking for over a decade. The Obama administration defends the deadline as crucial to persuading the Afghan government and military to assume full responsibility for the country, and politically necessary for Americans weary of what has already become the country's longest war.

There are a number of implications to a NATO withdrawal that leaves no political settlement behind: continued violence, greater risk of terrorism in South Asia and abroad, resource insecurity.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Times story) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Last week, I had a chance to sit down with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Women, Melanne Verveer, at the Concordia Summit. Her post is a relatively new one, created by Hillary Clinton to give special prominence to women's rights in U.S. foreign policy. “We can't possibly do our foreign policy work unless we recognize the critical role that women play across sectors,” she says.

“As an example, we've made a $3.5 billion commitment to to food security through a program Feed the Future. We recognize that women, small farmers, are the majority of farmers. The FAO found that if resources were equalized, if male and female farmers could have equal access to resources, if that gender gap were closed, the productivity of farmers would be 20-30 percent higher and the output would feed 150 million more people.” But historically, U.S. food aid programs haven't taken the gender of aid recipients into account. Beginning this year, they do.

Among Verveer's chief tasks has been working on the empowerment of Afghan women, through a public-private partnership called the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council that helps Afghan women access American capital and markets. I asked her how that work fits into the broader project of building a stable Afghanistan.

“The necessary thing is to grow Afghanistan's economy,” she said. “It can't get from here to there without growth. What we've been doing [at the Council] is investing directly in women's entrepreneurship, which we know is one of the best investments [for overall growth], to be a catalyst. We are also focused on the region, on the new Silk Road, on the integration of Afghanistan into the economies of its neighbors in Central Asia, India and beyond. There was just a gathering that USAID hosted in India for businesses in Afghanistan. We asked that Afghan women be included in those meetings. We've involved women in [peace talks] in Bonn and Tokyo, and have secured commitment by every country that their aid is predicated on the gains that Afghan women are making.”

Including women in Afghanistan's peace dialogues is particularly critical. As Verveer said, “We know that there's a direct link between the denial of women's rights and instability. Half the peace agreements in the last 20 years have been abrogated. There are no women negotiators of these agreements. The men get together and ensure each other amnesty for their crimes against women. Then it starts again. Agreements to ensure not just the peace, but that tomorrow is better than today, require women.”

But what happens to this work if, as the Times reports, the U.S. is ceding responsibility for Afghanistan's future, and with it, the ability to guarantee women a seat at the table? I asked Verveer and she flatly denied the Times story: “Reports that we are not pursuing a peace process are not accurate.”

I hope that's true, but the Times story has now been corroborated by the Christian Science Monitor, who quote one of the mediators saying that the U.S. government is now ready to settle for a ‘transition without a deal.' If that's true, Afghan women will be the biggest losers.