Someone, somewhere, is keeping a tally of the number of international meetings on the future of Afghanistan held since the fall of the Taleban in 2001. It won't be a small number.
The Nato summit in Chicago has, once again, been discussing Afghanistan's prospects, specifically security after international troop withdrawal in 2014. As usual, the mood music has been defiantly optimistic, but my recent visit to Afghanistan has left me more anxious than ever about this fragile country's survival.
In Kabul in March I had a series of meetings with Afghan MPs, British embassy officials, Afghan human rights workers, and women and girls in a women's refuge. While there were flickers of hope, there was a lot of pessimism and even fatalism. Numerous people believe civil war after 2014 is inevitable. Meanwhile, those battling to defend human rights see even the smallest gains of the last 10 years under threat. In particular, there's a widespread belief that doing deals with the Taleban will see women and girls' rights sacrificed.
Take the touchstone issue of education. Under the anti-education Taleban only one million children were in school, of which only 50,000 were girls (those living in areas free from the Taleban). Now it's around seven million, with more than a third of these girls. However, schools in many Afghan provinces are again under direct attack by the Taleban and other armed groups. In a seven-month period in 2010 for example, 74 schools were destroyed or closed down after bombings, rocket attacks, arson, poisonings or threats. The Taleban have waged a war of fear, pinning "night letters" to people's homes warning parents not to send their daughters to school or teachers to turn up for work at "centres set up by infidels". The recent water tank contamination at a girls' school in Takhar province appears to be just the last example of this ramped-up campaign. Meanwhile, a Taleban spokesperson Qari Yousef Ahmadi has told Amnesty they aim to "close" schools where books are "printed in the USA".
The underlying worry is that the Taleban's double-pronged offensive (attacking security assets and "infidel" elements of civil society) could pay off if malignant messages around women, education and "morality" are allowed to circulate unchallenged. Women MPs and ex-MPs I spoke to expressed a view that the Afghan government no longer resists Taleban pressure on human rights, with one telling me that President Karzai has been "kidnapped by the fundamentalists".
If President Karzai hasn't been taken captive by fundamentalist forces, he is hardly inspiring confidence with endorsements of discriminatory edicts from the country's Ulema Council ("Men are fundamental and woman are secondary", it said in March) or minimising the participation of Afghan women in international meetings. Afghanistan's Peace Council, established to negotiate with the Taleban, has just nine women out of 69 members. An internationally recognised principle of rebuilding after conflict is the importance of meaningfully involving women (UN Resolution 1325), and it's disappointing that important players like the UK haven't been more insistent that women are properly represented in all talks that determine the future of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, if this is the attitude at the top then change lower down is going to be frighteningly hard to achieve. At a women's shelter I saw some of the consequences of Afghanistan's ingrained patriarchy. For example, I talked to a teenage girl married off to a 70-year-old man who then suffered sustained beatings at the hands of the man's family. I also heard from a young widow who explained how she'd escaped her father-in-law who wanted to force her into marriage after her first husband had died. There were many more stories like this, some which I can't relate for fear of identifying these vulnerable women.
One female politician told me that 90% of women and girls in Afghanistan have no control over who they marry; she also said that many families are proud of the fact that no-one outside of their immediate family has ever seen their daughters, who are kept under virtual house arrest at home. Perhaps most shockingly, at the women's shelter I was told that a recent visit by a group of women MPs had ended with the MPs denouncing the women as "prostitutes", saying they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
With the best will in the world you have to say the future is bleak. When David Cameron said recently that after 2014 there wouldn't be "perfect democracy" in Afghanistan was his bar-lowering exercise a realisation that trade-offs are being made with the Taleban even as he uttered these words? After Nato decamps from Obama's political home town of Chicago, do Afghan women have reason to fear back-room deals to sacrifice their rights in return for the Taleban's signature on a peace deal? I hope not.
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