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The Silence of MoveOn
US Policy Concerning Afghanistan by Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority President
I am writing this position paper on US Policy concerning Afghanistan for Win Without War’s consideration at the request of Tom Andrews and Susan Shaer. I am also writing it as a person who is and has been for decades a peace, human rights, and women’s rights activist and leader. Both the National Organization for Women (which I led as president for three terms) and the Feminist Majority, which I co-founded and currently lead as President, are members of Win Without War and have long been advocates and participants in the peace movement. I have been asked to keep this position paper to two pages, which is nearly impossible to do. I hope three pages will do.
Since 1996, the Feminist Majority has been immersed in a campaign to help Afghan women and girls. Our first goal was to end Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, which had been brutally imposed by the Taliban regime once it took over Herat (1994) and Kabul and most of Afghanistan in 1996. The Taliban in a series of edicts took away from women and girls essentially all human rights.
The Taliban had “won” the civil war that had ensued after the defeat of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Afghan communist government by the mujahideen forces, which the CIA, ISI (Pakistan’s Intelligence Service), and British intelligence had backed against the Soviet forces. Actually, the CIA did more than support with billions of dollars and supply of weapons and equipment these reactionary forces composed of drug traffickers and jihadists. The CIA used them as “proxy” soldiers to defeat the Soviet Union. The Taliban was one branch of these mujahideen forces composed of students from madrassas in Pakistan and led by Pakistanis, jihadists, and supported by the ISI.
Once the Soviet Union was defeated, although the US (Bush I) had promised we would help Afghanistan rebuild after this war with the Soviet Union (1979-1989) we walked away. A civil war ensued between various mujahideen militia and the Taliban emerged “victorious” (with larger help, it is believed, from Pakistan). Actually, the Northern Alliance, another branch of the mujahideen, continued to fight on. Its leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, was assassinated, allegedly by al-Qaeda agents, on September 9, 2001.
The Feminist Majority first campaign’s objective to achieve our goal of stopping gender apartheid was to stop both the US and the UN from recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. We delivered hundreds of thousands of petitions, letters, and e-mails, held scores of events, recruited some 150 celebrities with the help of our campaign chair (Mavis Leno) to both President Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Anan. On March 11, 1998, President Clinton and Kofi Anan together announced (in honor of International Women’s Day) before a large audience of women’s leaders and activists in the East Room of the White House that neither the US nor the UN would recognize the Taliban because of its horrific violations of human rights, especially the rights of women.
Our second objective was to stop the UNOCAL oil/gas pipelines. UNOCAL had negotiated a pipeline deal carrying oil from the Caspian Sea area (Turkmenistan) through Afghanistan to a port in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea. The Caspian Sea oil is worth trillions and the US, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and several other countries want a Southern route pipeline to carry the oil/gas to the world. UNOCAL, we believe with the aid of the US State Department, had negotiated a deal with the Taliban which would have provided the Taliban a sizeable annual royalty. We conducted an extensive campaign to stop this deal and were successful when UNOCAL halted the deal in December 1998, citing as one of its three reasons for its action the feminist opposition to the Taliban.
During the period from the civil war-2001, millions of Afghans (between 5-7 million) fled Afghanistan, especially during the period 1996-2001. The Feminist Majority sent a team to interview refugees fleeing the Taliban who said clearly the Taliban were not Afghans, that they spoke Urdu (the language of Pakistan) and told our interviewers of the atrocities being committed. In fact, during this period, Afghan refugees were the single largest refugee population in the world.
By September 2001, refugee conditions were deplorable and conditions within Afghanistan deteriorated. Afghanistan was suffering from a very serious drought. Some experts believed one million Afghans would perish during the winter of 2001. We worked with the UN to get food and health care supplies and to increase humanitarian aid to avert the catastrophe. We tried to get the Taliban listed as a terrorist organization – to no avail. We saw Afghan women and girls as the canaries in the mine.
On September 11, 2001, everything changed for Afghanistan. As you all know the Taliban was deposed by bombing and the invasion of the US and NATO forces. The Bush Administration promised to free the women, re-establish human rights, a constitutional democracy, and a Marshall plan to rebuild Afghanistan after years of war.
But, of course, the Bush Administration quickly switched its attention to Iraq. NATO and the US did not adequately fund a redevelopment effort. Nor did they adequately fund the newly elected government. Instead, the US hired contractors, who frequently squandered the money, botched projects and did not come close to meeting their goals. Moreover, the humanitarian aid was dispersed mostly through large international NGOs with large overheads and salaries to westerners and little actual on-the-ground aid to Afghan NGOs. For example, rents soared in the cities because of American and European personnel, causing Afghan professionals and workers to be unable to afford housing. To make matters worse, neither the US nor NATO provided adequate numbers of police-keeping troops. Instead, the US funded mujahideen militia to once again be our “proxy” soldiers, this time to fight against the Taliban.
A constitutional government was formed. Afghan women fought for their rights and won 25% representation in the Lower House and 12.5% in the Upper House. Women and girls went back to school and women to work, etc. But mujahideen leaders, drug traffickers, and human rights abusers were put into positions of power while secular, civil forces were frequently under funded and discouraged.
During these difficult last seven years, the Feminist Majority repeatedly called for more humanitarian and development aid, a defunding of the oppressive militias, and a change in the general strategy to no avail. We did manage, however, to pass legislation that provided some $185 million to programs that benefited Afghan women and girls ($60 million in 2002; $50 million in 2005-06; $25 million in 2008).
Gradually, the Taliban returned. And in some areas, reactionary militias also have established restrictions on women and girls. Altogether, the Taliban and/or mujahideen forces have regained control over a large portion of Afghanistan and have been able to reestablish a reign of terror. Hundreds of girls’ schools have been destroyed. Teachers of girls have been murdered in front of their students. School girls are being attacked with acid being thrown in their faces. Local women’s rights leaders are being murdered (the latest last weekend in Kandahar). Overall, humanitarian conditions are deplorable – only about 15% have potable water; electricity in the cities is scant (intermittent – not adequate for refrigeration, etc.) The once proud hospital system is in dire need of being rebuilt. Today 1 in 6 women are dying in childbirth or from pregnancy related causes. In the US, that number is 1 in 2,900; in Sweden, 1 in 29,000.
President Obama has announced a significant change in our Afghanistan and Pakistan policies. This change involves an increase in troops (17,000 currently) and development/humanitarian aid plus deploying hundreds of civilian diplomats. We believe the current plans of the Administration are still in flux and will change over time. We believe the dealing with both Afghanistan and Pakistan is essential. The Taliban forces have now taken over Swat and are within a 100 miles of Islamabad. The plan’s recognition that we cannot succeed with a military solution alone and must use the assets of political, developmental, and humanitarian solutions as well is on target.
Essential elements of a successful US/Afghan policy we hope the peace movement will support are:
- The US must support human rights and justice in Afghanistan, including the rights of Afghan women and girls. We must not give impunity and support for those who violate human rights. As Dr. Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has said, “Human rights are not a western concept, but universal and necessary for all human beings.”
- The US must stop its bombing of Afghanistan.
- The US must not once again desert our responsibilities to the Afghan people – the US has contributed to 30 years of war. Afghanistan’s water, sewage, electrical, and health care systems have been all but destroyed. It must be rebuilt. We bombed it and our policies have contributed to its destruction - we have an obligation to help rebuild it.
- The US must stop funding “warlords,” who are often drug traffickers, or mujahideen who are establishing reactionary regimes and making Afghanistan a narco-state.
- The US must stop our funding of private contractors who are not delivering, are war profiteering and exploiting. We must have accountability.
- The US must fund humanitarian efforts and help rebuild the civil society. We must fund indigenous Afghan non-profits – especially those led by women. In Afghanistan, because of 30 years of war, women compose about a 65% majority of the adults. We must stop funding only larger international, primarily American NGOs who pay western salaries to Americans raising costs and leaving too little for Afghans.
- The international community and the US must increase “peace-keeping” troops for now. Security must be reestablished. There can be no freedom or human rights, or for that matter peace, when more and more of the country is being taken over by the brutal Taliban and influenced by al-Qaeda.
- Afghan police and army must be trained and adequately paid or more corruption and the warlords, i.e. drug traffickers, (who hand out money) will prevail.
- We must stop referring to Afghanistan as a 14th century culture. In the period 1950 to 1970s, Afghanistan was on the road to establishing a constitutional, secular democracy. Schools and university were co-ed. Some 70% of the teachers and 40% of the health care professionals were women. Kabul’s health care facilities were considered the best in Central Asia. We must support its secular, civil forces and institutions and recognize the deep desire for education, work, and modernity among its people. The US must stop its funding of reactionary forces that oppress the people.
- We must understand the oil, gas, and mineral interests and ensure these interests have positive, not a negative impact.
- We must understand the drug trafficking monetary issues and deal with them. Afghanistan produces 90-95% of the opium (heroin) of the world. A $1000 of poppy in Afghanistan is worth some $5 million on the streets of New York City.
- We must once again pass legislation to aid Afghan women’s programs and organizations.