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Afghan Report: October 24, 2006

October 24, 2006, Volume 5, Number 26
All of the parties involved in Afghanistan's stabilization process since the fall of the Taliban nearly five years ago (December 2001) tend to agree that security and reconstruction are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, as security has deteriorated to its worst levels since the new political order arose, the rebuilding effort has not fared much better. But while a lack of security is hampering reconstruction, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, policies might also be to blame for the lack of sustained progress.

The commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), warned on October 8 that without visible improvements in the daily lives of ordinary Afghans in the next six months, up to 70 percent of Afghans could shift their allegiance to the Taliban-led insurgency. It was a stark and urgent reminder that there is still much work to be done in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

British Lieutenant General David Richards' comments led to defensive posturing by the Afghan government rather than turning its attention to a retooling of reconstruction plans.

Comments Explained

NATO tried to defuse tensions when ISAF issued a statement three days later. It said ISAF's commander meant that "the next six months have to be used for effective reconstruction and development to ensure" the continuing support that the Afghan government enjoys among citizens. But Richards added ominously that he knows that "ISAF cannot take the support of ordinary Afghans for granted." Richards pledged that having "shown [its] skill and power in combat," NATO is "now putting equal effort into supporting the reconstruction and development that will improve [Afghans'] lives and offer a real future to all."

Richards' warning is a very real one for Afghanistan. The crux of the matter arguably is not whether Afghans will support the resurgent neo-Taliban, but whether -- in the absence of a genuine improvement of their daily lives -- they care to support the current system. The operative word is "genuine."

Security Needed For Reconstruction

Donors are rightfully proud that billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan. But little of that international aid has filtered down to the average Afghan. In a vicious cycle, security is blamed for slow reconstruction and the failure to rebuild is said to lead to deteriorating security.

A reevaluation of the reconstruction projects implemented in Afghanistan in the last five years would undoubtedly reveal mistakes. Many shortcomings might be related to a focus on shorter-term projects that the donors and Afghan government alike have tried to use to demonstrate progress to their respective constituencies -- or even to each other. In other words, the emphasis thus far has not been on infrastructure but on Potemkin projects. But the infrastructure work is necessary in pursuit of long-term, state-building strategies despite its lack of immediate political benefits.

Another, and more crucial, shortcoming has been a heavy reliance on foreign contractors to rebuild Afghanistan. Foreign contractors continue to boast of multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects while the average Afghan worker remains untrained and unemployed.

Involving Afghans in all aspects of reconstruction would do more than simply employ the countless people who otherwise might find work in the booming narcotics industry. It might also counter the type of frustration to which Richards alluded -- prompting some to join the armed opposition.

Afghan Workers Needed

It is true that there is a serious shortage of skilled laborers in Afghanistan. Foreign expertise is necessary to train Afghans. But allowing Afghans to rebuild their own houses, schools, and roads would give them more than just ownership and pride -- it would also provide them with legal incomes.

"Afghanizing" reconstruction projects would likely slow some work. It might also prove more challenging to adapt to the many demands of international donors and Kabul, possibly preventing them from signing off projects as due dates arise. But as one UN official put it recently, Afghan-built schools have somehow proven to be fireproof. He meant to suggest that those reconstruction projects built by Afghans seem to be targeted less by the insurgents.

If the nation is sufficiently involved in rebuilding the Afghan state, then the massive project that began with the ousting of the Taliban in 2001 might be steered toward the formation of a fully functioning nation-state. Otherwise, in six months, General Richards might regret having toned down his poignant warning. (Amin Tarzi)

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assumed command of 14 eastern and central provinces on October 5, slightly ahead of the schedule it set for itself in July. The unification of command of the majority of military forces stationed in Afghanistan has been hailed as a sign of commitment to that country by NATO.

When NATO expanded ISAF's area of operation to southern Afghanistan in July, it also announced its intention to assume full command of virtually all international troops there by the end of 2006 -- dubbed "Stage 4 expansion." The early implementation of ISAF's Stage 4 expansion is related to the unexpected resilience of the neo-Taliban and fellow guerrillas opposing ISAF in the south and the U.S.-led coalition forces in eastern and northeastern Afghanistan.

The neo-Taliban resurgence can be partly attributed to a perception that NATO's Stage 3 expansion signaled a reduction of the military commitment by the United States to Afghanistan. That assumption was coupled with the notion that NATO was a weaker and wider target that -- if threatened -- would find some members inclining toward withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Perceived Divide

The neo-Taliban and, ironically, some European voices have spoken of the United States and NATO as distinct entities. The perception is perhaps based in part on Washington's hesitation to unite the commands of the coalition forces and of ISAF -- a result of long-standing U.S. reluctance to place its troops under foreign command.

As part of the Stage 4 expansion, NATO-ISAF has taken command of around 10,000 U.S. troops.

The commander of coalition forces, U.S. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, has said a "key point to remember" about the ISAF's expansion "is that the United States maintains its full commitment to Afghanistan." Seemingly to dispel doubts about U.S.-NATO relations or his country's role in Afghanistan, commander Eikenberry added that as "a NATO member, the United States will remain by far the single-largest contributor of troops and military capability" within ISAF.

With this latest expansion, ISAF finds itself in charge of approximately 31,000 troops from 37 NATO and non-NATO states. In addition to ISAF forces, the United States will continue to have around 8,000 troops conducting counterterrorism operations and providing support for the formation, training, and equipping of the Afghan National Army.

Contradictory Message?

Washington's decision to leave nearly half of its forces stationed in Afghanistan outside ISAF command is arguably illustrative of some of the contradictions in strategic views among some NATO member states regarding their forces' mandates.

British Lieutenant General David Richards currently commands ISAF forces in Afghanistan. During the ceremonies in Kabul marking the ISAF expansion on October 5, Richards called it "a historic day for both Afghanistan and NATO." He added that it "illustrates the enduring commitment of NATO and its international partners to the future of [a] great country."

The fact that ISAF is NATO's largest ground operation since the alliance was established in 1949 lends weight to Richards' comments.

But the ultimate goal of NATO's commitment could remain elusive unless member states -- particularly the economic and military powerhouses -- share a common view on the nature of the mission.

That position arguably should view the current mandate as counterinsurgency, or counterterrorism; robust counternarcotics efforts to help establish law and order; and greater familiarity with Afghan society and the related sensitivities. (Amin Tarzi)

October 7, marked the fifth anniversary of the first U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has described the event as the start of a counterterrorism campaign for "the salvation of Afghanistan."

At the start of the campaign, the Taliban regime controlled 90 percent of Afghan territory and was on the verge of defeating the United Front (aka Northern Alliance) in its remaining strongholds. Within two months, the last vestiges of the Taliban leadership would flee its headquarters in Kandahar and embark on a guerrilla war.

That war continues today. The number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan has gone from about 100 to more than 40,000. On October 5, NATO took over the command of most military operations in Afghanistan (see above). The only forces that remain under direct American command are the U.S. aircraft that continue to provide close air support for ground troops and the troops that operate U.S. detention centers for enemy combatants.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told participants at the ceremony marking the transfer of command to NATO that the handover marks a new chapter.

"Five years ago, [Afghans] and the international community jointly began a campaign against terrorism -- and for the salvation of Afghanistan," Karzai said. "Now we are entering a new phase. In this new phase, the authority is shifted for the U.S.-led coalition to NATO."

Karzai also praised the accomplishments made in Afghanistan since late 2001 -- reminding ordinary Afghans how desperate their plight had been under the yoke of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda five years ago.

"If you can recall in 2001 -- when the international community arrived in Afghanistan after September 11th's tragic incidents -- terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban associates of theirs were defeated in this country in less than a month and a half," Karzai said. "The reasons were clear: the desire of the Afghan people and the power generated by the international community. The two combined and gave us four years of achievement -- of the return of 4 1/2 million refugees in less than four years, of the return of our children to schools, of the presidential and parliamentary elections, the constitution, institution building, an improved economy, higher wages, and all of that."

RFE/RL analyst Amin Tarzi agreed that much has happened to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

But Tarzi said efforts to rebuild Afghanistan are being overshadowed by resurgent Taliban violence in the south, a thriving opium trade, "warlordism," government corruption, and slow progress on economic development.

"The presence of foreign forces and foreign investments led by the United States was a hope," Tarzi said. "[But now, Afghanistan and the international community] are searching for answers. Afghanistan is no longer a success story as it was in the first two or three years [after the Taliban regime fell]. There are a lot of successes. But they have been overshadowed by lack of progress in some main areas -- the issue of narcotics, the issue of the dispensation of justice. And also, justice and security go hand in hand."

Tarzi concluded that for most ordinary Afghans today, the two main concerns are how to provide security and food for their families. (Ron Synovitz)

A UN-backed rights watchdog has expressed continuing concern over violence against women in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) released disturbing figures in mid-September on violence against women and girls, including dozens of cases of so-called honor killings.

Mujahedah's Story

Sixteen-year-old Mujahedah was murdered by her own father -- ostensibly to redeem her family's "honor."

Her offense? Her family had accused her of bringing shame upon them by escaping a home in which she was subjected to daily beatings.

"She had enough," says Homa, a deputy director of a women's rights group called the Center for the Growth of the Talents of Afghan Women who got to know Mujahedah. "She escaped home and went to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Then she spent some time in a ministry shelter. She liked to go to school and was busy studying. She was enjoying [better] conditions and she didn't want to return to her family, but her mother insisted they'd let her go to school -- her mother said, 'Your father has forgiven your sin.' And she was finally forced to return to her relatives Later it was heard from a neighbor or someone else that her father had murdered her when she returned."

Homa describes the teenager as a happy girl who liked to read and write.

The Center for the Growth of the Talents of Afghan Women has produced a documentary based on the plights of Mujahedah and other female victims of violence.

The movie is titled "Last Poem, Last Night," and it has casts a spotlight on a practice that women's rights defenders say is frighteningly prevalent in Afghanistan.

Unpunished Crime

Most cases of honor killings go unreported, and perpetrators rarely face justice.

Police and judicial authorities often turn a blind eye to the practice.

In Mujahedah's case, no one has been prosecuted. Her family claims that she died following a sickness. But workers at the shelter where she stayed say she didn't suffer from any evident health problems.

Dr. Soraya Sobhrang, who heads the women's affairs division of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, tells RFE/RL that honor killings are widely accepted, and considered by many Afghans to be a private family matter.

"I can tell you that they happen all over Afghanistan," Sobhrang says. "Most of them get buried within the family, and no one is ever informed about them. But today, some cases are made public and are disseminated -- so we are able to get some figures. They take places in faraway villages in rural areas."

Underreported, But That's Improving

Sobhrang says that since the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, violence against women -- including honor killings -- is increasingly reported. She credits the information flow to a growing media, but also a changing attitude among women.

"In 2005, we had 1,664 cases of violence against women -- including 47 cases of honor killings. In 2006, we've recorded 704 cases of different types of violence so far -- including 20 honor killings," Sobhrang says.

Those are only the documented cases. The true figure is likely to be higher.

Women and young girls are being strangled, beaten to death, and burned by their fathers, brothers, and uncles for refusing to enter arranged marriages or for committing adultery.

In some cases, rape or sexual-assault victims are being killed in macabre efforts at preserving family honor.

Family Values?

Homa says women who flee troubled homes are also being murdered by vindictive family members.

"Because of traditions and customs, most families are not ready to take in [women] who ran away or left home because of problems -- or when they take them in, it is only because they have forced them into accepting their conditions or because they want to punish them in a way that [ensures] no one else would dare to do the same," Homa says.

The AIHRC's Sobhrang says tribal practices as well as freedom from prosecution are behind honor killings in Afghanistan.

"Honor killings happen mostly because a lack of awareness -- because of insecurity and also because women and children are the most vulnerable part of society. Our country had put about 30 years of conflict behind it, so a culture of violence dominates our society. There are also bad customs -- our society has been a patriarchal society."

Hope Of Progress

The Afghan Interior Ministry recently announced the creation of a special commission to tackle the issue of honor killings.

A ministry spokesman, Dad Mohammad Rasa, insists that such crimes are prosecuted. But in the same breath, he also concedes that honor crimes are deeply entrenched in Afghan society. He says stamping them out is a long-term project.

Sobhrang says the judicial system and laws need to be reformed in order to stop the practice.

"This is one of the main ways to deal with this problem -- it means the rule of law should be applied in society and there should be security," Sobhrang says. "Conditions should be [created] so that women can be empowered. Women should become active, and they should not be economically dependent. And also cultural work should be done, because violence has deep cultural roots."

Both activists say much groundwork needs to be laid to curb domestic violence in Afghanistan -- including its most extreme form: killings in the name of honor.

The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 women are victims of honor killings around the world each year.

Many cases are reported in Pakistan, Jordan, and Turkey. But the practice also exists in other countries -- including in Albania, Palestinian territories, and some parts of Iran and Iraq. (Golnaz Esfandiari)