This is the beginning of the end of our military engagement in Afghanistan. We started with a legitimate mission to remove the threat of al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11. We can argue about whether Bush took his eye off the ball because of Iraq or not, but the reality is that what became an anti-Taliban war strategy has failed. It has failed militarily, they have not been defeated and both NATO and the Afghan Government now want to negotiate a peace with them. It has failed politically because we have invested in an Afghan Government that is weak and corrupt.
It was perhaps over ambitious when, from the 2001 Bonn conference onwards, commitments were made about human rights, particularly women’s rights and democracy, as part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It was certainly disingenuous to talk the talk but not invest the political and economic resources to walk the walk. A generation of Afghans who believed in trying to build a better future for their country feel betrayed.The so called “realpolitik” that preferred to invest in warlords rather than the rule of law was a huge strategic mistake from the earliest months of the international presence. A more patient and realistic approach that focused on building the engagement of local communities would have required a greater short term investment in security, but could have been at least partially effective in 2001/2. But the chance was missed and we have been witnessing a downward spiral that has become more grotesque the more the Karzai Government’s incompetence and corruption has become more blatant. And that is before we talk of the military blunders, the killings of civilians, the torture and the ultimate ineffectiveness of a prolonged military occupation.
The Western public mood is turning ever more decisively against our military presence in Afghanistan. There is rightly a lot of support for the brave young men and women of the armed forces who have been deployed to undertake a dangerous role, often with sub-standard equipment and poor strategic leadership. Unfortunately that understandable support has perhaps masked for too long the failures of military and political strategy. It was probably necessary to set a timetable for getting out, although it risks to provoke an implosion of what is left of security in the country.
When I was in Kabul in 2007, and then again in 2008, there was huge frustration about the lack of effective support for Afghan women human rights defenders. In a Scotsman article on 14th September 2007 I wrote:
With a huge part of the Afghan government budget funded by international donors, there was strong criticism of the lack of mechanisms of accountability and transparency that might ensure better progress on the implementation of measures to protect women. And there will clearly be no security and protection for women until perpetrators start to be brought to justice.
One Afghan woman human rights defender asked: “Where in the world is anyone spending so many billions of dollars without any monitoring or evaluation of impact?”
There is also considerable frustration at the huge sums which are perceived to be wasted, through the corruption of the local authorities, the huge profits made by non-Afghan contractors and the excessive expenditure on salaries for international staff.
One Afghan women’s rights activist contrasted her 15 years of working as an expert for various international agencies on local staff rates with the fact that her organisation had recently employed an international “expert” on a two-month contract at nearly $3,000 a day.
It was acknowledged that western preaching on women’s rights can be counter-productive. One human rights defender spoke in disbelief about attending a meeting with international representatives with supposed expertise on women’s rights. When she explained how her organisation was working with considerable success at the local level through involving religious leaders and village elders in discussion on women’s rights, she was lectured on the folly of this strategy.
Four and a half years further on little has changed for Afghan women’s rights and human rights activists. The West is making plans to leave and little attention is being paid to what will happen to the Afghans who have been encouraged to take on a public role, but who will now be left exposed and unprotected. One certainly cannot have any confidence in the protection they will receive from the Afghan Government, even before the Taliban return to Kabul.
So what might be part of a credible exit strategy. Those Afghans who have been working to build a better life for Afghan women with access to education, health care and justice are going to be ever more targeted. Some will legitimately feel the need to get out with their families. Others will want to stay, but will worry that if they don’t leave now they will be stuck. The least Western Governments can do is to give them passports and/or long-term multiple entry visas that will enable them to continue their work inside the country for as long as possible.
And there needs to be a commitment to a new funding programme for civic reconstruction. The old civil-military model is politically discredited and has rarely been effective. We have wasted billions.
But we must not turn our backs as the soldiers leave. We need a renewed commitment to supporting Afghan communities. Not international consultants, not corrupt officials, but the Afghan people who have suffered most from more than thirty years of other people’s wars.