Afghanistan: Women, withdrawal of troops and transition strategy

You may kill a terrorist with a weapon, but you may kill terrorism with education”

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel peace laureate

Women’s Regional Network, WRN, has developed a Statement of Concern on the withdrawal of US, NATO and other foreign troops from Afghanistan. They are concerned about the situation of Afghan women and their future. The Statement consists of seven most valuable points to be taken into consideration in the transition period.

I am however concerned by the preambular/explanatory part of the Statement, expressing that the withdrawal of troops “would be disastrous for women’s rights and security” and that such a withdrawal should not happen “without a stable and secure Afghan state”. This is to me legitimating “forever boots in Afghanistan”, which I would consider totally disastrous. I find it naive to believe that military presence in Afghanistan would help solve any of the underlying difficulties in the country. Military presence in combination with humanitarian efforts has created uncertainties and put the aid workers at risk. If we were to  ”win the minds and the hearts” it would have to be without military interference.Now, we should applaud the withdrawal and give all our attention to help build non-militarised peace and justice in Afghanistan.

The intention behind the invasion of Afghanistan has never been democracy and women’s rights. These honourable goals have just been used to get more people to accept the acting in violation of international law and the misuse of taxpayer’s money that should have been reserved for the betterment of the conditions of people. The pre-emptive war on Afghanistan should never have happened and the troops should certainly not have stayed for 20 long years making a patriarchal society even more patriarchal and weaponized. The gains that urban women may have achieved are, to my mind, not because of foreign troops, but of other parallel civil initiatives and Afghan women’s outrage of the injustices they have had to confront for far too long.

The international community seems to have acted in Afghanistan without much knowledge of Afghan culture. For instance, the Pashtuns, the biggest and previously most influential ethnic group in Afghanistan, from where the Taliban were recruited, were not invited to the Bonn peace conference and the interim government wanted only Farsi (Dari), and not Pashto, to be the language of the school system. As director of UNESCO’s office in Pakistan and also responsible for UNESCO’s work in Afghanistan during the period when both the bilateral embassies and the UN offices in Kabul were closed down, I had long struggles to make both the international community and the interim ministry of education in Kabul see the difficulties that such blatantly unjust decisions would entail. (We may want to compare with the attempts by the western oriented government in Ukraine to outlaw the official use of the Russian language in a country with millions of Russian speakers in the east.) Today the government remains strongly dominated by ethic Uzbeks and Tajiks (Northern Alliance). The sensibilities between the Sunni and Shiite religious groups seem also not to have been considered properly, with their links respectively to Pakistan/Saudi-Arabia and to Iran.

There is presently fear of full collapse in Afghanistan, of civil war and destabilization of the region. The main issue is therefore how to make the withdrawal of foreign troops in the best way possible for the Afghans, and with a special concern for the women. There is obviously a need for a wise transition strategy and a detailed and practical plan.

In addition to the seven points of the WRN Statement it is vital to clarify who is responsible for the cleaning up, who is to do what and who is actually willing to take responsibility. Perhaps there is a need for a UN Compensation Commission? There should, however, be no doubt that the responsibility, legal or moral or both, lies with the warring parties. They should have to get all weapons, ammunition and debris out of the country, clean up whatever physical damage done, ensure there are no unexploded ordinance, toxins and contaminants left behind and pay for the repair e.g. of damaged waterways, groundwater and agricultural land. The moral obligation should be to spend as much money on the reconstruction of the country as they have spent on the war over the last 20 years.

The timeline for the military clean up should be set to 11.09.2021, the final date of the departing of the troops, which means they have to start this work urgently. When it comes to the rebuilding of the Afghan society, obviously the troops should have nothing to do with it. And no troops should be allowed to stay behind, as that may lead to the establishment of unwanted foreign bases.

The UN must urgently be called upon to assist the Afghan people and the government in “building back better”. Timing is important and there is probably a need to get in a UN peacekeeping mission as soon as possible. The peacekeepers should include a significant civilian unit with fifty-fifty women and men with different types of expertise. In addition to the UN relief funds and programs, the specialized agencies of the UN should urgently be generously funded in order to be able to undertake relevant projects within their fields of competence. UNESCO should e.g. help build up and sustain educational efforts (education for all, peace education and non-violent conflict resolution), stimulate culture, science and the free flow of information; WHO should help build the health system; FAO should help with strategies to strengthen agriculture and food production and distribution; ILO should help develop and strengthen descent work possibilities and the Human Rights Council should monitor the situation of human rights, not least the rights of women.

Civil society organizations, if without any strings attached, would be invaluable partners in the process towards a stable, peaceful and demilitarized society. Working on local levels may be good entry points. Peace educators, peace activists, human rights defenders, feminists, development workers and environmentalists and many more are needed. Professional cooperation, also on a shorter term basis, e.g. between Afghan teachers, artists, health-workers, lawyers, psychologists, trade-unionists and their counterparts abroad, would be most valuable. Otherwise international partners of good will should have a long-term perspective on their work and would have to give due respect to the cultural sensitivities without ever accepting violence or violation of human rights. The Soviets e.g. failed badly when they tried to introduce a laic education system, whilst the Swedish Afghanistan Committee was allowed, even during the period of the Taliban, to give, discretely, education to girls, as the Committee was trusted not to do any indoctrination.

Afghan people have for decades suffered from war and warlike situations. They deserve assistance from the international community to reach the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The transition process and beyond should help them get out of a security situation based on militaristic means, which does not provide the needed human security. It is my conviction that when the needs and desires of people are met, they would not want to be recruited neither into war nor fundamentalism.

Ingeborg Breines, Oslo 5 May 2021



As representative in Pakistan of the United Nations’ Organization for Education, Science and Culture as of 11.09.01, I also had responsibility for UNESCO’s work in Afghanistan until UNESCO, as the rest of the UN system, bilateral embassies and international NGOs moved their offices from Islamabad to Kabul.

On the 8 March 2002 the international celebrations of the International Women’s Day took place in Kabul in an attempt to support a more progressive view on women’s role and status than under the Taliban regime. Several UN organizations joined hands with the newly appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs (Sima Samar) to organize this historic event in the ruins of a cinema house. The Director of UNIFEM, Noeleen Heyzer was there, as well as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson and the Pakistani Minister of Women’s Affairs, Attiya Inayatullah, long term member of the Executive Board of UNESCO. Those of us who came from the outside were full of optimism and expectation to a new era.  It was, however, resignation that we could see expressed in the faces of the Afghan women.

We had invited women from different parts of the country to a 2-3 days seminar. They arrived in their burkas, which they took off once inside only with women. Their male partners were waiting outside. It soon became evident that these women did not believe in any quick solution to the social and political difficulties in Afghanistan. They had experienced that also the Taliban came as liberators, after the violence and rivalry of the Mujahedin and the local warlords. Communism and the Soviet had brought ideals of emancipation of women and women’s education in the 1970ies and 80ies. This had also been tried in the 1920ies. Hardly ever have so many teachers been killed and schools destroyed as when the extremist religious groups started to see the Soviet building of schools as a manipulation to undermine Afghan culture and religion – and the traditional role of women.

The seminar participants were clear both as to their description of “reality” and as to their priorities, despite the lack of enthusiasm and hope of an early improvement of their situation. They complained about a generalized lack of respect for women, about poverty and an excessive workload, about restricted freedom for women within the family, no freedom of expression, severely restrained possibilities for geographical mobility, a pervasive preference for boys – and that all decision-making remained with the men. In short, they complained about the patriarchal power structures.

They wanted education for girls and women (including married girls/women), access to basic health care including in connection with pregnancy and birth-giving (Afghanistan is ranking on the top as for maternal and child mortality), access to work, to own land and establish your own bank-account, possibilities to participate actively in political life, including the right to have an identity card allowing you to travel and to vote – and access to the media so that women’s voices could be heard. They wanted research on the role of women in Afghan families, in working life and in society in general. They wanted a halt to child marriages, to the selling of young girls for land and to sexual misuse of children, not least of young boys.

But what they insisted on was that the UN should help in disarming the country. They expressed a profound fear of the many weapons floating around increasing the risk of fatal “accidents” both in the home and outside. (As Mark Twain said: If you only have a hammer in your toolbox, you will be looking for nails.).

Later studies have confirmed that disarmament is a top priority of the majority of Afghans (Human Rights and Advocacy Consortium, 2004). A report from the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan (January 2008) also showed that rape over the last years broadly have been undertaken by armed men.

To ameliorate the situation of Afghan women was a prominently pronounced goal of the attack on the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as of October 2001. Now, some seven years later there is all reason to ask if we have given Afghan women weapons for bread – the exact opposite of what they asked for and need. Perhaps now is the time to listen to what they have to say.

The Canadian researcher Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims wrote in the International Journal (June 2007) about the many unfulfilled promises to women in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. She refers to her own study for UNIFEM in 2003 where Afghan women express anger because “Western forces had co-opted their suffering to legitimize a strong military presence in their land and that “the war against terror”, as they have learned to know it, only would bring more suffering to the people and strengthen the insurgence”. Other studies also show that the growing support of the Taliban in many regions often is due to the continued presence of foreign troops in the country, as well as to the lack of humanitarian assistance and development aid. The views of (some) Afghan women on the Western, non-Muslim, military presence in Afghanistan was expressed in the 8 March statement (2008) by women in Kandahar: “We believe that only Afghans themselves can stop the use of violence against other Afghans”. The strong military presence seems to serve to reinforce the macho power-structures, as well as the hegemonic masculine ideals.

The Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, got standing ovation in the ECOSOC meeting in Geneva, July 2006, when he proudly claimed that Norway was not rich primarily because of the oil, but because of Norwegian women, who combine being among the most active workforce in the world with giving birth to more children than what is average in the Western world. I would guess that the Norwegian government would get very strong applause from peace-loving people around the world if they were to use the same type of argument in relation to Afghanistan. Afghan women are probably a much greater asset to Afghanistan than its geopolitical situation of closeness to the Central Asian oil reserves that so many would like to have access to

It seems to get obvious to more and more people that a military presence cannot solve the underlying problems in Afghanistan – and how could anybody be as naïve at the outset?  Many, however, including the US President elect, believe in a strengthened military presence combined with strengthened humanitarian efforts. The attempts to legitimize military presence by insisting on the need to protect the humanitarian efforts (to win the minds and the hearts) and the mixing up of military and humanitarian interventions, is highly dangerous to the humanitarian work and workers and is probably also a prolongation of the conflict. If the American President elect instead were to listen to Afghan women, the likely positive effects would be felt worldwide.

If we think that the Afghan women could serve as agents of positive change, we should go way beyond the mere rhetoric of working for their well-being and emancipation/empowerment which more often seems as an excuse for seeking to meet ones own economic, political or military goals. Instead there is a need to take their priorities seriously and seek to enhance both their competence building and their possibilities to use their insight and knowledge to create social justice and build peace.

A Norwegian female physiotherapist got international acclaim when she presented a new thesis for healing an aching part of the body, by insisting not to touch the sick part, but instead strengthen the adjacent healthy parts so that they in turn could heal what aches. If the aching part is for instance the elbow, then the upper and lower arm should be strengthened to allow them to make the elbow well again. There are many “elbows” in Afghanistan. To strengthen the “female upper- and underarm” would probably entail the best help the Afghan society can get.

Ingeborg Breines, Oslo 2009