Morituri te Salutant: On a “Surge” in Afghanistan
| December 8, 2009
The author, an expert on parliamentary diplomacy, says we must focus today on a strengthened political process to successfully end international military engagement in Afghanistan—and that process must respect the rights of women.
Watching President Obama deliver his decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan at West Point brought to mind ancient Rome as the Caesars sent saluting gladiators to their deaths. The TV camera lingered on an audience of outwardly resolute young faces as a shadow came over them, when he mentioned receiving the caskets; replaced by a mixture of relief and puzzlement, when he announced that U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan starting July 2011.
The immediate days following saw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates back off in testimony to Congress. The July 2011 deadline was not an exit strategy but a date by which the United States would assess the situation on the ground and begin withdrawals district by district. Withdrawal from the country could take up to four years. Pushed for clarifications by senators, Gates acknowledged that there would have to be a negotiated withdrawal; the Taliban have to be “convinced” through military force that they “cannot win” and hence sue for peace.
I was simultaneously signed on to several news commentary sites from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States; commentators were immediately having a field day with the “we are going in deeper only to pull out” strategy. A New York Post comment on Obama’s announcement to the cadets of a withdrawal date was an editorial cartoon of a Taliban commander telling his own troops, ”We are attacking Afghanistan in July 2011!”
Jokes aside, the more serious question here is not whether the United States or the Taliban can militarily “win” this war but who will sue for peace at the end, at what terms and through whose mediation. In the past year several news stories have circulated in the U.S., European, Afghan and Pakistani press on back channel negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Recently high-level political representatives such as the U.K. Foreign Minister David Miliband, U.S. Envoy to AfPak Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and yesterday Secretary Clinton also stated that negotiations are possible, some already taking place. Holbrooke has stated to media in Pakistan that the mediators are the Saudi government. “I talked to King Abdullah about it myself. We would be supportive of anything that the kingdom chose to do in this regard,” he added. Meanwhile Afghan sources confirm reports that U.S. Ambassador in Kabul General Karl Eikenberry has reached out to Taliban officials for a limited role in Southern provinces in return for cessation of hostilities. U.S. allies as far afield as Japan are hosting their own “closed door” negotiations with the Taliban facilitated with the Saudis.
For women in Afghanistan—and their sisters across the border in Pakistan engaged in their own battle against the Taliban, as well as in the United States—these revelations are extremely troubling. Equality Now’s Yasmeen Hassan writes to the New York Times expressing the frustration and fear of feminists that Afghan women’s rights and security “conspicuously missing” from the President’s speech not be negotiated away.
I have followed some of the back channel negotiations for over a year now. None of the draft agendas, lists of experts, or participants include any women. More disturbing is that no U.S. official has yet clearly expressed that one of the non-negotiable conditions for peace with the Taliban would be their acceptance of women’s rights as laid out in the United Nations Charter and its subsequent conventions, protocols and resolutions. On Sunday Clinton finally made a reference in general terms to the Taliban having to “abide by Afghanistan’s Constitution.” Constitutions, Madam Secretary, can be abrogated, and an Islamic Emirate in Kabul were it ever to return would make short shrift of this one.
Women voters in this country, those who voted for Clinton in the primaries and who joined her in supporting a progressive president in Obama, expect more. We understand that the Taliban have chosen their mediators—the Saudis who share their fundamentalist Wahhabi values. We feminists in the United States expect our administration to represent our values. Beyond electoral politics, the inclusion of women’s security and participation in peace negotiations is an international obligation undertaken by the U.S. government at the UN Security Council nine years ago. In UN Security Council Resolution 1325unanimously adopted in October 2000, member states accepted that women must be at the peace negotiation table and at every stage of the agreement. Security Council resolutions, unlike General Assembly resolutions, are legally binding. In addition to national implementation plans for all aspects of Res. 1325, various international institutions are also involved in ensuring its adherence.
Res. 1325 also makes reference to gender-based violence, and Afghanistan, as a state party, is subject to the International Criminal Court (ICC). With the support of NGOs and parliamentarians, the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has started preliminary gathering of information, a first step towards opening a possible investigation on Afghanistan. While the first cases are years away at best, Ocampo has put down a marker in legal terms that peace must be accompanied by justice. The crimes committed against Afghan women under the previous Taliban rule would surely meet the definition of crimes against humanity and should preclude the inclusion of such “leaders” in any credible negotiations. Acknowledging the importance of the ICC and the Obama Administration’s intentions to increase cooperation with it, U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Stephen Rapp briefed international legislators in Washington this October and formally attended the court’s meeting in The Hague.
Another omission from new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is the peace-building role that can be played by the Afghan parliament, which will face parliamentary elections in 2010, a more crucial test than the recent presidential drama. Several other countries coming out of decades of conflict have taken their internal disputes to the political arena, using the national legislature as a permanent peace-negotiation center.
The international community is assisting in some of them, strengthening post-conflict parliaments in Burundi, Central African Republic and Sierra Leone through the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Afghanistan with an elected parliament, albeit very weak, must also work on this process. “When NATO and the U.S. have left, we in the United Nations will still be there working with the Afghans and their leaders,” said a senior UN development official, in an off-the-record discussion. “The role of Afghan legislators, particularly the women, will be critical.” The international community led by the United States must make the Afghan parliament the center of political negotiations if it is to succeed in eventually bringing insurgents and militias into the elected political process. Afghan legislators from the Pashtun south, men and women, are in favor of negotiations with the Taliban, but in the words of a female legislator who did not want to be identified, “We want to do the negotiation, face-to-face while the international community is still here with us.”
As President Obama heads to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize later this week, while those young faces head to war in the Hindu Kush, I received a condolence message from Dr. Haider Ali Khan, a provincial Pakistani legislator from Swat, on his colleague’s targeted killing last week by the Taliban. It reminded me of the terrible choice that lies ahead, as the “Afghan surge” will surely lead again to escape and escalation of Taliban across the Khyber Pass into an already-reeling Pakistan. "These people can take our lives but will never take our resilience to fight against the darkness of terror,” says Khan; “one Shamsher [the victim’s name means the sword] has fallen but many more have risen to follow in his footsteps.”