Has NATO Failed the Women of Afghanistan?

The burning of the Qur’an by NATO soldiers, then the massacre of Afghan civilians by a rogue US solder, have understandably provoked an unprecedented wave of discontent across Afghanistan at a truly fragile time – when the Allies are preparing their exit strategy. Obviously, these events have undermined the political stability and internal security needed to allow NATO to leave with peace of mind. Yet with all the attention focused on these recent terrible incidents, some of the bigger issues complicating the question of NATO withdrawal remain underreported – namely, the continuing devastation of Afghan society and economy under the nose of the international community. Of all the victims, Afghan women remain the most vulnerable – and yet, still, the least understood.

The latest leak from NATO predicting an eventual Taliban victory in Afghanistan only underscores that prospects for Afghan’s women, and as such the nation as a whole – seem grim. At one level, NATO’s intervention and the international community’s support for Hamid Karzai’s government seemed to provide unprecedented opportunities for women to play a larger role in Afghan society. A record number of women have stood for parliament, with 68 seats out of 249 reserved for women in the Wolesi Jirga – the lower house.

Given that an oft-cited justification for intervention is the defense of the rights of women, it is not surprising that NATO has found itself at the center of the gender debate in Afghanistan.  Although NATO’s primary role is to provide military assistance, increasingly the alliance has gone to pains to highlight its recognition of wider social development issues. In 2009, President Obama tied in NATO’s traditional objective of mutual defense with laudable development goals in Afghanistan:  “Our troops are highly motivated to protect the United States, just as troops from NATO are highly motivated to protect their own individual countries and NATO allies collectively. So we want to do everything we can to encourage and promote rule of law, human rights, the education of women and girls in Afghanistan, economic development, infrastructure development …” 

NATO’s polymorphic mission

But is it the role of NATO to encourage social development? NATO’s primary mission is mutual defense from an attack upon its members. Yet the past decade has seen new challenges with increasingly complex mission requirements. Today, NATO operations span from maritime piracy and cyber-security to so-called humanitarian missions. Even so, promoting women’s right seems far from NATO’s original objectives. 

Yet the idea of reinforcing women’s rights in Afghanistan was reaffirmed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during the Women in Global Security Conference in 2010. Indeed, NATO has ostensibly spearheaded the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in Afghanistan, adopted in 2000 to protect women and children from war crimes. Accordingly, one of the core goals of the Afghanistan Compact agreement of 2006 stressed the importance of promoting and protecting women’s equal rights by increasing their participation in the democratization process.

NATO and gender equality?

NATO’s primary contribution to gender equality is in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) training of the Afghan National Police and Military. The program is specifically designed to promote participation in security and military operations by Afghan women.  But despite widespread claims of success, the results are poor.

Only 1,150 women serve in the Afghan National Police, less than 1% of the overall force of 122,000 – far from the lofty goal of 5,000 police women desired by the Ministry of Interior by 2014. NATO is expected to spend $20 billion in training, equipping and developing the Afghan National Security Forces, yet local forces are inhibited from hire female officers under fear of reprisal from traditional-minded families. So while NATO has clearly failed to meet its goals, this equally highlights the complex limitations coming from local culture and custom.

The harsh reality 

Yet the most prominent evidence of a misguided approach to Afghanistan is precisely in non-military issues that NATO is ill-equipped to deal with. Karzai’s official endorsement of a controversial "code of conduct" proposed by the council of clerics impedes women’s rights by allowing gender  segregation in school and the workplace, legalising rape, prohibiting women from travelling without both prior permission and a male escort, among other things. Soraya Sobhrang, the head of women’s affairs at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, remarked that the international community’s deafening silence on such processes has been "disastrous for women’s rights in Afghanistan… What the international community has done is really shameful. If they had got more involved in the process when it was discussed in parliament we could have stopped it."

The problem appears to be that the overall international approach examines Afghanistan through a overly narrow military lens – hence the focus on  women’s roles in local security forces, while other critical indicators illustrate an ongoing social crisis. Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth. Eighty seven per cent of Afghan women are illiterate, and only 30% have access to education in Afghanistan. One in every three Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence, and between 70 and 80% face forced marriages. No wonder, then, that the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan is 44 years.

With NATO’s withdrawal expected in 2014, and the recent NATO prediction of an eventual Taliban victory, this is a decidedly dismal legacy. Which leaves one to wonder – has the international community been fighting the wrong war?

What is going to happen next?

In the summer 2009 edition of Military Review, the journal of the US Army Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Afghan war veteran and senior NATO official Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns warned presciently that “the possibility of strategic defeat looms” as “violent incidents” increase in direct proportion to the NATO troop surge. Brouns analysis showed that the international community’s focus on military solutions was counterproductive. He highlighted insufficient attention to broader social issues, compounding the failure to reach poverty-stricken rural areas.  Afghans "need to see delivery" on promises of improved security, infrastructure and a better quality of life, for lasting stability to be achieved.

Brouns’ perspective suggests that the lack of focus on social development has inadvertently encouraged insurgent recruitment. The continued disenfranchisement and repression of women plays a critical role in this predicament.

But of course, development is not a matter for NATO. Hence, as NATO seeks to scale down its operations and eventually exit Afghanistan, the opportunity for a more holistic approach remains. Poverty and lack of economic prospects have played a critical role in fuelling the insurgency.  Hence, improving conditions for the overall population will not only help to re-build the country, but simultaneously curb the Taliban’s influence.

One does not have to travel too far to find a proven example of such a project – only across the border, in neighbouring Pakistan, where the Rural Support Program Network (RSPN) has lifted 30 million people out of poverty through a programme of grassroots empowerment. In all the areas it has operated, the RSPN’s programme of local capacity-building has used sustainable development to create an unimpeachable bulwark against radicalisation. Praised widely by the World Bank, USAID and the UK’s Department of International Development, the RSPN’s success in Pakistan offers a model that could be replicated – albeit with respect to distinctive local contexts – in Afghanistan.

The imperative now is for the international community to support and improve capacity-building measures at the grassroots while strengthening the judicial infrastructure. The focus should be on humanitarian, development and infrastructure projects – through credible independent NGOs – a strategic shift which could strike a decisive blow against Taliban recruitment efforts without firing a single bullet.