Yesterday, Wagner hosted a panel event (co-sponsored by IPSA and the Wagner Women’s Caucus) with the above title. The speakers approached the issues from a number of angles.
Sylvia Maier, from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, argued against efforts to ban the niqab and burqa in various European countries. Many Muslin women choose to wear such garments as expressions of their faith. Throughout the event, Maier repeatedly emphasized women’s agency and choice. To her, the way the West discusses Muslim women as being oppressed by the burqa/niqab is patronizing to those women.
Anushay Hossain, a blogger and writer, expanded on the same themes as Maier, but with particular attention to Afghanistan. She questioned why the fight for Afghan women’s rights seems to be rolled out when it’s convenient for drumming up support for the war, but then falls to the side in everyday policy. In Afghanistan, women’s rights are used to assert American/Western cultural superiority. Meanwhile, in Europe, the burqa/niqab becomes an easy target for Europeans’ concerns about Muslim integration. Hossain made the point that we should be talking about that integration, not wardrobe. Sadly, bans are likely to further marginalize Muslim minorities, even leading more women to choose to wear the niqab in defiance.
Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), discussed a different set of issues altogether. Her organization has about 150 staff in Afghanistan working on a variety of women’s rights and protection issues. WAW also operates a center in Queens. Viswanath told phenomenal stories about the positive changes happening in the communities where WAW works, and the support they often receive from religious leaders, ministries, schools and other institutions in Afghanistan. It’s hard to do her stories justice in blog form. She described a father who went to great lengths to secure justice after his young daughter had been raped. She also discussed the bravery of Bibi Aisha, who had stayed at a WAW facility, to tell her story of being brutalized by the Taliban to the world (Bibi Aisha appeared on a recent cover of Time next to the headline, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”).
The panelists were impressive in their insights and depth of experience. However, two issues were left glaringly unaddressed. The first issue is the question of choice. The panelists emphasized the importance of a woman’s choice to wear the niqab, burqa, hijab or whatever else they’d like – but they failed to grapple with what “choice” really means in a context of strongly held social/cultural/religious norms. We can hardly say that a woman has a choice in situations where social sanctions dictate that only one option is available.
The second issue is the role of the US intervention in Afghanistan. Viswanath and Hossain both spoke strongly in favor of continued US presence. Although Hossain criticized the use of women’s rights as rhetorical cover for the US intervention, she has no doubt about what a return to Taliban rule would mean for Afghan women. Viswanath was especially concerned for WAW’s ability to do its work. The panelists argued for a re-thinking of US strategy in Afghanistan, including an expansion of security, shifting more resources to development, and reducing corruption. They seemed to describe this as a way to create space, so that changes could come from within the communities themselves. However, Viswanath also described how the women’s rights provisions in the Afghan constitution often seem trumped by tribal law or sharia law. It’s clearly a long, slow process. The question remains: How can outsiders (the US, NATO, etc.) best support that process? Is a presence of troops and development funding really sufficient?
Of course, I didn’t expect our wonderful panelists to detail a new strategy for Afghanistan. That would be a tall order for a Friday afternoon. Still, if the US presence is so vital to progress for Afghanistan’s women, but the current policies simply use women’s rights as rhetorical window dressing, I would have liked more depth on what the US should be doing differently. As it was, the panel ran 15 minutes over. The longer conversation will have to wait for another day.
Dave Algoso is getting a Master in Public Administration, with an international policy and management focus, at NYU Wagner. He normally blogs at Find What Works.
By Chris Pedersen
So often in the news the issue of the US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan is a topic that brings out strong emotions from both those that support and oppose the idea of military involvement. With such a grand question, it is futile to argue such a big issue without breaking down the US-Afghan issue into smaller pieces,limiting the number of variables. Let us focus on the US and NATO role in training Afghan police officers. With troops planning on withdrawing in July 2011, this is a very important task.
The US and Allied forces that are in charge of training the new Afghan recruits face some challenging tasks to say the least. These new recruits have some astonishing characteristics that include:
- One in five recruits test positive for drugs.
- Fewer than one in 10 can read and write, making the simplest tasks of writing down a license plate an obstacle.
- Taliban infiltration is a constant worry. Last November, five British NATO officers training a police unit in Helmand Province were killed by one of their trainees. Taliban later claimed the attack.
Afghanis off the street can become a police officer in under 3 months of training . Recruits are given an eight week training course and then placed throughout the country. With poor pay, the highest death rate of all security forces and lack of equipment, a quarter off all officers quit within a year. Recognizing the inadequacies of the current police training force, the US has tried to address some of the concerns of finding new instructors and creating programs that would raise the moral and identity of the Afghan police force.
Instead of the military or State Department taking the role of training the police force, the US government has hired a private contractor, DynCorp, to take on the large endeavor. The actions of the US should speak for itself of the limit to which the US military is stretched and the unwillingness of NATO allies to commit additional resources to the Afghan campaign.
DynCorp, after receiving a large contract by the US has sent a unit that mainly consists of retired police officers to train the police force. Since arriving, the officers have complained that they are overwhelmed by recruits incompetency and facing challenges in communicating information. NATO officers working with DynCorp complain that shortly after arrival, DynCorp contractors had lost motivation and have shown unprofessional attitudes because of lack of managerial oversight. Brig. Gen. Carmelo Burgio, an Italian Carabinieri NATO force contends that one of the biggest failings of the training program was the State Department’s over reliance on private contractors, whom he described as often over-aged, under-motivated, and expensive. Burgio says, “For the cost of 10 DynCorp, I can put 30 Carabinieri (NATO) trainers in and save money.”
Like many other parts of the region, family structure and reliance between family members for survival is crucial. Loyalties between family and the police force has been an issue where family ties prevail. For example, if one family member is in the police force and another in the Taliban, communication will not even seize and usually grow. NATO commanders have been frustrated with failed missions where police forces have planned to ambush the Taliban only to find out that Taliban forces have been tipped off by the Afghan police forces themselves.
This brings me to my last point: When President Obama addressed the world with his future plans of US involvement in Afghanistan, one of the key points that he brought up was the idea of withdrawing in July 2011. Although we will continue to have a presence, both with boots on the ground and monetarily beyond 2011, what confidence does that bring to the Afghan people, whose trust the US and Allied forces have worked so hard to win? If you were in the boots of an Afghan police man, which side would you lean to support, the Taliban who show no signs of leaving their native land or a police force that is backed by an Allied foreign military that will begin its withdrawal in 18 months?
This week’s Economist has three articles about democracy in three different countries. They form an interesting set. Going from east to west:
Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai will remain president without a run-off election. The second-place candidate from the first round, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, bowed out rather than face the massive fraud that was expected in the second round. The twist: Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared Karzai the winner despite significant doubt on legality of the move, and whether the IEC has the authority to make that decision. Obama and other Western leaders endorsed the outcome. Best line: "The Taliban gleefully claimed that the election had been decided in Washington and London. Most independent observers would concur." And then: "It is hoped that the legitimacy absent from the electoral process can be ‘earned’ through good behaviour."
Next door, protesters in Iran have made a habit of turning up to officially sponsored celebrations. Thousands took to the streets in Tehran and smaller cities on November 4th, the thirtieth anniversary of the day Iranian students took 52 American hostages at the embassy in Tehran. These protests are clearly continuations of the ones that followed June’s disputed election. Key line: "The protests are unlikely to bring the government down, but its legitimacy is being questioned in a way that was once unthinkable."
And finally, many see positive signs in the political maneuvering leading up to Iraq’s January elections. The main electoral blocks are increasingly cross-sectarian. For example, Iyad Allawi (a Shia and former prime minister) and Saleh al-Mutlaq (a Sunni member of parliament) have formed the Iraqi National Movement. Their main rival: Unity, a group led by Jawad al-Bolani (a Shia and current interior minister) and Ahmed abu Risha (a Sunni leader of the Awakening movement). This is unquestionably progress — though whether it will last remains to be seen.
Blogging best practice requires somehow connecting these three stories. Forget the geographic proximity; that’s too easy. Let’s also ignore the fact that they are all Muslim countries. Here is there interesting thread: Accountability to the people. Afghanistan’s recent election debacle reinforces the public perception (and the reality) that the Afghan government answers to foreign governments rather than to its own people. That undermines every security and development effort. No amount of "good behavior" will counter it. In Iran, ongoing protests damage the regime’s legitimacy, giving moral support and political wiggle room to advocates for change within the regime. Iraq is the most interesting case: accountability to their bases can often drive politicians apart (witness the way US politicians in gerrymandered districts play to their parties’ extremes), but it may be that the need for a parliamentary coalition and the larger demand for national unity are having a positive effect.
By: Dave Algoso
On July 1, the IPSA book club met to discuss Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson at the bar Swift, a few blocks from the Puck building. The meeting was a success! There were seven people at the meeting – 3 current students, 2 new students, and 2 friends of an IPSA member.
The group discussed how impressed we all were with the extreme dedication Mortenson showed to his mission of building schools in rural Pakistan and later rural Afghanistan. He spent years of his life working with the local people, for very little money, often putting himself in danger. We discussed how we felt his made a different in empowering rural communities, particularly because aside from helping with the building, the school’s were run by the local people without an American influence. We agreed that work like Mortenson’s, by offering an alternative, can prevent poor people from turning to terrorism. However, we did note that the leaders of terrorist organizations often have high levels of education. We also talked about how Mortenson could have benefited from some organizational management and help with his finances and fundraising operations. He was luckily able to succeed, but his organization was constantly on the brink of financial ruin in its beginning days.
In the end, we were all amazed at the power one individual can have to change so many peoples lives and have such a positive impact.