The U.S. is helping recruit and train thousands of women for Afghanistan’s police and army, even as officials seek a peace agreement that might return some power to their former tormentors, the Taliban.
Some 1,200 women serve in Afghanistan’s national police and 320 in the army. More than 50 have graduated from the military’s officer candidate school and another course is under way. Four female second lieutenants from the army arrived in the U.S. last month to train as helicopter pilots.
“We think that will make the difference in the security of the country,” said Jack Kem, the senior civilian representative in the NATO Training Mission. “There is a tie between women having a role in the security forces of a society and how stable a society is.”
This increasing return of women into Afghanistan’s leadership and security forces is at risk as the Obama administration steps up its drive for a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban to speed the U.S. military exit.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials will face “centrifugal pressure” in any negotiations to re-open the country’s current constitution, said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. That would put the clauses guaranteeing equality for women up for grabs, she said.
Setting ‘Red Lines’
“I don’t know that the Obama administration speaks as one voice on this,” said Coleman, who is author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.” “You’ve heard senior members of the administration say things like, ‘We can’t push just one issue.’”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken frequently of U.S. “red lines” requiring that the Taliban give up violence, renounce al-Qaeda ties and adhere to the Afghan constitution, highlighting the document’s promise of equal rights for women. Still, in a February speech, she said those terms would be the “necessary outcomes” of talks, dropping them as conditions before negotiations could start.
President Barack Obama, in a June 22 speech announcing the beginning of a reduction of U.S. forces, referenced the three conditions. He cited adherence to the Afghan constitution without specifically mentioning women and went on to repeat a limited aim that worries human rights advocates.
“The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: No safe haven from which al-Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies,” Obama said. “We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place.”
Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Eklil Hakimi, told a group at a July 13 White House event for the State Department- sponsored U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, “The protection and promotion of women’s rights is a top priority in our democratic process.”
Kem is counting on U.S. and Afghan officials to deliver on their public pledges to protect the rights of women in any potential peace agreement.
“I want it to stick. I don’t want any of this stuff to roll back,” Kem said in a July 22 interview in Washington. “We need to be somewhat forthright in what our real policies are.”
Afghan women were the target of some of the world’s worst abuses before the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime, which had harbored al-Qaeda prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Groups including the New York-based Human Rights Watch documented how girls were forbidden from attending school. Women were barred from work and most movement outside the home and flogged publicly for violations, rights groups reported.
Women leaders and activists remain targets. Suraya Pakzad, founder of the Afghan non-governmental group Voice of Women, counts 12 women activists killed since 2005. They include the director of the women’s affairs ministry in Kandahar and a journalist who ran a radio station and was killed while holding her 6-month-old baby.
The 2008 assassination of police Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar in Kandahar illustrates the risk to women in the security forces. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Kakar had joined Kandahar’s police force in 1982, following her father and brothers, who also were law enforcement officers, according to a Sept. 28, 2008, news report on the BBC’s website. After the Taliban took over in the mid-1990s, she was banned from working, as were all Afghan women.
While women make up only 1 percent of the police in Afghanistan and a smaller percentage of the army, they can play a practical and essential role, said Coleman.
‘A Big Deal’
They are more likely to be accepted in homes where women are present when police or the army raid for militants or weapons. And they can acceptably search women -- or men disguised in the traditional burka -- at checkpoints, Coleman said.
The Afghan government has set a goal of quadrupling the number of women in the national police to 5,000 by 2014.
For the four Air Force pilots studying in the U.S., working in security roles is a personal aspiration and a societal mission.
“It’s a big deal for us to open this door for others,” Second Lieutenant Sourya Saleh told reporters at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas on July 13. “There are ladies that have the dreams that can’t do it. We want to show them.”
Common arguments in Western circles that restrictions on women in Afghanistan are a cultural issue are refuted by history.
Afghanistan was one of the first countries to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Kem said during a July 22 interview in Washington. He is on leave from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, where he is director of the Land Power Studies Institute and holds a chair in military innovation.
In the 1970s, women participated in all walks of life in Afghanistan, Voice of Women’s Pakzad said in a July 29 telephone interview from her home in the western Afghan city of Herat, where electric power was cut off due to nearby fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces.
Women dressed in Western fashions, worked in medicine and served in Parliament, she said. As recently as 1985 to 1990, which includes the period of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, women served in all levels of the military.
“The White House should understand that it’s not a cultural issue,” said Pakzad, who was named in 2009 as one of Time magazine’s 100 people “who most affect our world” and in 2008 received the State Department’s Women of Courage Award. “My mother had much more freedom in her time than me.”
The women now in the security services are betting their futures, and even their lives, on a more tolerant Afghanistan.
“These women are putting themselves out there. They are trailblazers, and the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” Coleman said in a July 28 telephone interview.
The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, pledged to help protect the rights of women as the Obama administration pursues an end to the war.
“For us to support Afghanistan, this means support for sustainable, stable and capable Afghan institutions, both military and civilians,” Crocker said during his July 25 swearing-in ceremony in Kabul, according to a U.S. Embassy transcript. “It means doing everything we can to ensure the strength and vigor of civil society and ensuring that the rights of all, and especially women, are preserved.”
Kem favors cementing equal rights for women in more funding arrangements and in a long-term strategic agreement American officials are negotiating with Afghanistan.
“If that’s a red line,” he said, “then that red line ought to have some teeth in it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.