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Afghan Civil Society in the Shadow of the Taliban

By Liza Kane-Hartnett

On Sept. 28, the Taliban seized the city of Kunduz, its first seizure of a major urban area since 2001, although they retreated just two weeks later. Just days later, on Oct. 3, Médecins Sans Frontières staff members were killed in a U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz. Twelve days after that, President Obama announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has been delayed and 5,500 troops will remain at the end of his term in Jan. 2017.

These events have renewed international discussions of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the competence of the Afghan National Security Forces, and the strength and direction of the Taliban. However, policy discussions are not as common in regards to what an emboldened Taliban means on the ground and in the daily life of Afghans, particularly on vulnerable populations such as women who are often denied their rights and subjected to violence in areas under Taliban influence.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan with conservative Islamist policies that often undermined basic rights from 1996 until the U.S. led invasion overthrew its government in 2001. Although the government was ousted over a decade ago and the Taliban are no longer in control of major Afghan cities, their influence is on the rise. Today, a United Nations report, not released to the public, states that the Taliban’s strength is at its highest point since 2001. 

The Reality on the Ground

Immediately following the Taliban’s seizure of Kunduz in Sept. 2015, the group attempted to project a softer and more tolerant image — Taliban soldiers even posted “selfies” with citizens. However, the reality was unchanged from previous experiences in Taliban governance. Although promised a departure from the brutalities previously committed, women in Kunduz instantaneously became targets. In an article published on Oct. 14, The New York Times documents the campaign of terror waged against women. Tactics included threatening women with “any sort of public profile,” or employment, and “burning and looting women’s organizations,” such as shelters for abused women, a high school, and the Women’s Empowerment Center.

In addition to the destruction of the organizations’ structures and materials, verbal threats were issued. Dr. Hassina Sarwari, the Kunduz Province director of Women for Afghan Women, who had evacuated the shelter, received a phone call from the Virtue Ministry’s leader who told her, “they escaped this time, but that the next time they would not be so lucky.” Additionally, Amnesty International reports that there “are multiple credible reports of rapes.”

While redefining the role of women is central to the Taliban’s social doctrine, government employees, journalists, and international workers are also viewed as a threat to the Taliban’s legitimacy. For example, in Kunduz, two police officers were killed after the Taliban entered their home as part of a larger door-to-door effort to find anyone with governmental connections. On Oct. 12, the Taliban issued a threat to Tolo TV and 1TV stating, “they consider these television channels to be targets and not legitimate media outlets.”

These actions symbolize not only grave human rights abuses, but also an increasingly emboldened Taliban with ongoing political aspirations, the consequences of which could reach far from Kunduz. Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, describes the Taliban’s political goals, “their basic objective is to undercut if not overthrow the government of Afghanistan, which it sees as an illegitimate entity.” If the Taliban is to reach their goal it could greatly weaken the progress seen in civil rights, human rights, and civil society development over the past 14 years.

So far in 2015, it seems that they are making inroads. The Afghanistan Mid-Year Review, released in August 2015, discusses “an increase in conflict both in terms of frequency and geographic spread,” and highlights that there have been 4,921 civilian casualties in the first half of 2015 as well as a “sharp increase in conflict-induced displacement.” Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, has also has seen an increase in attacks and bombings by the Taliban over the past year.

Kugelman echoes these sentiments and acknowledges the Taliban’s expanded reach, saying, “Kunduz was certainly an eye-opener because it was the first time they’ve seized a large urban area, but slowly but surely they have been making deep inroads far beyond their traditional bases.” As a means to illustrate what this could mean for Afghans in their daily life, Kugelman explains that in many areas it is “implied that the Taliban is the operating authority,” and that areas already under de facto Taliban control have been experiencing situations similar to that of Kunduz, albeit with less international media attention.

The strengthening of the Taliban, and its subsequent persecution of women, government employees, journalists, and others weakens progress and exacerbates the dire humanitarian situation within the country. Additionally, it has international implications as the violence, coupled with poor economic conditions, encourages refugees to flee the country as well as voluntary migration for educated and middle-class citizens. Afghanistan has the second most refugees of any country in the world and is threatened by a brain drain if violence and economic stagnation continue, which would in turn weaken prospects for organic economic development and innovation post-conflict. 

The Endgame

There is no easy answer to end the insurgency in Afghanistan. Any peace process would take years to develop and have to include a complex series of agreements on governance, security, economics, and human rights among other issues.  While the fostering of a stable and secure Afghanistan is a long-term process, efforts should be ongoing both within the international community and Afghanistan for the continued protection and encouragement of civil society groups.

Among the most promising progress since the fall of the Taliban’s government has been development in the civil society sector.  In the years since 2001, NGOs, women’s organizations, and others have made impressive, albeit relative gains. However, Taliban advances threaten this growth. Looking to Kunduz as an example, the destruction of women’s organizations takes away vital resources for vulnerable women and limits access to the protection they are able to provide until reestablishment is possible. While the physical destruction of these groups was limited to burned and looted offices, the psychological trauma has a larger impact. The power of these institutions, such as shelters for abused women, decreases when women are unable to feel safe. Furthermore, employees of these groups are reluctant to return to their work out of fear for both themselves and family members. Civil society organizations, already targeted for the very principles they promote, are sometimes further burdened due to their ties to the international community, which can, “taint these NGOs in the eyes of some Afghans and certainly the Taliban,” argues Kugelman.

Ultimately, a strong civil society can help improve humanitarian conditions and the realization of rights. However, Afghanistan is a long way from having a civil society sector that is as well established as those in developed nations, and does not have either the infrastructure or security in place for quick growth. With that said, progress, though fragile, can be sustained in light of a resurgent Taliban.  The international community can help vulnerable Afghans by engaging in ongoing partnerships with civil society groups that can in time prepare these groups to independently operate through the provision of capacity-building and conflict training.

Charlotte Ponticelli, former Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State and current member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, stresses the importance of continuing and strengthening U.S. partnerships with Afghan women’s groups. Sylvia Maier, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, also keys in on the significance of a two-way dialogue, and “letting the locals drive the discourse and the contours of the relationships,” as a means to both achieve Afghan priorities and ensure that civil society groups are not unnecessarily being put in harm’s way. Ponticelli focuses on the power of skills-based training and education as a means of both empowering women and resisting Taliban influence. She argues that, “life skills, job skills, leadership skills, enhance and strengthen capabilities. They can tear down a center, but they can’t take away knowledge.” It is the development of these capacities, in addition to an improved security framework, that will in time facilitate the independent operation and further development of Afghan civil society groups. 

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Liza Kane-Hartnett is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of  Wikipedia Commons]

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