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Afghanistan: Transition strategy

You may kill a terrorist with a weapon, but you may kill terrorism with education”, Malala Yousafzai, Nobel peace laureate

I would like to thank the Women’s Regional Network, WRN, for inviting me to write up my views on what I find to be problematic about the Statement of Concern on the withdrawal of US, NATO and other foreign troops from Afghanistan.

First, I would like to give full credit to WRN both for bringing up the dire situation of Afghan women and the concern for their future, and, most importantly, for being ready to take action. All the seven points of the Statement are good and unproblematic.

What is a concern to me, however, is the preambular/explanatory part of the Statement, expressing that the withdrawal of troops "would be disastrous for women's rights and security" and that such a withdrawal should not happen "without a stable and secure Afghan state.” This is to me legitimating "forever boots in Afghanistan", which I would consider totally disastrous. I find it naive to believe that military presence in Afghanistan would help solve any of the underlying difficulties in the country. Military presence in combination with humanitarian efforts has created uncertainties and put the aid workers at risk. If we were to “win the minds and the hearts” it would have to be without military interference. Now, we should applaud the withdrawal and give all our attention to help build non-militarised peace and justice in Afghanistan.

I think we all know that the intention behind the invasion of Afghanistan has never been democracy and women's rights. These honourable goals have just been used to get more people to accept acting in violation of international law and the misuse of taxpayer’s money that should have been reserved for the betterment of the conditions of people. The pre-emptive war on Afghanistan should never have happened and the troops should certainly not have stayed for 20 long years making a patriarchal society even more patriarchal and weaponized. The gains that urban women may have achieved are, to my mind, not because of foreign troops, but of other parallel civil initiatives and Afghan women's outrage of the injustices they have had to confront for far too long.

The international community seems to have acted in Afghanistan without much knowledge of Afghan culture. For instance, the Pashtuns, the biggest and previously most influential ethnic group in Afghanistan, from where the Taliban were recruited, were not invited to the Bonn peace conference and the interim government wanted only Farsi (Dari), and not Pashto, to be the language of the school system. As director of UNESCO’s office in Pakistan and also responsible for UNESCO’s work in Afghanistan during the period when both the bilateral embassies and the UN offices in Kabul were moved to Islamabad, I had long struggles to make both the international community and the interim ministry of education in Kabul see the difficulties that such blatantly unjust decisions would entail. (We may want to compare with the attempts by the western oriented government in Ukraine to outlaw the official use of the Russian language in a country with millions of Russian speakers in the east.) Today the Afghan government remains strongly dominated by ethic Uzbeks and Tajiks (Northern Alliance). The sensibilities between the Sunni and Shiite religious groups seem also not to have been considered properly, with their links respectively to Pakistan/Saudi-Arabia and to Iran.

There is presently fear of full collapse in Afghanistan, of civil war and destabilization of the region. The main issue is therefore how to make the withdrawal of foreign troops in the best way possible for the Afghans, and with a special concern for the women. There is obviously a need for a wise transition strategy and a detailed and practical plan. WRN has started a very fruitful process with seven points to be taken into consideration. Betty Reardon has made useful further concretizations. I would just like to add a few more.

It is vital to clarify who is responsible for the cleaning up, who is to do what and who is actually willing to take responsibility. Perhaps there is a need for a UN Compensation Commission? There should, however, be no doubt that the responsibility, legal or moral or both, lies with the warring parties. They should have to get all weapons, ammunition and debris out of the country, clean up whatever physical damage done, ensure there are no unexploded ordinance, toxins and contaminants left behind and pay for the repair, for example, of damaged waterways, groundwater and agricultural land. The moral obligation should be to spend as much money on the reconstruction of the country as they have spent on the war over the last 20 years.

The timeline for the military clean-up should be set to 11.09.2021, the final date of the departing of the troops, which means they have to start this work urgently. When it comes to the rebuilding of the Afghan society, obviously the troops should have nothing to do with it. And no troops should be allowed to stay behind, as that may lead to the establishment of unwanted foreign bases.

The UN must urgently be called upon to assist the Afghan people and the government in “building back better.” Timing is important and there is probably a need to get in a UN peacekeeping mission as soon as possible. The peacekeepers should include a significant civilian unit with fifty-fifty women and men with different types of expertise. In addition to the UN relief funds and programs, the specialized agencies of the UN should urgently be generously funded in order to be able to undertake relevant projects within their fields of competence. UNESCO should e.g. help build up and sustain educational efforts (education for all, peace education and non-violent conflict resolution), stimulate culture, science and the free flow of information; WHO should help build the health system; FAO should help with strategies to strengthen agriculture and food production and distribution, ILO should help develop and strengthen descent work possibilities and the Human Rights Council should monitor the situation of human rights, not least the rights of women.

Civil society organizations, if without any strings attached, would be invaluable partners in the process towards a stable, peaceful and demilitarized society. Working on local levels may be good entry points. Peace educators, peace activists, human rights defenders, feminists, development workers and environmentalists and many more are needed. Professional cooperation, also on a shorter-term basis, for example, between Afghan teachers, artists, health-workers, lawyers, psychologists, trade-unionists and their counterparts abroad would be most valuable. Otherwise, international partners of good will should have a long-term perspective on their work and would have to give due respect to the cultural sensitivities without ever accepting violence or violation of human rights. The Soviets, for instance, failed badly when they tried to introduce a laic education system, whilst the Swedish Afghanistan Committee was allowed, even during the period of the Taliban, to give, discretely, education to girls, as the Committee was trusted not to do any indoctrination.

Afghan people have for decades suffered from war and warlike situations. They deserve assistance from the international community to reach the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The transition process should help them get out of a security situation based on militaristic means, which does not provide the needed human security. It is my conviction that when the needs and desires of people are met, they would not want to be recruited into neither war nor fundamentalism.

Ingeborg Breines, Oslo May 2021

Ingeborg Breines is the former co-president of the International Peace Bureau and the former director of UNESCO.

See also: Ingeborg Breines, Obama, ask Afghan Women! Speech given at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Oslo, Norway, together with Dorota Gierycz 27th December 2008.


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