Why Peace Is the Business of Men (But Shouldn't Be)

A Modest Proposal for the Immodest Brotherhood of Big Men

Looking for a way out of Afghanistan? Maybe it's time to
try something entirely new and totally different. So how about putting
into action, for the first time in recorded history, the most
enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325?

Passed on October 31, 2000, more than a decade ago, that "landmark"
resolution was hailed worldwide as a great "victory" for women and
international peace and security. In a nutshell, SCR 1325 calls for
women to participate equally and fully at decision-making levels in all
processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconstruction.
Without the active participation of women in peacemaking every step of
the way, the Security Council concluded, no just and durable peace could
be achieved anywhere.

"Durable" was the key word. Keep it in mind.

Most hot wars of recent memory, little and big, have been resolved or
nudged into remission through what is called a power-sharing
agreement. The big men from most or all of the warring parties -- and
war is basically a guy thing, in case you hadn't noticed -- shoulder in
to the negotiating table and carve up a country's or region's military,
political, and financial pie. Then they proclaim the resulting deal

But as I learned firsthand as an aid worker in one so-called
post-conflict country after another, when the men in power stop shooting
at each other, they often escalate the war against civilians -- especially women and girls.
It seems to be hard for men to switch off violence, once they've gotten
the hang of it. From Liberia to Myanmar, rape, torture, mutilation,
and murder continue unabated or even increase in frequency. In other
words, from the standpoint of civilians, war is often not over when it's
"over," and the "peace" is no real peace at all. Think of the
Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious "rape capital of the world,"
where thousands upon thousands of women are gang-raped again and again
although the country has officially been at "peace" since 2003.

In addition, power-sharing agreements among combatants tend to fray,
and half of them unravel into open warfare again within a few years.
Consider Liberia throughout the 1990s, Angola in 1992 and 1998, Cambodia
in 1997, and Iraq in 2006-2007. At this moment, we are witnessing the breakdown
of one power-sharing agreement in the Ivory Coast, and certainly the
femicidal consequences of another, made in 2001, in Afghanistan.

It is this repeated recourse to war and the unrelenting abuse and
neglect of civilians during fleeting episodes of "peace" that prompted
the Security Council to seek the key to more durable
solutions. They recognized that men at the negotiating table still
jockey for power and wealth -- notably control of a country's natural
resources -- while women included at any level of negotiations commonly
advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil
society. Women are concerned about their children and consequently
about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, health care, education,
and the like -- all those things that make life livable for peaceable
men, women, and children anywhere.

The conclusion is self-evident. Bring women to the table in
decision-making roles in equal numbers with male participants and the
nature of peace negotiations changes altogether. And so does the
result. Or at least that's what the Security Council expects. We can't
be sure because in more than a decade since SCR 1325 was enacted, it has
never been put to the test.

At the time, at the exhilarating dawn of a new millennium, the whole
world applauded SCR 1325 as a great achievement of the United Nations,
pointing the pathway to world peace. Later, when men in war-torn
countries negotiated peace, often with the guidance of the U.N., they
forgot all about it. Their excuse was that they had to act fast, speed
being more important than justice or durability or women. At critical
times like that, don't you know, women just get in the way.

Peace? Not a Chance

My special concern is Afghanistan, and I'm impatient. I'd like a
speedy conclusion, too. It's been nine years since I started doing aid
work there, and in that time several of the young Afghan women who were
my colleagues and became my friends have died of illnesses they would
have survived in better times under the auspices of a government that
cared about the welfare of its citizens. Even its women citizens.

Yet now, whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation
of SCR 1325 to American big men -- thinkers, movers, and shakers -- who
lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object.
They know the theory, they say, but practice is something else again,
and they are precluded from throwing their weight behind SCR 1325 by
delicate considerations of "cultural relativism." Afghanistan, they
remind me, is a "traditional" culture that regards women as less than
human. As Westerners, they say, we must be particularly careful to
respect that view.

Yet the eagerness of Western men to defer to this "tradition" seems
excessive, and their tenderness for the sentiments of bearded men who
couldn't clear airport security in Iowa City strikes me as deliberately
obtuse, especially since very few of the Afghan men who actually
governed Afghanistan between 1919 and 1989 would have shared their

culture is -- and is not -- traditional. Modern ideas, including the
idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of internal
Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King
Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family
court to adjudicate women's complaints about their husbands; he
proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy, cast away the
burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as "bad and
evil persons" who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals
of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Afghans still
remember Amanullah and his modern, unveiled Queen Suraya for their brave
endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.

Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared King Amanullah's modern
views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists
alike. But at least since 1979, when the United States and Saudi Arabia
joined Pakistan in promoting the ideology and military skill of
Islamist extremists who sought to return the country to the
seventh-century world of the prophet, Afghanistan's liberal modernists
have taken flight for North America, Europe, and Australia.

Last summer in Afghanistan I talked with many progressive men and
women who were running for parliament, hoping to push back against the
inordinate power of the Afghan executive in the person of President
Hamid Karzai. To them, he seems increasingly eager to do deals with the
most extreme Islamists in opposition to all their progressive dreams
for their country.

Yet in August, when President Karzai flagrantly stole the presidential election, President Obama telephoned
to congratulate him and the U.S. officially pronounced the fraudulent
election results "good enough." We might ask: In this contest between
entrenched Islamist extremists and progressives who favor equality and
democracy, why is the United States on the wrong side? Why are we on
the side of a mistaken notion of Afghan "tradition"?

Our Big Man in Kabul

In 2001, the U.S. and by extension the entire international community
cast their lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after one of
those power-sharing conferences in Bonn, Germany, to which, by the way,
only two Afghan women were invited. We paid hundreds of millions of
dollars to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and
looked the other way while Karzai's men stuffed the ballot boxes.
Now, it seems, we're stuck with him and his misogynist "traditions,"
even though a growing number of Afghanistan watchers identify the Karzai
government as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces in its never-ending war.

We could have seen this coming if we had kept an eye on how President Karzai treats women. George W. Bush famously claimed
to have "liberated" the women of Afghanistan, but he missed one: Hamid
Karzai's wife. Although she is a gynecologist with desperately needed
skills, she is kept shut up at home. To this day, the president's wife
remains the most prominent woman in Afghanistan still living under house
rules established by the Taliban. That little detail, by the way,
should remind you of why you ought to care what happens to women: they
are the canaries in the Afghan political coal mine.

And what has President Karzai done for the rest of the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.

That's the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights
Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), an association of prominent
aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan, including such
highly respected non-governmental organizations as Oxfam, CARE, and Save
the Children. The Afghan researchers who did the study conducted
extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male
political leaders, and female leaders locally, provincially, and

The report notes that President Karzai has supported increasingly
repressive laws against women, most notoriously the "Taliban-style" Shia
Personal Status Law, enacted
in 2009, which not only legitimizes marital rape but "prevents women
from stepping out of their homes" without their husband's consent, in
effect depriving them of the right to make any decisions about their own
lives. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic
freedoms guaranteed to all citizens in the Afghan Constitution, which
was passed in 2004 as part of a flurry of democratic reforms marking the
start of Karzai's first term as elected president. The democratizing
spasm passed and President Karzai, sworn to defend that Constitution,
failed to do the job.

In fact, Karzai's record on human rights, as the HRRAC report
documents, is chiefly remarkable for what he has not done. He holds
extraordinary power to make political appointments -- another indicator
of the peculiar nature of this Afghan "democracy" our troops are
fighting for -- and he has now had almost 10 years in office, ample time
to lead even the most reluctant traditional society toward more
equitable social arrangements. Yet today, but one cabinet ministry is
held by a woman, the Ministry for Women's Affairs, which incidentally is
the sole government ministry that possesses only advisory powers.
Karzai has appointed just one female provincial governor, and 33 men.
(Is it by chance that Bamyan -- the province run by that woman -- is
generally viewed as the most peaceful in the country?) To head city
governments nationwide, he has named only one female mayor. And to the
Supreme Court High Council he has appointed no woman at all.

Karzai's claim that he can't find qualified women is a flimsy -- and
traditional -- excuse. Many of his highest-ranking appointees to
government offices are notorious war criminals, men considered by the
great majority of Afghan citizens to have disqualified themselves from
public office. The failure of many of his male appointees to govern
honestly and justly, or even to show up for work at all, is a rising
complaint of NATO commanders who find upon delivery of "government in a box" that the box is pretty much empty.

If fully qualified women are in short supply, having been confined
and deprived for years thanks to armed combat and the Taliban
government, isn't that all the more reason for a president sworn to
uphold equality to act quickly to insure broad opportunities for
education, training, jobs, and the like? The HRRAC report sensibly
recommends "broad sociopolitical reform" to provide "education and
economic opportunities for real women's leadership." Ashraf Ghani
Ahmadzai, former minister of finance, former president of Kabul
University, and presidential contender, spoke in favor of such a
"sensible and regular process." As he noted, however, "Our government
is not a sensible government."

Flimsy, too, is the argument that Afghanistan's cultural traditions
eliminate women from public service. Uzra Jafari, the mayor of
Daikundi, reports that the city's inhabitants did not believe a woman
could be a mayor, but they soon "accepted that a woman can serve them
better than a man." "Social obstacles can be overcome," she says, "but
the main problem is the political obstacles. We have problems at the
highest levels." The problem, in other words, is President Karzai, the
only person in Afghanistan who has the power to install women in
political offices and yet refuses to do so. In short, the president is
far more "traditional" than most of the people.

Without the support of male leadership, women leaders (and their
families) become easy targets for harassment, threats, intimidation, and
assassination. When such threats come from the ultra-Islamist men who
dominate the Afghan parliament, they prevent women parliamentarians from
uniting in support of women and, in most cases, from speaking out as
individuals for women's rights. Death threats have a remarkable
silencing effect, disrupting the processes of governance, yet President
Karzai has not once taken a stand against the terrorist tactics of his

The Brotherhood of Men

Let's acknowledge that there are limits to what the West can and
cannot do in the very different and more traditional culture of
Afghanistan. Judging by what we have already done, it seems to be
perfectly all right for the West -- aka the U.S. -- to rain bombs upon
this agrarian country, with its long tradition of moderate Sufism, and
impose an ultraconservative Islamist government and free market
capitalism (even at the expense of indigenous agricultural markets)
through the ministrations of thousands of highly paid private American
"technical assistants." But it is apparently not okay for any of those
multitudinous, extravagantly paid American political and economic
consultants to tweak the silken sleeve of President Karzai's chapan and say, "Hamid, my man, you've gotta get some more women in here." That would be disrespectful of Afghan traditions.

I don't buy it. What we're up against is not just the intractable misogyny of President Karzai and other powerful mullahs and mujahideen, but the misogyny of power brokers in Washington as well.

Take, for example, the second most popular objection I hear from
American male experts on Afghanistan when I raise my modest proposal.
They call this one "pragmatic" or "realistic." Women can't come to the
negotiating table, they say, because the Taliban would never sit down
with them. In fact, Taliban, "ex-Taliban," and Taliban sympathizers sit
down with women every day in the Afghan Parliament, as they have in
occasional loya jirgas (deliberating assemblies) since 2001.
Clearly, any Taliban who refuse altogether to talk with women disqualify
themselves as peace negotiators and should have no place at the table.
But what's stunning about the view of the American male experts is that
it comes down on the other side, ceding to the most extreme Taliban
misogynists the right to exclude from peace deliberations half the
population of the country. (Tell that to our women soldiers putting
their lives on the line.)

Yet these days every so-called Afghanistan expert in Washington has a
plan for the future of the country. Some seem relatively reasonable
while others are certifiably delusional, but what almost all of these
documents have in common is the absence of the word "women." (There are a
few tiny but notable exceptions.)

In the Loony Tunes category is former diplomat and National Security
Council Deputy Robert D. Blackwill's "Plan B in Afghanistan" appearing
in Foreign Affairs, which calls for
the U.S. military to flee the south, thus creating a "de facto
partition" of Afghanistan and incidentally abandoning -- you guessed it
-- "the women of those areas," as well as anyone else in the south who
wants "to resist the Taliban." This scenario may call to mind images of
helicopters departing the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, but
Blackwill clings to his "strategy," calling the grim fate of those left
behind "a tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for
outsiders to change."

In the relatively reasonable category is the plan
of the Afghanistan Study Group: "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S.
Strategy in Afghanistan." Its first recommendation says, "The U.S.
should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within
Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal
parties." Whoops! No mention of women there. And power sharing? We
know where that's headed. Afghanistan, the undisputed small arms
capital of the world, might easily spontaneously combust into civil war.

But what becomes of women? Even Matthew Hoh, who resigned his position
in 2009 as a political officer in the foreign service to protest U.S.
policy in Afghanistan, and now heads the Afghanistan Study Group, can't
seem to imagine bringing women to the negotiating table. (He says he's
"working on it.") Instead, the Study Group decides for women that "this
strategy will best serve [their] interests." It declares that "the
worst thing for women is for Afghanistan to remain paralyzed in a civil
war in which there evolves no organically rooted support for their
social advancement." Well, no. Actually, the worst thing for women is
to have a bunch of men -- and not even Afghan men at that -- decide one
more time what's best for women.

I wonder if it's significant that the Afghan Study Group, much like
the Bonn Conference that established the Karzai government in the first
place, is essentially a guy club. I count three women among 49 men and
the odd "center" or "council" (also undoubtedly consisting mostly of
men). When I asked Matthew Hoh why there are so few women in the Study
Group, he couldn't help laughing. He said, "This is Washington. You go
to any important meeting in Washington, it's men."

Maybe the heady atmosphere engendered by all those gatherings of
suits in close quarters was what inspired Supreme Court Justice Antonin
Scalia to abandon all discretion recently and declare
that the promise of equal protection in the 14th Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution does not extend to protecting women against sex
discrimination. If states enact laws discriminating against women, he
opined, such laws would not be unconstitutional. (You can be sure some
legislators have gotten right to work on it.)

That opinion puts Justice Scalia cozily in bed with former Chief
Justice Shinwari, President Karzai's first appointee to head the Supreme
Court of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who interpreted Article
22 of the Afghan Constitution, which calls for men and women to have
equal rights and responsibilities before the law, to mean that men have
rights and women have responsibilities to their husbands. (Could this
mean that the United States is a traditional culture, too?)

Women leaders in Afghanistan complain that their government does not
see them as "human," but merely uses them as tokens or symbols,
presumably to appease those international donors who still rattle on
about human rights. George W. Bush used Afghan women that way. Obama
doesn't mention them. Here in the U.S. you take your choice between
cynical exploitation, utter neglect, and outright discrimination.

In Afghanistan, Karzai names a High Peace Council to negotiate with
the Taliban. Sixty men. The usual suspects: warlords, Wahhabis, mujahideen, long-bearded and long in the tooth, but fighting for power to the bitter end. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network reports
that among them are 53 men linked to armed factions in the civil wars
of the 1980s and 1990s including 13 linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's
Hezb-e Islami, currently allied with the Taliban. An additional 12
members of the High Peace Council held positions in the Taliban's
Emirate government between 1996 and 2001.

Under some international pressure, Karzai belatedly added 10 women,
the only members of the High Peace Council with no ties to armed
militias past or present; they represent the interests of civil society,
which is to say the people who might actually like to live in peace for
a change and do their utmost to sustain it. The U.S. signed off on
this lopsided Council. So did Hillary Clinton, a woman who, as
Secretary of State, has solemnly promised
again and again never to abandon the women of Afghanistan, though she
never remembers to invite them to a conference where international and
Afghan men decide the future of their country.

Okay, so my modest proposal doesn't stand a chance. The deck is
stacked against the participation of women, both there and here. Even I
don't expect men in power to take seriously the serious proposition
that women must be equally and fully involved in peacemaking or you
don't get durable peace. Too many men, both Afghan and American, are
doing very nicely thank you with the present traditional arrangements of
our cultures. So, searching blindly for some eventual exit and
burdened by their misbegotten notions of "peace," U.S. and NATO
officials busy themselves repeatedly transporting to Kabul, at vast
expense, a single high-ranking Taliban mullah to negotiate secret peace
and power-sharing deals with President Karzai. American officials tout
these man-to-man negotiations as evidence that U.S. strategy is finally
working, until the "mullah" turns out to be an imposter
playing a profitable little joke on the powers that be. Afghan women,
who already suffer the effects of rising Taliban power, are not

Consider this. We're not just talking about women's rights here.
Women's rights are human rights. Women exercising their human rights
are simply women engaging in those things that men the world over take
for granted: going to school, going to work, walking around. But in
Afghanistan today -- here's where tradition comes in again -- almost
every woman and girl exercising her rights does so with the support of
the man or men who let her out of the house: father, husband, brothers,
uncles, sons. Exclude women from their rightful equal decision-making
part in the peacemaking process and you also betray the men who stand
behind them, men who are by self-definition committed to the dream of a
more egalitarian and democratic future for their country.

The sad news from Afghanistan is that a great many progressives have
already figured out their own exit strategy. Like generations of Afghans
before them, they will become part of one of the world's largest
diasporas from a single country. Ironically, I'll bet many of those
progressive Afghan men will bring their families to the United States,
where women appear to be free and it's comforting to imagine that
misogyny is dead.