Military withdrawal and the departure of international forces have been framed as a nightmare scenario for women’s rights by different groups inside and outside Afghanistan. However, the ironic fact about the much vaunted withdrawal is that so far, at least, there is no concrete proposal that operationalises a scenario of full withdrawal by 2014 - or what is known as the “zero option”. The “zero option” is repeatedly deployed as a form of pressure or implied threat to the government of Afghanistan to facilitate the signing of the bilateral strategic agreement (BSA). The telephone conversation between Obama and Karzai on February 25th 2014 is not an exception in this context. As events have developed, NATO representatives have met and in a carefully diplomatic fashion have stated: "Today we agreed the need to plan for all possible outcomes including the possibility that we may not be able to deploy to Afghanistan after 2014 due to the persistent delays we have seen". What is happening, I believe, is more closely related to the political bargaining over matters that concern the future of the government of Afghanistan, the role of president Karzai versus that of internationals in fashioning the upcoming presidential elections, and mediating a “peace process” or bringing the Taliban into direct contact as well as negotiations with the government.
What is really at stake is a change in the mode of relations between Afghanistan’s government and its international donors, although it must be noted that even such change is not expected to be dramatically transformative. In other words, now that the troops’ surge is over, there are possibilities that special forces operations will be limited, and more importantly, that the intense funding that flooded into Afghanistan - particularly during the surge years (2009-2012) - is going to decrease. And it is this decrease in funding flows, rather than the presence or absence of international personnel in uniform per se, that will have an important impact on Afghanistan’s future, and how the systems and institutions that have been created in the context of acute donor dependency will survive once the funding flow dries up or diminishes.
The way things are developing in domestic politics point to an increasing level of continuity with what is already in place, at least concerning the government and its commitments about what it will deliver to its people as the country transitions to a new presidency after the April 2014 elections. This continuity means that while there is a possibility of less eventual international engagement and support for women’s rights, the newly elected government will continue to have a mixed position, supporting some and resisting other aspects of women’s full inclusion in different public spheres. For instance, the government’s efforts focusing on service delivery in the fields of education, health and access to justice will continue, while it is possible that Afghan women will face a backlash and resistance to further advances in their political decision-making roles. This is mainly because women’s public role and their presence in decision-making have been symbolic - and driven primarily by the international donors, or by government initiatives to please international supporters. Given the acute donor dependency of these efforts, as funding levels decline this will affect every aspect of these struggles in the years to come. Having said that, one cannot ignore the fact that a momentum has been created that brought women into the public sphere. In other words, while “donor-driven activism” might have provided a push, Afghan women from grass-roots organisations, and those working as civil servants across the country, have become active and more conscious of the importance of their presence in the public sphere. An example of this can be found in the case of Laghman province’s women’s affairs directorate position that did not remain vacant even after the second director’s assassination. Although the dangers of women’s civic and political rights remaining symbolic persist, the impact of sustained international interventions - despite all their problems - cannot be simply ignored. The notion that things will regress to the situation of the late 1990s is impossible.
Afghanistan’s commitment towards women’s rights, and ensuring that the advancement of Afghan women in different fields can be sustained, will continue to be important sources of concern for the coming years, as will anxiety that the future leadership might compromise women’s rights for the sake of political deals with conservative forces inside or outside the government. With the support of international donors, and under pressure from civil society and the media, the current government has managed (despite challenges) to make some improvements in different political, social and economic fields. However, there are serious concerns over the lack of balance between what the vast majority of women who live in rural areas are gaining from these achievements, and what the smaller numbers of urban-based women who are closer to the centre get. Although Afghanistan’s rural women have manifested a strong level of agency, neither they nor the programmes and projects that were implemented such as National Solidarity Program (NSP) in their communities, have encouraged them to transcend their socially prescribed gender roles. This is mainly because Afghan women have learnt lessons from the past experience of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan's ( PDPA) radical approaches to changing society. A now prevalent approach by women, particularly in the rural context, has been to pursue gradual and moderate change rather than a radical transformation. Hence, while women are active and working, they continue their own ways of resistance under a strongly patriarchal system of norms and rules.
The parliament of Afghanistan on the other hand, has a mounting record of rejecting laws and bills that support women rights. It rejected the Elimination of Violence Against Women’s Law (EVAW) in 2009 and in 2013. It resisted the idea of gendered budgeting when some of female MPs raised the question of how national budgeting would affect women across sectors. It has been locked in controversy over the issue of protection of women’s shelters, calling them centres for immorality. Although part of the resistance by highly influential conservative members of parliament has to do with a dominant mentality in Afghan society that takes the subordination of women for granted, another part is mainly to do with the politics of relations between the president and the parliament. In other words, there is ongoing bargaining between the legislative and executive branches of government when ministers appointed by the president are not approved by the parliament, and when parliament uses its power to block laws intended to protect women that come to them through the Ministry of Justice. The question of women’s rights serves as a bargaining chip in these cases, establishing their respective legitimising agendas. Although the conservative MPs may not establish clear technical grounds for their refusal, they resort to invoking a particular version of Islamic interpretation to “prove” how “un-Islamic” these laws or bills or mechanisms are. Given that not all members of the parliament are well-informed and competent on the technical aspects of the laws, they follow the verdicts of the so -called “scholar” or the man whose appearance is more “Islamic”, rather than hearing the voices of women or other MPs.
The overall effects of donor assistance on women’s rights in Afghanistan have been quite problematic. At the heart of the problem is an interventionist approach, where not only the funding but the soft-ware aspects of the planning are normative, and applied in a cut-and-paste fashion - overlooking the demands of the context in which they are applied. One example of such an approach is the facile assumption that has influenced international perceptions, namely portraying the Taliban as the sole enemy of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
It has been proven repeatedly over the past decade that there are other conservative forces within the system who cannot tolerate the active presence of women in any sector. The parliamentarian blockage of EVAW law, and the anti-safe house reactions by Ministry of Justice and other government officials are examples of this. Most of the programmes and projects put in place have somehow ignored this reality, and have fallen into the trap of not seeing the enormous challenge that women’s rights defenders and activists are facing, not only by being targeted, threatened or humiliated by the Taliban, but also by other forces who appear modern - being clean-shaven and in suits and ties - and who occupy seats in Afghanistan’s parliament or other government positions. These men are as conservative as those whose appearance automatically singles them out as conservative and misogynist. This also suggests that a critical lesson could be learnt from the past decade: that it is necessary to address the mentality underlying the subordination of women as key to discrimination, rather than just accepting at face value the superficial jargon that some use to claim the extent of their “respect” for women’s rights. The fact that gender equality was turned into a political slogan by the international donors and was used as justification for military intervention, meant that Afghan women on the ground were given less opportunity to take an active part in the formulation, design and implementation of the programmes, and the gap was filled by those who might have had “technical” expertise in the field of gender, but lacked familiarity with the local context and its dynamics.
In sum, it is hugely problematic to connect the status of women’s rights to the presence or absence of international security forces in Afghanistan. Such an assumption or understanding is tantamount to believing that the troops were here to ‘liberate’ Afghan women, which was certainly not the case. It can also be argued that the subordination of women and their discrimination is not the monopoly of one group who led Afghanistan between 1996-2001, such as the Taliban. It goes well beyond that since there are conservative forces within the current system who over the past decade have continued to jeopardize women’s rights in the fields of legal reform, political participation and across governance sectors. As we move on to the next phase, while a real “zero option” is not so far seriously part of the agenda, the decrease of funding levels and political commitment by the international community certainly is. The question remains as to whether the main slogans such as “reform and continuity”; “moderation and equality”, “reform and convergence” of the leading presidential contenders, carrying messages of continuity and preservation and protection of the achievements of the past decade, will go beyond empty promises. This will be crucial not only to sustain these achievements, but also to take corrective action by addressing past failures. This can only be achieved by opening new spaces for Afghan women, as well as men, working for women’s rights, to come together and take stock of the lessons learnt in order to ensure that the next phase is more inclusive of women across the country, in rural and urban areas, than it has been for the past decade.