Conflict in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s strategic geographic location and ethnic diversity has resulted in decades of wars, deriving from both external and internal causes, including the US-led invasion and subsequent insurgency.

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Afghanistan has always been a passageway for the world’s great power in their pursuit from the Occident to the Orient – be it for the Silk Route, The Great Game during the colonial era or for the many proxy wars fought throughout the years. Much of Afghanistan’s ancient history lies in conquests and grandeur, in a world of Kings and Empires.

Afghanistan has borne the brunt of conflict and war for a very long time. Three Anglo-Afghan wars later, in 1919, Afghanistan was declared a sovereign country. King Amanullah Khan, the erstwhile ruler, declared Afghanistan a sovereign and fully-independent state, and broke its isolation by establishing diplomatic relations with the international community. He also tried to reform Afghanistan – abolishing the traditional burqa for women and opening a number of co-educational schools – and quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. Overwhelming armed opposition forced him to abdicate in January 1929, after Afghanistan fell to rebel forces led by Habibullah Kalakani. With time, Prince Mohammed Nadir Shah, Amanullah’s cousin, defeated and killed Kalakani in November 1929, and was declared King Nadir Shah. The reforms that Amanullah Khan embarked upon were a closed chapter.

After Nadir Shah was assassinated, Mohammed Zahir Shah, Nadir Shah’s 19-year-old son, succeeded to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. Until 1946 Zahir Shah ruled with the assistance of his uncle, who held the post of prime minister, and continued Nadir Shah’s policies. Afterwards, Shah Mahmud Khan, his uncle, became prime minister, followed by Mohammed Daoud Khan, who forged a close relationship with the Soviet Union, whilst distancing himself from Pakistan.

During the Second World War, Afghanistan neither participated nor took a stand. During the Cold War, it remained neutral and non-aligned; benefiting from hostile rivalry as both the Soviet Union and the United States vied for influence by building highways, airports and other vital infrastructure. In 1973, while King Zahir Shah was on an official overseas visit, Daoud Khan launched a bloodless coup and became the first president of Afghanistan. In 1978, a prominent member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), Mir Akbar Khyber, was mysteriously killed. The PDPA leaders feared that the government was planning to dismantle them, as many of their members were being arrested. In retaliation, Daoud’s regime was overthrown, with his and his family’s assassination. Nur Mohammed Taraki took over and moved to implement ill-conceived land reforms. The PDPA imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment and the intelligentsia. On the other hand, despite their role in perpetrating organized crime, they prohibited usury, made statements on women’s rights declaring the equality of the sexes and introduced women to political life.

In 1979, the ten-year Soviet War began, resulting in the deaths of over 1 million Afghans, mostly civilians. An equally large number fled to Pakistan and Iran, and from there tens of thousands emigrated to other parts of the world. With mounting international pressure and great number of casualties, the Soviets withdrew in 1989 but continued to support Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah until 1992.

When Najibullah’s government fell in 1992, Afghanistan’s political parties agreed on a peace and power-sharing agreement called the Peshawar Accords, which created the Islamic State of Afghanistan. An interim government came into existence for a transitional period, to be followed by general elections. Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar, the head of a political party called the Hezb-e-Islami, refused to recognize the government. He received operational, financial and military support from Pakistan, with the help of which he waged war. Saudi Arabia and Iran – as competitors for regional hegemony – supported Afghan militias, conflict between whom quickly escalated into a full-scale war.

The war was sudden, intense and destructive. Atrocities were committed with astounding regularity and casualness. In 1994, the Taliban became active. It began as a movement originating from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-run religious schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The Taliban developed in Afghanistan as a political-religious force, and took control of the country in 1994; forcing dozens of local Pashtun leaders to surrender. The Islamic State’s minister of defense, Ahmad Shah Masooud, defeated most of the militia factions that fought for control. After the destruction, the country began functioning again, whilst attempts were made to introduce democracy – though the Taliban refused, claiming that they did not believe in democracy.

In early 1995, the Taliban began shelling Kabul but were defeated by the Islamic State government forces under Ahmad Shah Massoud. This series of defeats continued until 27 September 1996, when Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Rashid Dostum, two former enemies, created the United Front or the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. The Taliban were preparing offensives against the remaining areas under the control of Massoud and Dostum, defeating both forces. From 1996 to 2001, the al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri became a state within Afghanistan.

Ahmad Shah Massoud remained the only leader of the United Front in Afghanistan. In the areas under his control, Massoud set-up democratic institutions and signed the Women’s Rights Declaration. In early 2001, Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Brussels asking the international community to give Afghanistan humanitarian help. He stated that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had introduced “a very wrong perception of Islam” and that without the support of Pakistan and bin Laden the Taliban would not be able to sustain their military campaign for up to a year.

On 9 September 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by two Arab suicide attackers inside Afghanistan and two days later the infamous September 11 attacks in the United States took place. After the attacks, the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan. The rebuilding of war-torn Afghanistan began in 2002 – and though there was some progress in building democratic structures over the years, the ten years of war with the United States had destroyed the country. By 2009, a Taliban-led shadow government began to form in many parts of the country.

Presently, the Karzai Administration handles Afghanistan’s political administration and hopes to forge a peaceful future for the country. However, there is evidence that the Taliban is progressively regrouping in anticipation of the 2014 NATO withdrawal. In anticipation of the push to regain power by the Taliban, the anti-Taliban United Front (or the Northern Alliance) groups have started to regroup under the umbrella of the National Coalition of Afghanistan (as its political arm) and the National Front of Afghanistan (as its military arm).

Young student in Afghanistan, September 2009 ( Photo by CODEPINK Women For Peace.

Women’s Rights and Afghanistan

As a country, Afghanistan historically never oppressed women, nor opposed implementing women’s rights. Specifically, the regime under King Amanullah Khan between 1919 and 1929 was especially in favour of women’s rights. Women were not restricted from formal education; in fact, their education was considered important. The King did not mandate veiling of women, and even encouraged women to take to dressing in western styles. In 1921, a law was created in a bid to abolish forced marriage, child marriage, bride prices and even to restrict the institution of polygamy that was a common practice in many households. Sadly, over time, these strictures were increasingly difficult to enforce. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan remained under the control of tribal groups and warlords. These institutions, driven by authority, controlled women.

In 1973, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over and attempted to once again reform marriage laws, women’s rights in general and even took-up cudgels in favour of women’s education. In this interim time, steps were taken towards modernization. A time existed in the trajectory of Afghanistan’s history when women held jobs as scientists, teachers, doctors, civil servants and nurses. Nevertheless, a majority of women in Afghanistan lived under poverty and penury. The advent of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, founded by Meena Keshwar Kamal in Kabul signalled an era of women’s empowerment. 1987, however, marked the beginning of the downturn – when Meena Keshwar was assassinated, after the RAWA office was moved to Quetta.

In 1992, the Peshawar Accord was signed by all the major Afghan anti-Soviet resistance parties, with the exception of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, establishing the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The Peshawar Accord restored peace through an interim government. However, war in Afghanistan quickly returned and Hekmatyar actively campaigned in antagonism towards women, having a history of throwing acid into the faces of women and shooting them at University in 1970. Although there were bans on alcohol and the enforcement of the veil, women remained integrated in the workforce and the liberal provisions of the 1964 Constitution were largely upheld. In 1996, Hekmatyar Gulbuddin became the Prime Minister of the integrated Islamic State of Afghanistan and restrictions were increasingly imposed. Women who appeared on television or any form of media were fired under Hekmatyar’s orders. In the four years that followed, a massive civil war ensued, where women were kidnapped and raped.

It was at this time that the Taliban were welcomed by the people. They were a group that comprised poor villagers who were educated in Wahhabi schools in Pakistan. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was the proverbial death-knell for progressive lifestyles of women. With the advent of the Taliban, women were denied some of their most basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. The right to life, to work and study, and to access health care – plus freedom of expression, movement and religion – were no longer enjoyed by women. There were instances of women asserting their rights under the Taliban regime, only to be subjected to public stoning, beatings and imprisonment. Women were oppressed and left bereft of the rights inherent to their very existence. Women were not allowed to leave their households unless they had a burqa and had a male member of their family to accompany them. These policies rendered many women immobile and confined to their houses, because they were either too poor to afford a burqa, or had no male relatives left after the war. The women who remained at home were made to paint their windows so that no one could look in from outside, and vice-versa. The few women who once held respectable positions prior to the five years under Taliban rule were forced to beg to survive, or to stay confined in their houses.

The consequences were manifold. Women teachers who functioned prior to the Taliban regime were no longer allowed to teach at schools. This led to the redundancy of many schools, and the imposition of a severe strain on the education system. Though women in the medical field were allowed to continue – as women could only be treated by female physicians – there was a steady decline in access to medical care and health care facilities because it was frowned upon for a woman to go to hospital. The few that tried were brutally beaten. After braving all of this, if a woman made it to the hospital, there was no guarantee that she would be seen by a doctor. On the other hand, a parallel market of human trafficking, prostitution and slavery thrived as the covert industry flourished under the rubric of harsh mistreatment of women.

Since the US-led invasion, there has been considerable change in Afghanistan. From a new constitution being installed in 2004 to the conduct of the country’s first presidential elections, there were sweeping changes in the political trajectory and social landscape of Afghanistan. On paper, the constitution ensures equality, and recognizes and guarantees rights for women. However, there is little change in practice. Women are still under the domination of men, and a majority of women – apart from those in Kabul – are not allowed to be seen in public without a burqa. Education still eludes them at large and health care access is frugal at best. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate for females over the age of 15 is 18% compared to 51% for males, and only 40% of females attend primary school and 6% attend secondary school.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

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