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Afghanistan and Pakistan

April 15, 2009


With military commanders in Iraq indicating that plans for the withdrawal U.S. troops remain on track, more and more attention is being paid to the conflict in Afghanistan (which has overflowed into the wild regions of northwestern Pakistan). Although military operations in Afghanistan remain dangerous and intense, the conflict has also become a media battle. A good example of this is demonstrated by the consequences of a nighttime raid in a village in the Logar province. The objective of the raid was to capture men who had been making bombs and using them against U.S., Afghan, and coalition forces. The men had been followed for days and their identities, location, and activities were certain. During the raid, a man brandishing an assault rifle was shot and killed and four other men were taken captive. Mission accomplished the soldier departed believing they achieved a successful operation. They were wrong [“Tactical Success, Strategic Defeat,” by Pamela Constable, Washington Post, 17 February 2009]. Constable writes:

“The soldiers departed, leaving the women to calm the frightened children and the rumors to spread in the dark. By midmorning, hundreds of angry people were blocking the nearby highway, burning tires and shouting ‘Death to America!’ By mid-evening, millions of Afghan TV news viewers were convinced that foreign troops had killed an unarmed man trying to answer his door. … Strategically … the incident was a disaster. Its most incriminating version — colored by villagers’ grief and anger, possibly twisted by Taliban propaganda and magnified by the growing influence of independent Afghan TV — spread far faster than U.S. authorities could even attempt to counter. Worse, it happened in an area where the Obama administration has just launched an expensive military push, focusing on regions near Kabul, the capital, where Islamist insurgents are trying to gain influence. “

The power of media has been amply demonstrated around the globe. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban use the media as a powerful and deadly tool. Constable reports that Logar has been a historically peaceful valley. Its inhabitants have yet to side with either the Afghani government or the Taliban insurgents. U.S. troops have been sent there with a “mandate is to strengthen security, facilitate aid projects and good government, and swing local opinion against the insurgents.” Losing the public relations battle adversely affects every aspect of that mandate. People fear the worse when it comes to security. The people of Afghanistan are willing to believe propaganda because they already fear air attacks that have resulted in “collateral damage” as well as raids that take place in the dead of night. These tactics, of course, are aimed at protecting the lives of the soldiers fighting the insurgents. However, people fear things they cannot see (like bombs from the sky) and things that go bump in the night. These fears are being strengthened by Taliban propaganda and misinformation. The Taliban in Pakistan is also using the media to make people fearful [“In Pakistan, Radio Amplifies Terror of Taliban,” by Richard A. Oppel, Jr., and Pir Zubair Shah, New York Times, 24 January 2009].

“Every night around 8 o’clock, the terrified residents of Swat, a lush and picturesque valley a hundred miles from three of Pakistan’s most important cities, crowd around their radios. They know that failure to listen and learn might lead to a lashing — or a beheading. Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed ‘un-Islamic’ activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.”

Fear is contagious and undermines hope. Development cannot be sustained on fear. Development must be motivated by hope. Hope, however, is in very short supply in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two recent events have combined to make the situation there worse. First, Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban have agreed to stop spatting and work together [“Pakistan and Afghan Taliban Close Ranks,” by Carlotta Gall, New York Times, 26 March 2009]. Second, the Pakistani government has all but given up its attempt to govern the area that serves as the Taliban’s stronghold. The area is known as the Swat Valley [“Islamic Law Instituted In Pakistan’s Swat Valley,” by Pamela Constable, Washington Post, 17 February 2009]. For more about the situation in the Swat Valley, see my post entitled One Step Forward, Two Steps Back in Pakistan. The Pakistani government had balked at implementing the truce they negotiated with the Taliban, but yesterday finally agreed to implement it [“US critical of Pakistan Islamic law deal in Swat,” by Nahal Toosi, Washington Post, 15 April 2009. Although the Pakistani Taliban insist that Islamic law administered under their authority will have nothing in common with the draconian rule of the Afghani Taliban, who amputated thieves’ hands stoned adulterers to death, “they have bombed girls’ schools, beheaded policemen, whipped criminals in public squares and assassinated activists from the secular Awami National Party that governs the North-West Frontier Province.” Most recently, a video of Taliban members beating a young teenage girl while she pleads for them to stop has swept the around the Internet.


The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to overthrow the Taliban and wipe out al Qaeda training camps that had been operating inside of Afghanistan. The hope was that freedom, democracy, and tolerance would emerge from the ashes of conflict. There were some good changes, especially for women [“Afghan Women Slowly Gaining Protection,” by Kirk Semple, New York Times, 2 March 2009].

“Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a more egalitarian notion of women’s rights has begun to take hold, founded in the country’s new Constitution and promoted by the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a small community of women’s advocates. The problems they are confronting are deeply ingrained in a culture that has been mainly governed by tribal law. But they are changing the lives of young women.”

Recently, however, critics are concerned about a setback for women. The Afghan parliament passed a law concerning the application of Sharia marriage law for its minority Shiite population that many believe will reinstate some of the more oppressive practices used by the Taliban [“Karzai Vows to Review Family Law,” by Carlotta Gall, New York Times, 4 April 2009].

“Human rights officials have criticized the law, in particular for the restrictions it places on when a woman can leave her house, and for stating the circumstances in which she has to have sex with her husband. A Shiite woman would be allowed to leave home only ‘for a legitimate purpose,’ which the law does not define. The law also says, ‘Unless the wife is ill, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.’ Critics have said that provision legalizes marital rape. The law also outlines rules on divorce, child custody and marriage, all in ways that discriminate against women, said Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner for women’s rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. While the law applies only to Shiites, who represent approximately 10 percent of the population, its passage could influence a proposed family law for the Sunni majority and a draft law on violence against women, Ms. Sobhrang said. ‘This opens the way for more discrimination,’ she said.”

On the positive side, “it has provoked an extraordinary public debate on the once-taboo topic of religion and sex in this conservative Muslim nation” [“Afghan Law Ignites Debate on Religion, Sex,” by Pamela Constable, Washington Post, 11 April 2009]. The law was supposedly aimed at protecting minority rights (a good thing), but it ended up dramatically curtailing the rights of Afghan Shiite women. As the new law makes clear, the future of Afghanistan remains very much in doubt. The normally bright hopes of spring have been matched by the fear that the country will once again fall under the darkness of increased conflict [“For Afghanistan, a Season of Promise and Peril,” by Pamela Constable, Washington Post, 30 March 2009].

“The convergence of three factors — a major new thrust of U.S. military and political involvement, an expected answering surge in attacks by Islamist fighters, and tensions over an upcoming presidential election in August — is raising concerns that the country’s fragile equilibrium could collapse under so many contradictory pressures.”

One of the problems with making sweeping statements about Afghanistan is that Afghanistan (like Pakistan) is far from a unified country [“In Afghanistan, Soldiers Bridge 2 Stages of War,” by C. J. Shivers, New York Times, 12 April 2009]. “Some parts of the country are peaceful,” Chivers writes, “some are in conflict, and some are caught in the middle.” The fact that the international community is starting to pay more attention to events there is a good sign. But people are also aware that the regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan that are currently not under the control of central governments are part of the historically ungovernable areas of the region. One cannot help but feel sympathy for the peaceful, hardworking people caught in the violence. Like people in developing countries everywhere they long for peace and employment. Until security is brought to the region, the only things that are likely to flourish in the region are opium poppies and despair.

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