Canada in Afghanistan Part III

What do Afghans want?

Poll after poll is released noting various figures related to the feelings of Afghans about their country’s plight.

A recent poll sponsored by American, British and German broadcasters showed that 70 percent of Afghans believe the country is headed in the right direction compared to just 40% of those polled a year before. However, other sources, notably the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of Afghans released in October 2009, showed that only 42% of Afghans believed the country was moving in the right direction versus 29% who thought it going the other way (though overall this represents a 7% improvement on the prior years results).  Moreover, 63% are in favour of a continued presence by NATO.

And perhaps most hopeful is data from the Asia Foundation that shows that 80% of those surveyed are against a return of the Taleban. As Canadian diplomat Chris Alexander noted in a recent speech at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, “The vast majority of Afghans view the Taleban as a foreign, non-Afghan force.”

Perhaps associated with that statistic is an 80% support for the rights of women. Proponents of continued engagement have long pointed to the increase in schooling for girls and opportunities for women across a country which under Taleban rule saw women demoted to second-class citizens as a sure sign of progress. Hamid Karzai’s government even includes three female parliamentarians.

These gains have, however, been limited by an aversion to full equality, highlighted painfully by a law passed by the Afghan parliament in the spring of 2009 that stripped Shia women in the country of many of their most basic rights. Even in Kabul, the centre of intellectual and economic activity in the country, women face harassment and threats if unaccompanied by a male companion.

Progress is slow and uneven, and faces challenges well beyond the threat of Taleban retribution.

As many have noted, Afghanistan is an Islamic country, not a theocracy and certainly not overtly “fundamentalist,” but one nevertheless where Islamic tradition and culture is dominant. Moves to introduce secularism and equal rights are thus often, though evidently not always, challenged by traditional beliefs and values. And so the debate is shaped between those who see the slow development of rights and institution as signs of progress versus those who focus on the continued cultural and religious impediments to such change. Ultimately then, the answer lies not in our desire to export Western values and ideals but in the wishes of Afghans – and this, unfortunately, is very tough to gauge.

For every poll or anecdote that highlights support for human rights and development is research that disputes those figures based on rural / urban divides and the accompanying belief systems that are entrenched or developing in both. And with only 24% of the country considered urban, the traditional rural enclaves are extremely important to the country’s future.

So while 80% are against the return of the Taleban, this does not mean they’re fully behind a democratic, secular and rights based society. For example, Pashtun tribes, which represent over 40% of the country’s population, were in full support of the ouster of the Taleban in 2001 but are now thought to be cooperating with the Taleban and al Queda as they see the secular and rights-based society taking shape as a foreign (read: Western) imposition. As CBS foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan recently noted, “(The Pashtun) want their country back. They don’t much care if the women go to school — certainly not older girls or teenagers or women. They might let the little girls study up to the age of about seven or eight, but as soon as they approach marrying age — from 12-years-old in many Pashtun areas — they cannot go to school or even out in public. They must be imprisoned in the home, for the rest of their lives.”  She adds, “many Afghans resent secular, Western influences in their country which they see as corrupt and anti-Islamic.”

And therein lies one of the biggest challenges of success in Afghanistan. Our common definition of success is not just a military defeat of the Taleban. Rather it also includes the installation of democratic and secular rights in a land where both run counter to conservative Islamic belief. Not only does this pose a significant strategic challenge in promoting local support for NATO initiatives, but it also raises an important and tricky question as to the morality of imposing our values on another people.

That moral question aside, the struggle created by the juxtaposition of values and beliefs sees a great deal of importance placed on our willingness to let Afghan democracy, or better yet, Afghan governance evolve organically – so long as it does not involve a return to Taleban abuses, and to the use of Afghanistan as a safe-haven for terrorists.

The key for our continued engagement in Afghanistan is thus to help a moderate force emerge and strengthen itself against the Taleban insurgency. The current Karzai government has so far proven unable to do so. In an op-ed penned in late October 2009, Thomas Friedman pointed to the recent experiences in Iraq, where the U.S. surge was made successful not by its own force, but rather because a Sunni force set about to evict al-Qaeda and set about a moderating movement throughout the country. As Friedman notes, “The spark was lit by the Iraqis.”[i]

The comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq may be superficial, but one truth is common for both “People do not change when we tell them they should. They change when they tell themselves they must.”



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