The news broke that President Obama had accepted General McChrystal’s offer of resignation an hour before I was scheduled to do a live interview on CNN about Mountain2Mountain and our work to create education and opportunity for the women and children of Afghanistan . We watched the news all morning, waiting to hear if the interview would be bumped and engaged in a discussion about how NGOs relate to the US military presence in Afghanistan. We wondered about how the change in leadership will affect us and talked about the important relationship between the military and aid organizations.
While we do not work with the military directly, President Obama’s decisions about military leadership and strategies in Afghanistan do have a direct impact on us. We follow the news closely, knowing that our relationship with the military is a symbiotic one; the success of one mission is tied to progress toward the other. Our work with women and children in Afghanistan would be almost impossible without the presence of international security forces.
And we believe that our work, and the work of other NGOs in Afghanistan is a direct deterrent to the insurgency. If a family starts to thrive, the village begins to thrive, and that ripples through an entire tribal area and province. Healthy communities are more likely to stand up to threats from the Taliban than those that are teetering on the edge of survival. Today, many are easily manipulated, bullied and coerced into supporting the insurgency. But if we work to provide healthcare, plant crops, repair roads, educate children, and create jobs, local communities will have something valuable to protect from the Taliban.
As a non-profit aid organization, we work independently of the military and the government. Our goal is to implement programs and projects that are focused on education, training, and job creation in Afghanistan. We believe that women and girls are world’s most underutilized resource and can be significant agents of change in conflict regions across the globe. But our task is not easy in a country entering its fourth decade of conflict with one of the worst records on the planet for women’s rights and gender equity.
It is incredibly difficult to operate safely inside Afghanistan. If the array of countries providing security, training Afghan soldiers and fighting the Taliban insurgency weren’t there, our ability to educate women and girls, train rural midwives, build schools or even travel the country would be severely impaired. Many aid organizations rely on the military to travel safely through Taliban-controlled areas by helicopter or convoy.
But the safety of aid workers isn’t the only issue. In many cases, the international forces work directly with the locals to develop leadership from within communities and provide mentorship. One example is at a prison in Maimana in the northern Jawzjan province. Here the Norwegian military has a presence and their local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) helped with the women’s prison we are working with today.
In many prisons we’ve visited, women are jailed with their young. The treatment cannot be described as humane. There are not enough clothes or food, and all too often the female prisoners are raped by the prison guards paid to watch over them. Remarkably, the Norwegian PRT came in and worked with the prison commander to address these and other concerns. They built a separate prison building for the women with a small courtyard and separate, clean sleeping facilities. They flew the prison commander and his staff to Norway to visit the open-air prisons and to the United States to learn how other prisons are run and how prisoners could be treated humanely despite being jailed.
This work paved the way for our visit. We were received warmly by the Afghan commander and given full access to talk with the women, take photos. Eventually, we were able to set up a kindergarten for the children and a vocational training program for the women. Contrast that with prisons that haven’t had that sort of mentorship the PRT provided. Access is denied, commanders are cagey, and we are often not allowed to speak privately with the women.
The relationship is reciprocated as aid organizations help rebuild and create sustainable, functioning communities on the heels of the military. In an article written for Joint Force Quarterly, a military publication, Admiral Mike Mullen said that US efforts in Afghanistan to send a positive message about US military action and development efforts hurt US credibility when they do not coincide with what the populace sees on the ground. He went on to say that the gap between promised and actual improvements harms the credibility of the US message.
Aid organizations work to ensure that communities in Afghanistan can see the value of the internationals forces. They help change perceptions based on decades of conflict. Instead of occupier it is possible to become a collaborator, community builder and vital service provider. We can go from enemy to ally. If communities in the areas worst hit by the ravages of war and poverty are given support through health care, education, agricultural development, and reconstruction of roads, bridges and buildings, the Afghan people see a partner with a willingness to help them claw their way back and build healthy, thriving communities.
Large development agencies can repair roads, build clinics, and make sweeping structural changes. Small, grassroots organizations like Mountain2Mountain are limited by funding, but tend to operate in a more person-to-person, village-to-village approach. We focus on bringing training to local women to deliver babies, building girls schools, training teachers and creating women’s co-ops that allow widowed women an opportunity at survival in a male-dominated culture.
A change in military leadership always presents a few unknowns, but with General Petraeus at the helm it is bound to be a relatively smooth transition. He has overseen the Afghanistan blueprint and is intimately familiar with the region. In Iraq, Gen. Petraeus implemented rules of engagement that reduced civilian casualties, which increased local support. At the same time, these new rules of engagement gave more latitude to local commanders than the current rules in Afghanistan. This allows for faster decision-making on the ground. It is widely viewed that the General’s experience in Iraq will be invaluable in addressing the current strategy in Afghanistan.
As an article in the Vancouver Sun stated last weekend, women will be the first casualties of any surrender in Afghanistan. I agree. Our work depends on the international forces not surrendering, not turning their backs on the women and children of Afghanistan. This has happened once already. We must persevere from all sides and work together to make the sustainable, lasting, generational changes that ensure a stable future for both Afghanistan and our own country.
Published on HuffingtonPost June 25, 2010