Afghanistan: looking for a fix

You don’t set ‘artificial’ deadlines on troop withdrawal because that will let the Taliban know how long they have to keep fighting. For years this has been the mantra from Hoon, Reid, Browne, Hutton and co, but now that seems to have changed.
Combat troops will apparently be withdrawn by 2014. The countdown has begun. I’m not a military strategist and I don’t know whether this makes good sense or not. What worries me, though, is that today’s 70-country conference in Kabul could be rushing to end the seemingly interminable conflict with the Taliban and other insurgents by any means necessary.
Yes, the situation is chronic. Afghanistan’s endured over 30 years of conflict. Imagine that in any country – never mind an underdeveloped, much-invaded, landlocked one with extremely rugged terrain, climactic extremes and often chronic water shortages. It is now run by a government notorious for corruption and for failing to uphold the rule of law.
The BBC’s Lyse Doucet quotes the veteran UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Afghanistan, who says "I have never seen such a complex, difficult and dangerous environment in 40 years of working for the UN.”

But aid groups are now worried that recent offers of more aid for Afghanistan amount to trying to “buy” a rapid solution, hoping, as Christian Aid’s Paul Valentin said on The World Tonight yesterday, that “a quick fix” can be found for the Afghan military problem. In the land of the poppy, a quick fix is perhaps a sinisterly seductive idea, but is it realistic?
To me it seems clear that decades of neglect and violence aren’t going to put right overnight. Nonetheless, international “Afghan fatigue” seems to have set in (this is the ninth international conference on Afghanistan in nine years), and trying for a (relatively) quick fix now seems to be the preferred option. The formula seems to be: more aid + more training + talks with the Taliban = peace and stability.
This last tactic is highly controversial. I’ve previously blogged about the danger this could present to Afghanistan’s women and girls. Those fears still stand, and Amnesty’s Sam Zarifi has reiterated them again this week.
According to Afghan analyst Ahmed Rashid, talking with the Taliban actually involves negotiating with different tiers of the Taliban hierarchy while also satisfying the (often competing) demands of various Afghan ethnic groups and international players (for example, balancing Pakistan’s broadly pro-Taliban stance with India’s hostility). In other words it’s already extremely complicated, involves major political and geo-political interests and, you can’t help worrying, it’s a process that is all too likely to ignore women’s rights issues unless the main players are lobbied hard not to.
Depressingly enough, the Guardian’s Jon Boone reckons “It is now part of the conventional wisdom in Kabul that the west will have to make compromises with insurgents that once would have been unthinkable, including dropping efforts for women to be given a more equal place in Afghan society”.

In which case, we have to ask: are Afghan women and girls about to be robbed of those few rights they’ve managed to claw back since the dark days when the Taliban lorded it over Afghanistan?

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