Afghanistan is not Somalia, not yet

Another month, another conference. It sometimes seems as if there's an international conference "on the future of Afghanistan" every single month. Today's in Istanbul is indeed set to be followed by another major one in Bonn on 5 December.

I must admit that my own natural joie de vivre does drain away a little at the very word "conference", but it's perhaps understandable that the international community is devoting a lot of diplomatic time to Afghanistan.

A big focus for campaigners like Amnesty recently has been the gathering fear that peace talks with the Taleban could involve dirty deals over women's rights. As Amnesty's Sam Zarifi says, the Afghan people have essentially been "kept in the dark" about the Taleban talks, making it basically impossible to get any sense of what is on the table during the discussions. President Karzai could be promising the Taleban that they can make all women wear chastity belts or forbid them to leave the house on Tuesdays – and no-one would know about it. (Amnesty has a campaign about this, with an online petition. Please support that here).

This week I caught some of Lyse Doucet's excellent Radio 4 One to One radio series on Afghanistan, specifically a profile of Rangina Hamidi. She's a very engaging women's rights activist and businesswoman, educated in the USA (no doubt her fluent English made for "better radio"), whose father, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar, was murdered by a suicide bomber in July. Listening to her describe his last days was harrowing – their final words over the breakfast table, going to the hospital with her mother when the news came through, being led to the mortuary.

Meanwhile, one other thing Rangina Hamidi said stuck in my head. Asked whether she thought life had got better or worse in the ten years since the fall of the Taleban, she said … basically worse. Why? Because bombings and shootings have become so common in Afghanistan that women are more and more terrified that they will either be killed themselves or that their father, brothers or friends will.

Not everyone agrees with Rangina’s gloomy analysis. For example, a recent women’s rights briefing from Amnesty showed that there have been clear, measurable improvements across several areas of Afghan women’s lives, while a recent Action Aid survey found that 72% of Afghan women thought that their lives are better now than they were ten years ago, with two-thirds saying they also feel safer now than a decade ago. Nevertheless, Rangina’s point is a powerful reminder of how the "security agenda" actually does encompass key human rights (right to life, a family life etc) and colours so much else as well.

Meanwhile, I was also thinking about Afghanistan at the weekend as I read a powerful – and I have to say truly depressing – article about Somalia from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in the London Review of Books. Abdul-Ahad describes a war-ravaged country where gangsterish warlords are stealing aid and threatening the local population. It's perhaps how Afghanistan could end up if things go wrong (even more wrong) after the international forces pull out on 2014. It's why the international conferences actually do matter.

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