Tag Archives: Yale Talks

The Future of Afghan Feminism: A Talk with Women for Afghan Women

“I really want to insist that, as slight as it is, as modest as it is, there has been progress over the past 10 years.”

That is how Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), described the hard-won gains for women’s rights in Afghanistan. WAW is at the forefront of advocacy for Afghan women. Its programs in Afghanistan and New York combat domestic violence, forced marriage, and other violations of women’s human rights.

When Viswanath first learned about what was happening to Afghan women under the Taliban rule, she wanted to do something to help. With her background in women’s rights, she was shocked that there weren’t any existing organizations in New York that were working on the issue, In 2000 she began to search for a way to start her own.She spent a lot of time with the Afghan community in Queens, NY, just listening to what women there had to say. “I didn’t want to do anything without our feet firmly planted in the community,” she said.

Viswanath and WAW began to organize a conference on women in Afghanistan for the fall of 2001. When 9/11 happened, that conference suddenly was at the center of media attention. In 2001, everyone wanted to know about Afghan women, but over time, Viswanath said, the media’s focus has drifted away. Making sure the world doesn’t write off Afghan women is at the core of the advocacy work of WAW.

The programs that WAW runs in Afghanistan are based on what they learned from the Afghan community in New York. “The model we use to work on the cases in Afghanistan is very similar to what we use in the Queens community,” Viswanath said, and noted that WAW’s work in New York was recently the topic of a New York Times article.

At the heart of the organization are the Family Guidance Centers, offices staffed by lawyers and case workers who can help women who report violations of their human rights. The first step in addressing these problems is frequently a “jirga”, a meeting of everyone involved in the situation, anyone who the women thinks would it be helpful to bring together. If, for example, the woman’s husband signs something in front of these people he respects (like the imam) and agrees to not abuse her, it can be very effective.

However, for some women, those strategies aren’t possible, and in every city where WAW has an Family Guidance Center, they also have a women’s shelter in a hidden location. Currently, WAW runs 5 shelters in Afghanistan, and is set to expand to 8 this year. However, these shelters, and those run by other NGOs, have come under attack from conservative elements in the Afghan government, which accuse the organizations of mismanagment and immorality. There is currently a law under debate that would have the government take over the shelters, and force women to go in front of an all-male panel of judges to prove their abuse before they are allowed to go to a shelter.

Viswanath was hopeful that the government would back down, but she urged audience members to sign petitions in support of the women’s shelters. The takeover, she argued, would be the first step in dismantling all of protections women have won in the last ten years. Viswanath was also worried about the long-term prospects for women’s rights. She warned that, if the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the situation for women in the country will return to what it was before 9/11.

“We just know that, if the foreign troops leave, we will not be able to do our work….We operate very much like locals, so we will be the last ones to leave. But we will have to leave…[without the] security afforded to us by the foreign presence.” Nonetheless, Viswanath was clear that women’s rights aren’t only a western idea. All human beings know their rights, she said, and it is their bravery in fighting for those rights that inspires the work the WAW does.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum thanks Sunita Viswanath, and our co-sponsors, the Yale Women’s Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, Reach Out Yale, the International Students Organization, the Muslim Students Association and the South Asian Studies Council.

The Yale Daily News has an article about the event here
An article about WAW’s shelters in Afghanistan is here


Event with Dr Catherine Todd

RVSP for dinner to Akriti Singh: akriti.singh@yale.edu

YAF Tea with Aziz Royesh: Friday, October 8, 5:30 pm!

Thomas Barfield – Political Legitimacy

Thomas Barfield of Boston University spoke at Yale on April 6, 2010. Professor Barfield is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at Boston University. He is also the President of the American Institute of Afghan Studies. His most recent book is Political Legitimacy in the Land of the Hindu Kush: Ruling Afghanistan 1500-2010.

Summary by Anna Kellar

Professor Barfield began his talk by questioning two of the prevailing notions about Afghan history:

How can Afghanistan be a “graveyard of empires” if everyone conquered it before 1830?

And if it is such a fractious place, how did it keep a single dynasty for 200 years?

For a very long time, Afghanistan was ruled by Turkic tribes, who were hierarchical, with only certain lineages allowed to compete for power. A ruler like Babur was a professional king, who could rule any where. Conquest in this kind of society was more like a corporate takeover – the leadership changed, but there was little effect on the average person living in the territory, and no concern for the consent of the governed.

Professor Barfield made the analogy that a homogenous empire is like American cheese, with the same law applying uniformly to everyone within the borders. Central Asian Empires look more like Swiss cheese, with the valuable, cheesy parts of the empire governed directly, and the holes governed indirectly. It was true that no one conquered the Pashtuns, because their land simply wasn’t worth the trouble. The people who live in the ungovernable parts have to rely on the centers for supplies. The problem is that we tend to view Swiss cheese as defective American cheese and try to fill in the holes, in places that have never been directly governed.

There was no such thing as patriotism and defense of the homeland in Afghanistan until the British invasion in 1838. Then the success of a nationalist-religious uprising demonstrated to the rulers that they couldn’t defeat foreign powers without mobilizing their people. However, this changed the system of who had a say in governance, and every mobilization increased the unruliness of the population. Nonetheless, the people who lived in the ungovernable bits never took over the government. They fought the wars, but the old dynasty clung to the structures of power. Barfield argued that this divide matched a tribal split between Ghilzai and Durrani Pashtuns.

Ghilzai and Durrani

According to a saying, Ghilzai have the sword, Durrani have the state. The split comes from their different political ecology. Durrani live in the irrigated southern plains, they inherit valuable land, and so their politics are based around hierarchy and patronage, and they are risk averse. Ghilzai on the other hand, live in the eastern mountains, practice subsistence agriculture and have a more egalitarian political structure, exemplified by the jirga council.

In times of anarchy, Ghilzai do well. They value individual achievement, and aggressive leadership. Najibullah, Hekmatyar, Haqqani, and Mullah Omar all were/are Ghilzai. However, the skills that make good warlords, do not necessarily make good peace time leaders. The job of an Afghan king is to link the country to the outside world in order to bring in patronage. Following the fall of the Taliban, there was an abrupt shift from the wartime to the peacetime framework. People saw that the future lay with politics, and having the toughest, most aggressive leader, was no longer a good thing. Karzai, a Durrani with ties to the ruling dynasty, was brought in because he was able to charm the Europeans.

For an Afghan leader to be successful, he must manage both internal and external demands. He must tell foreigners that without him there will be chaos, while assuring Afghans that he can take the foreign money while keeping the foreigners themselves out of the country. There is another historical lesson: every leader installed by an incoming foreign power has failed, while every leader installed by a retreating power has succeeded. From Shah Shujah and the British to Karmal and the Soviets, the weak personalities that were initially chosen to rule managed to annoy both Afghans and their foreign patron. However, the strongmen installed by the fleeing foreign occupiers, such as Abdul Rahman or Najibullah, usually succeeded

Barfield argued that this pattern suggests that the American government should have abandoned President Karzai in the last election. The perception of power is power, so if we had backed Abdullah, he might have been able to win a run off. There was a misreading of signals between Washington and Kabul – while the American government tried to talk about neutrality and legitimacy, Afghans read that as our support for the status quo. Rather than trying for neutrality, which no one buys anyway, we’d be better off playing political hardball. There might be more political progress, according to Professor Barfield, if the Afghan government were run the way Lyndon Johnson ran the US House of Representatives, using development aid like patronage to encourage good behavior.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum would like to thank Professor Barfield, Professor Monsutti, The Gattis Smith Lecture Series and the Council of South Asian Studies.

Thomas Barfield, “Political Legitimacy in the Land of the Hindu Kush”

Andrew Wilder: Winning Hearts and Minds?

Andrew Wilder, Research Director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in Boston, spoke March 30 at Yale. Wilder has been a leading critic of development aid deployed as a tool of counterinsurgency.

Andrew Wilder was born in Pakistan and has spent more than 35 years living, studying and working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.From January 2002 through April 2005, Wilder established and served as the first Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Afghanistan’s leading independent policy research institution. Between 1986 and 2001 he worked for several different international NGOs managing humanitarian and development programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including as the Pakistan/Afghanistan Director of Save the Children (US) from 1996 to 2001. His recent publications include an analysis of police reform efforts in Afghanistan and a study on perceptions of the Pakistan earthquake response. He has an interesting Boston Globe op-ed here: “A Weapons System Based on Wishful Thinking” For the past year he has been leading a two-year study on the assumed relationship between foreign aid and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa.


Wilder began by explaining the assumption that increased development aid leads to stabilization. This has become a centerpiece of American counter-insurgency strategy. “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins,” said General Eikenberry in 2005, and Vice President Biden declared in 2008: “How do you spell hope in Pashto and Dari? A-S-P-H-A-L-T.” Development actors have also embraced the idea that poverty breeds radicalism. Since 9/11 the money for development has grown dramatically, and much of those funds has been directed to peace building activities. At the same time, the role of the military and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has become dominant in aid work.The logic for these developments is that poverty causes conflict, therefore reconstruction assistance will lead to economic development, and then stability. Also assumed is “aid wins hearts and minds” and that more government presence means more stability.

However, this reasoning ignores much that has been learned about the potential for negative outcomes of aid. Projects frequently generate grievances, losers as well as winners. Modernization in Afghanistan has often had destabilizing effects, in the 20s under King Amanullah, and during the American/Soviet competition over infrastructure projects in the 70s. The Army Counter-Insurgency Manual calls aid a weapons system. Doesn’t it make sense, Wilder argued, for a weapons system to be tested before we assume it works?

Wilder stressed that development is certainly worthwhile for its own sake, and has had some success for health, education, infrastructure etc. The point he wished to make was that development does not correlate with security, and is not a useful tool in counter-insurgency.

What Afghans Think

Wilder presented research to back up this claim. In interviews with Afghans in five provinces (Helmand, Paktia, Orozgan, Farah, and Balkh) he asked three questions: What are the drivers of instability, what do you think about development actors, and does development help with insecurity?

The government’s role in insecurity was by far the biggest concern.

The most common causes were:
1. bad government, corruption, predatory police
2. disrespect for culture/religion among the foreign forces
3. neighboring counties
4. unemployment
5. ethnic/tribal disputes

Perceptions of aid actors were mostly negative, with little distinction between NGOs, the military, and government ministries. The common complaints were unmet expectations and broken promises, unfair distributions, corruption, inappropriate or shoddy projects, and lack of consultation. For example, building a road angered those who it bypassed, while the haste and lack of oversight in the construction might mean that it is already crumbling, while the PRT that built it has already transfered out of the country.

The only development project with a positive reputation was the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which gave 70% of villages a choice of the small project that they wanted. People liked the equality and local involvement. This shows that the process of development is at least as important as the outcome.

Aid not only doesn’t lead to stability, it actually can be destabilizing. It can create conflicts between perceived winners and losers. Above all, the corruption involved in aid projects destroys much of their benefit. There has been a mafiazation of the construction business. In order to do a project in a violent area, the contractor must pay the Taliban or a local militia to provide security. Wilder cited a recent article in The Nation which estimated that Western money is the number 2 source of funding for the Taliban, and as much as 10% of development money ends up in Taliban coffers.

Wilder also pointed out that part of the reason development is seen as so important is that it is good for our hearts and minds. It is good for troop morale, and is the major justification for European involvement in Afghanistan. This pressure to be doing something leads to measuring projects by dollars spent, rather than by the effects of that money. The securitization of development has other long term risks, including a possible backlash against development work when it is realized that it didn’t bring peace. We should have a ten or fifteen year commitment to gradual development, not the current frantic push.

What to Do

Wilder’s recommendation was to spend as much money on development objectives as can be accounted for, and no more; to value quality over quantity. We have to look at our capacity in an area, as well as its need, or else get further into a vicious cycle of funding insecurity by throwing money at the places with the least ability to spend it well. This requires a return to the “First, do no harm” principles of development.

We have to recognize that political legitimacy in Afghanistan hasn’t historically been based on providing services, but on protection and justice. One way to help improve the government is to focus on the appointments mechanisms. Good individuals can change the face of a ministry. In fact, in the cases when a development project was viewed favorably, the credit was usually given to the individual in charge.

It is also important to realize that the Afghan government has become as much the problem as the solution, and that their interests do not always match ours. There are segments of the government who benefit from the status quo. The current efforts to bring a “government in a box” to districts like Marja are setting ourselves up to fail. It is unrealistic to think that good government will be easy in the provinces when it has failed in Kabul, and people fear the coming of the police more than the coming of the Taliban. The biggest problem we face in Afghanistan, in the end, isn’t military or development strategy, but our lack of a political strategy for Kabul.

The Yale Afghan Forum thanks Professor Wilder, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, The Council on South Asian Studies, and everyone who attended the talk.

2/24, 7 pm: Pulitzer Center Journalists Nir Rosen, Vanessa Gezari, Jason Motlagh