Dear Cynthia Cockburn

I  have been following the exchanges on various lists and I am writing to you about Afghanistan,. First, I need to introduce myself for you to see where I’m coming  from. I am a scholar and activist based in Paris, specialized in the issue of Afghan women in war. Although affiliated with SOAS, I work independently, lecturing in Paris mainly- I  initiated the study of gender and armed conflict here, starting a seminar with Jane Freedman at the Sorbonne a couple of years ago and am organizing the first academic study-day on Afghanistan in Paris this coming April.

But I really do have an in-depth knowledge about Afghanistan as I have been running a modest NGO www. for  the last ten years, working in refugee camps in Pakistan first and for the last few years inside Afghanistan, especially in deeply rural areas. This in fact prompted me to get my PhD on the subject
If you look at my blog, you will see the latest articles I have published in the French , Canadian and British etc. press

I have to say that I worked with the main Afghan grassroots women’s movements  right from the start, both for my research and on aid schemes and we indeed managed to collaborate on very worthwhile projects, orphanages, literacy courses, midwife training etc to which I am particularly attached to. But today, despite my love and admiration which go out to them, some of their attitudes worry me.

Without wanting to launch myself into a full critique, I just want to say that the situation is not about US military or no US military. That would be far too simple and also irrelevant. I travelled to Afghanistan, as I do every year in  October and November last year, especially in the Western provinces where we started the first women and children’s centre (funded by yours truly selling handicrafts etc). I was hoping to research local opposition to US troops.
I must say that I did not find anyone to tell me that they were fully opposed to the US presence- I was aghast, because I was really expecting to find the opposite. This concurs with other findings, as you know. You’ll see the result in my paper next month’s Monde Diplomatique. The troops are seen as a buffer between people and the pro-Taliban powers which they really find threatening, especially women. And I have to say, whether one likes it or not, the for whatever reason and however inadequate, the US-led reconstruction teams (PRT and the like) have considerably improved some of the infrastructures: you find water and electricity in places where there never was any before and the local population know that.  More achievements of this kind are needed and visibility given to them. This does not mean that all is perfect, far from it: disasters abound, especially in the field of maternal and infantile mortality but this cannot be exclusively blamed on foreign presence and/or inaptitude. For all its considerable faults, NATO did not invent patriarchy.

In rural Afghanistan, the present government  (in the form of its governors and local representatives)is more often than not seen as the real enemy, especially in its endless compromises with the most reactionary forces – warlords, Taliban alike: there are no real  ideological differences between them and they are all united in their will to safeguard patriarchal privilege by repressing women. And endemic corruption in this feudal set-up is endemic, but is really about nepotism and exchanges of favours which characterize the whole region’s politics (and still some of ours).

That is the crux of the matter. We are dealing with a pre-modern state in that there in no state, no nation (but strong tribalism), no sense of entitlement to an individual destiny. Hence the uselessness of the present constitution and what looks like Human Rights banter. Brutal customary law reigns, based on pre-Islamic tenets and getting stronger in reaction to what is perceived as a threat to their proponents. So what way out? There is not single route and solutions are apt to change, obviously.
For start, I think it is essential to help create a real opposition political party- not an extended NGO with a complaints bureau, but a structure with ideological content that systematically addresses economical and social problems with possible solutions (from electricity to maternal mortality). And in a family based traditional society, you cannot separate women from men in the name of what Leila Ahmed called ‘colonial feminism’, which is precisely what aid does today and the British Raj did yesteryear.

So I think we should help opponents to the military presence and the present regime to formulate real policies and a workable real opposition strategy. We need them to see what benefits they can cull from the presence of aid in their country (and it is indeed massive). On our side, we should aim for less military but more constructive aid based on the country’s needs, not attempts to create another colonial satellite of Imperialism.
The future as far as I am concerned lies in the hands of the young generation, especially young women, that has lived abroad, Pakistan, Iran (YES, Iran) and those who are benefitting from higher education through study in the West and the USA (YES the wicked West which also happens to have a vocal and inspirational opposition). These young women and men could thus build a coherent future and begin to lay the basis of a modern state. More scholarships, please. better teachers throughout the country, please- as the most educated get the well paid jobs with the NGOs and the semi-litterate teachers accept to be paid a pittance. The basis for independent thought needs to be prepared through real education, which includes (as yet inexistent) health education.  And, we the thinking women of the West can at least help them think this through and bring them the tools of constructive criticism to aid them t formulate their own solutions.

I would be happy to discuss this further with you and all those interested.


Carol Mann