On Women, War & The Elections In AfghanistanS

Today's New York Times has a number of pieces discussing the climate surrounding the current elections in Afghanistan. I asked Patricia DeGennaro, expert on U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, to help walk us though the major issues.

Here's a little more about Tricia's background:

Patricia (Tricia) Degennaro is an adjunct assistant professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs where she teaches courses on US Foreign Policy, International Military Interventions, Civil-Military Affairs, National Security Policy, and the War on Terrorism.

In addition to her work as a professor, she is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Tricia has published several articles on US foreign policy and national security topics. Her focus is to encourage a holistic and integrated international policy that looks beyond war and the use of force.

Tricia capitalizes on over fifteen years of experience in a writer, independent analyst and consultant in international relations and economic development. Within the last year, she has spent a significant amount of time working in Afghanistan on provincial governance and capacity building, parliamentary reform and public policy development in the Office of the President of Afghanistan.

So, without further ado, here's the discussion with Patricia DeGennaro:

LatoyaPeterson: Hey Tricia! Thanks for joining me today.

Patricia DeGennaro: Hi Latoya. Happy to be here!

LatoyaPeterson: Can you tell the readers of Jezebel a little bit about your expertise in Afghanistan?

Patricia DeGennaro: Sure. I have visited the country several times. It is really an amazing place. I have been fortunate enough to work with the governors of a few provinces on capacity building. I also did a short project looking at women and how they are fairing in the Parliament. Then I was in the Afghan President's office for a short time as a policy advisor.

LatoyaPeterson:
And what were the major issues that stood out to you during your time there?

Patricia DeGennaro: There are quite a number of issues. First, since 9/11 the international community has poured billions of dollars into the country. There was, however, little coordination with the Afghan people themselves and concentration on what they need as a society so that in itself is a problem. It is a very chaotic development and war initiative. Second, the US is trying to pretend that development and war is the same thing and this blurs lines between "good and bad guys" so to speak. Finally, the country is very poor and we have all seen the way women have been treated there.

LatoyaPeterson: Okay, let's tackle some of these in depth. Why is it important to understand that the money being spent in Afghanistan was poorly coordinated (and I assume poorly distributed)? How does that contribute to the current problems in the region?

Patricia DeGennaro: The idea of helping a country that is poor and suffering is a good one. However when aid flows in it is often targeted based on what donors what to see happen not what needs to be done on the ground. This is the first conflict. The second one is that due to the donor requests, organizations often prefer to operate individually. They don't want to cooperate or even operate as others due. In this respect there are often cultural conflicts withing Western organizations. Finally, government often gives money to a government aid agency - the US has the Agency for International development (USAID) - who then contracts portions of that money to non-profits. These non-profits then may contract to others. Before you know it there are thousands of orgs on the ground and no cooperation or coordination on what should be done.

Patricia DeGennaro: It's a long explanation, but i think you all get the idea of how complex this becomes. And although there are many qualified people, it is hard to operate with a client when that client is a large Western government. The Afghans get lost in the equation and they are the "real" client. Add war to this and you have several more problems because of security concerns.

LatoyaPeterson: Good to know. Now why is the government, as you say, "blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys?" And how is investing in a country's development different from continuing a war?

Patricia DeGennaro: It was clear that the initial attack on Afghanistan was in response to 9/11. After many of us realized the horrendous situation in Afghanistan - the brutal government, the treatment of women and the sever poverty - the initial reaction of the Bush Administration was to "fix' this. The country however was at war with a large US and NATO military presence. As aid workers came in they build large compounds as well and looked just like military bases or invaders so this blurs the lines between who is helping and who is bombing so to speak. Also, in many of the provinces the US put together teams led by the military that do both security and development so the perception is that any development is military.

Patricia DeGennaro: There is a distinct difference between development and war. Militaries are there to complete a mission based on a countries foreign policy interest. Development or aid workers are there to stop the suffering of people and improve their livelihoods. They are independent of politics and policies. The military is not.

LatoyaPeterson: Good explanation. Switching gears a bit, how would you describe the political climate in Afghanistan?

Patricia DeGennaro: That is a very difficult question. Politics in Afghanistan is much different than what we are used to in the west. There are no political parties and no loyalties. Power is based on how many people you can convince that if your in power there interests will be served. Today Afghanistan participated in its second election. I think you will see that whoever wins was able to garner support from people who are very powerful in other areas of the country.

LatoyaPeterson: Of the candidates presented in the election, are there any you are watching closely?

Patricia DeGennaro: I am watching three candidates very closely. Of course, the current president, Hamid Karzai and then two others, his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah and his former economics minister, Ashraf Ghani.

LatoyaPeterson: What is capturing your interest about each of these candidates?

Patricia DeGennaro: The interesting thing about this election is that Ashraf Ghani is running a less traditionally Afghan campaign. He is speaking to the people, talking about issues and garner grassroots support. In contrast, both Karzai and Abdullah are making deals with mullahs and warlords for influence and positions, which is how Afghanistan has been run for so many years. The problem with the way Karzai and Abdullah are running their campaign is, again, loyalties can switch at anytime and this is very dangerous. Every previous leader has paid for this way with their lives.

LatoyaPeterson: That's interesting. So is that the reason the Taliban are working so hard to disrupt the elections? Because the people are getting involved? Or is that explanation too simplistic?

Patricia DeGennaro: Not exactly. The Taliban are disrupting the election because they view this government as illegitimate. They see themselves as the legitimate government and are fighting for their right to return. In addition, the Taliban see the foreign presence as an occupation, which on the ground it looks like that is exactly what it is, and garner much support to fight against that. No country has ever occupied Afghanistan and most Afghans prefer it to stay that way.

LatoyaPeterson: Interesting. So is the perception of the occupation undermining our efforts there?

Patricia DeGennaro: Absolutely. I always ask people how they would feel if a country, let's say Russia, came in and set up a huge military fortress in Central Park and start driving around and checking houses. Doubtful one American would stand for that. In addition to that the continued military air strikes are making it worse. In a country where people believe in an eye for and eye, there is no forgiving anyone who killed one person in your family. He/she must pay with their own life.

Patricia DeGennaro: Afghans also continue to tell me that the behavior of the US (and allies of course) is looking more and more like Soviets. This is not good news. They were pushed out of the country quite quickly through the same irregular warfare that the military is dealing with today.

LatoyaPeterson: So is the best solution to start the withdrawal process? Or is that unfeasible due to the damage war has inflicted on the country?

Patricia DeGennaro: This may be a little controversial, but yes. I think that what's there needs to be cleaned up and/or weeded out. If forces and, for that matter, aid workers stay at all it should be a very light footprint. This seems to be much more affective in that part of the world.

LatoyaPeterson: Now, are there other tensions influencing the country? I was reading an article that hinted at tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Patricia DeGennaro:
Of course some kind of repercussions come with destruction. People must be responsible for their actions especially if they've done this much harm.

Patricia DeGennaro: Afghanistan and Pakistan have always had tense relations. They share a border called the Durand line that is not recognized by most Afghans. That border was imposed by the British and all agreed that it would be non-existent 10 years after that imposition. It split tribes and families. It also stopped the free flow of many of the tribes that move around the country for their livelihood. After Pakistan was created this boarder stayed.

Tensions are also quite high between the countries because many Afghans blame the Pakistanis for supporting the Taliban.

Many of the Taliban were trained in Pakistani religious schools funded by the Saudis in Pakistan. So Aghans feel they are responsible for much of the brutality they endured under the Taliban

Of course there are more issues going on here, but these are the two most important.

LatoyaPeterson: Fascinating. Before we go, I wanted to talk a little bit about the interview with Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in the New York Times magazine. In the interview, she mentions that there is a strong link between "societies that nurture terrorism" and societies that oppress women.

LatoyaPeterson: She specifically says:

What does preventing little girls from going to school in Afghanistan by throwing acid on them have to do with waging a struggle against oppression externally? It's a projection of the insecurity and the disorientation that a lot of these terrorists and their sympathizers feel about a fast-changing world, where they turn on television sets and see programs with women behaving in ways they can't even imagine. The idea that young women in their own societies would pursue an independent future is deeply threatening to their cultural values.

Does your experience in the field support this assertion?

Patricia DeGennaro: Yes, I read that. I do feel that there are many factors that are contributing to this absolutely unacceptable behavior. Women in Afghanistan are very removed from society so for many men they are an afterthought. I am not sure though that the action of acid in this case and say the uni-bomber in the US really just have to do with the oppression of women. After spending so much time in these parts of the world, I often think that it is a male issue and that the men need to go through the "therapy" and be reintroduced to women.

An example. When Eve Ensler started working in American Indian reservations her initial thoughts were to work with the women who were being beaten and terrorized by the men on the reservation. She later found that the work they started doing with the men is what changed their behavior toward women.

We have to realize that there is never one issue in these problems. There are complex connections between experiences, upbringing, and, in many cases, war. I wrote an article on the Women's Media Center website that talks about more holistic ways to approach things. Often when you approach things from one side it backfires and you end up hurting the very people you want to help - in this case women.

LatoyaPeterson: Great point. Ultimately, what actions do you think need to be taken to help stabilize the county?

Patricia DeGennaro: In Afghanistan, the first thing that needs to happen is an internal reconciliation. The country went through a brutal civil war and there are great divisions between ethnic groups due to the brutality and massacres that happened during this time. Second, they need to figure out their own way with help not imposition of how the outside thinks things should be done. Third, education and health. Eighty percent of Afghans are illiterate. Women's mortality is the highest in the world. One other thing we always forget, healthy bodies and minds develop from good nutrition. If people are not eating well how can they think, work, progress. Hunger is one of the worst issues in a society. Then we can work on next steps like changing the ways of boys and men.

Patricia DeGennaro:
Afghans have an average of seven children. Think about feeding that many on a dollar a day.

LatoyaPeterson: Great points Tricia! That was my last question - is there anything else you wanted to mention before we wrap up?

Patricia DeGennaro: I would just say that we all need to remember that things are way more complicated than we often think and the real changes in life start from within us.

It was a pleasure to join you all today. Thank you for asking Latoya. I look forward to all the comments.

Patricia DeGennaro [SheSource]
Patrica's Blog [Tricia's Take]
Turnout Seen As Uneven in Afghanistan As Polls Close [NY Times]
Saving Afghan Women From The "Liberators" [Women's Media Center]
Afghanistan Election Drives: 'Men Have Destroyed The Country' [Guardian]