Humanitarian Workers Weigh In On Afghanistan
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And Im Melissa Block.
The latest twist in the Obama administrations search for the way forward in Afghanistan has come from Afghanistan. The U.S. ambassador there, Karl Eikenberry, has sent a strongly worded cable to Washington, expressing his deep reservations about sending more troops. General Eikenberry is the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Hes concerned about the reliability of the Afghan government and its president, Hamid Karzai.
The current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has requested tens of thousands more troops to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. As President Obama considers his decision, hes hearing from a wide range of advisors. We had the opportunity to explore these questions with two Afghan women involved in humanitarian and human rights work. Fatima Gailani is president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, and Suraya Pakzad is founder of the Afghan nonprofit group, Voice of Women. Theyre both in Washington this week and joined me in the studio earlier today. I asked them about a possible troop increase, starting with Fatima Gailani.
Ms. FATIMA GAILANI (President, Afghan Red Crescent Society): It is very difficult for someone like me to give opinion that what military action will be beneficial or not. Now, if a few thousand up and few thousand down, I dont know that if it is good or bad, but
BLOCK: But they could potentially be tens of thousands, thats one
Ms. GAILANI: Even tens of thousands. My argument is something totally different. My argument is that if you dont put more money to change the life of ordinary people, nothing will help, especially in the southern Afghanistan. Last year, it was question of changing crops from poppy to an alternative. It was extremely successful with saffron. Saffron came very nicely.
Ms. GAILANI: Yes, saffron is a very expensive crop, but we didnt have equipment how to pack it, we didnt have mechanism how to sell it to the world. These are the things that our friends, whether it is the United States of America, whether its in the European community, there should be more emphasis upon how to change the livelihood of the people of Afghanistan so they will be, themselves, the guardian of their own villages. They will be the guardians of their schools, like the old times, like the time before the wars.
BLOCK: Suraya Pakzad, we do hear from people who want a smaller U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, that a bigger footprint triggers more violence. Do you think in your work with women that that is the case and do you have fears about what a greater U.S. military presence would bring or the opposite?
Ms. SURAYA PAKZAD (Founder, Voice of Women): Increasing troops and military is not the solution. But we cant leave Afghanistan in this condition because now because of the strategy what we had implemented in Afghanistan, now Taliban become bigger. I like the idea of a dialogue, talking with the people who are fighting
BLOCK: Youre saying talk with the Taliban.
Ms. PAKZAD: Talk with the - we dont have much strong Taliban in Afghanistan as we have anti-government elements. If we could provide some kind of program to have a kind of forgiveness process that bring them and the government position, but not the same peace negotiation, which is going on today behind the curtains.
BLOCK: Suraya Pakzad, as the Obama administration considers what to do in Afghanistan, what would you want them to keep in mind, specifically about the status of women in Afghanistan and the future there?
Ms. PAKZAD: In Afghanistan, we need to improve the condition of health of women in Afghanistan because today, in this century, each 30 minutes, one woman are die in Afghanistan because of maternal mortality. Our children dont have access to safe water. And they are dying before getting age five. We need education improvement and we need program to build up the capacity of Afghan women to be able to be the leader of their country.
BLOCK: And do you share that fear that if the U.S. leaves, the Taliban would be back in
Ms. PAKZAD: Of course because they become bigger today. If we compare them to the 2001, we had access to go all villages in the country and had access to work with the women, but now we become smaller, smaller and the area of our work become very small because of Taliban, you know, what you call expand or increase their activity and their operations. And today they are a big challenge. You are hearing about suicide bombing. You are hearing about explosion. You are hearing about death threats. We lost four, five women. They assassinated in the city.
BLOCK: Fatima Gailani, Im sorry, Pakzad was talking about threats against women. You were nodding your head. This is a very familiar story for you as well.
Ms. GAILANI: It is a familiar story and Im old enough to remember that when I was finishing my high school, I lived in an environment that the question of my gender, at least in the cities, was not even in our mind.
BLOCK: And this would have been when?
Ms. GAILANI: It was in late 60s and 70s. I have learned not to take things for granted, whether it is for women, whether it is democracy or human rights. You asked earlier from Suraya that if President Obama ask us what do you want for women, what do you want for Afghanistan? For Afghanistan, I would say jobs. In general, jobs, jobs, jobs. If you create jobs, people will be so happy that they will not be recruited. But for women, definitely capacity building. If it is vocational training, whether it is going back to school, going to higher education while working after hours, but there has to be a good program and a serious visit to what did go wrong that it is not going up anymore. So we have to find out. And I think it is training of women.
BLOCK: And Fatima Gailani, how fearful are you of what the future looks like for women specifically in Afghanistan?
Ms. GAILANI: My fear is also sometimes - Suraya say that the talk with the insurgents, yes. We all want to talk. But when I read their line, they are prepared to talk if if - womens issue is out of table, human right is out of table, free press is out of table. What is there to talk about? If we are kept totally out of table - as Suraya say, that is quite a danger there will be a peace, but again women will be back in their - locked in their houses, schools for girl will be closed and we will be happy that here we have peace. And what would that peace be? That scares me.
BLOCK: Fatima Gailani and Suraya Pakzad, thank you for coming in.
Ms. GAILANI: Thank you.
Ms. PAKZAD: Thank you.
BLOCK: Fatima Gailani is president of the Afghan Red Crescent. Suraya Pakzad is executive director for the Afghan group, Voice of Women. They were here in Washington this week to receive an award for their work on womens right issues in Afghanistan.