Experts discuss complexity of Afghan population

03/25/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates downplayed talks happening this week in Afghanistan between the Karzai government and a militant group that could help negotiate peace with the Taliban. This comes as experts at the USF Symposium on Afghanistan and Pakistan are openly expressing that the war may not be winnable.

One symposium speaker has pointed out that the Afghan War is about to be the longest in US history, exceeding Vietnam. Another said the current US predicament in that region eerily parallels that of the Soviet Union two decades ago. Larry Goodson, the US Army War College Professor and former CENTCOM fellow who made the Soviet comparison, said that he is not sure how the US can keep history from repeating itself, but that scaling back its goals may be a start.

Last year, President Barack Obama announced a 30,000 troop surge will occur this summer, and a draw-down is planned for the following year; something Ronald Neumann, the former US ambassador to Kabul, called “wishful thinking.” Goodson said that there’s no real way to gauge victory in Afghanistan.

An anthropology professor at Boston University, Thomas Barfield, says that prepackaged government does not work, especially in a place as complex as Afghanistan.

Barfield says that ethnicity in Afghanistan consists of a complex interplay between local and national identity. The Taliban, which came to power after the Soviet withdrawal and the ensuing civil war, consists mainly of Pashtuns, the country’s ethnic majority. He cited Mullah Omar’s Taliban leadership as an example of an ethnic faction’s use of religion to establish dominance.

Nazif Shahrani, an anthropology professor at Indiana University, touched on an Afghan minority population that has faced intense prejudice for centuries, including diaspora and enslavement. They are the Hazara, a mostly Shia group from mountainous Central Afghanistan. Their province once housed the towering sixth century Buddha statues that the Taliban destroyed in 2001.

The Hazara became a Taliban target after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Thousands of Hazaras were massacred after Hazarajat fell to the largely-Pashtun Taliban in 1998. Shahrani said that all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups share a common thread.

Since the Taliban fell in 2001, and due to continuing NATO involvement in the region, the oppression has reportedly subsided. But Shahrani said that the situation is still not ideal, as evidenced by the fact that Hazarajat sees little of the International aid given to Afghanistan’s centralized government.

It is rare that a discussion of human rights in the country does not include women. Before beginning her talk on the state of women in Afghanistan, Hayat Alvi told the audience that they should be angry by her conclusion. She first listed the good, including efforts by the US, UN, and several non-government organizations, among others.

But she said that disenfranchisement, poor literacy rates, and outright violence targeting women overshadow what’s been achieved. She said education and health are strong indicators of the status of women. In Afghanistan, women’s life expectancy rates dropped from 44 years to 43.2 years between 2002 and 2006. Perinatal care, she said, may be a culprit.

Alvi added that the Afghan criminal justice system has a backwards attitude toward sexual violence against women.

One audience member asked what the source of such longstanding misogyny. She said that, though this may be a complex issue, insecurity is at the core.

The symposium continues through Friday, when General David Petraeus will give a keynote speech.

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