The erosion of human rights in war-torn Afghanistan spurred Denver U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a vocal critic of the Iraq War, last week to support a $91.3 billion supplemental budget, that largely funds an $85 billion military spending package for the dual battlefront there and in Iraq.
The budget bill, however, comes at a delicate time for U.S.-Afghan relations.
DeGette spoke to The Colorado Independent about a historic fact-finding mission to Kabul and the Kandahar Province by a bipartisan delegation of six women members of Congress. The trip was organized following international outcry when the Afghan government passed a proposed law in February that legalizes marital rape and violates fundamental women’s rights.
TCI: What were your impressions on the ground in Afghanistan during your May 9-10 trip?
DeGette: It was a very eye-opening trip.
We met with our military leaders and a number of troops but we also met with some of the female members of [the Afghan] parliament and we met with some of the leaders of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are operating down there.
I think the high point of the trip was when we went down to Kandahar Province. We actually went to one of the villages and met with the women there. This is the Pashtun area, the most conservative area of Afghanistan, and we were very near where a couple of months ago some girls had acid thrown in their faces when they were going to school.
What they told us really surprised us because these are the most oppressed, religiously conservative women in the country and they go to school everyday. There’s a school that’s been opened by USAID and some other organizations but the school is quite far away. They told us that the risk their lives every time they go because the extremists will beat them or kill them when they come home.
And they also told us that sometimes they get beaten by their husbands when they come home. Yet they’re committed to going to school and they’re committed to learning and bettering their lives. The life expectancy in Afghanistan is forty-four. Most of the [students] looked like they were maybe in their twenties or thirties.
When we asked them ‘What do you need?’ they said they need to learn how to use computers which completely shocked us. The State Dept. representative said even though they have computers at the school there’s no electricity.
We asked them when do you think this oppression of women is going to end and they said when the men with the long, gray beards are gone. What they meant is that it’s a generational thing.
To us, they were so courageous.
TCI: Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, while on a swing through Denver at an Institute for International Education/Denver World Affairs Council luncheon last December, was quite candid about his concerns that the U.S. and NATO have failed in delivering Afghan humanitarian and reconstruction aid. Is that your impression?
DeGette: What we did was we went in a drove out the Taliban and then we ignored them for seven years. We were focused on the wrong country.
TCI: It makes me wonder if the anti-women’s civil rights Shiite Personal Status Law that was passed by the Afghan Parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai is an outgrowth of that neglect?
DeGette: We talked to the parliamentarians about this. It was part of a much larger law. When the Afghan women leaders and the international community cried out President Karzai said that he didn’t know that it was in there.
The women leaders told us that they were in [Karzai’s] office two weeks before he signed the bill and showed him exactly where it was.
People think that because [the president] didn’t know [the language] was there it’s not going to take effect. The way Afghan law works is it passes the parliament, it gets signed and then it has to be published. It is sitting there right now and it has not been published. But these sections have not been removed so they could still go into law. The parliamentarians are concerned that the potential that after the August Afghan elections that President Karzai might let the laws be published.
TCI: Is there any movement to try to overturn this before or after it is published and enacted?
DeGette:The congressional women’s delegation to Afghanistan and I sent a letter to President Karzai demanding that he rescind those sections. The Afghan women are quite militant and vocal that it need to be rescinded.
I think you will see a strong movement but I think the danger is that the international community because the president says that he didn’t know about this law that thinks it’s not going to take effect.
We’re requesting a meeting with Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and we’re not going to let this go.
We can’t let our mistake over the last seven years of abandoning Afghanistan color the necessity to make an effort to stabilize that country. The Afghan citizens do not support the Taliban. But if the Taliban comes in and threatens them they’re not going to resist because they don’t want to be killed.
Our job really is to stabilize the south and the east of the country and train the Afghan police forces and the military. And at the same time work on all of the international aid to build a civil society to give these poor women the electricity and the computers that they need.
TCI: What are we going to do in rolling back this seven years of neglect in providing the basic health and reproductive health care that the girls and women need, especially in the conservative outlying areas?
DeGette: That was the other thing that struck us that all of the women that we talked to had seven, eight, nine or ten kids. I was talking to one of my colleagues about this. We want to give them the reproductive services that they need but we also need to be culturally sensitive.
TCI: One of the thorniest problems that we face, particularly with President Obama implementing a new 21,000 troop surge to Afghanistan, are we inadvertently undermining Afghan women’s rights by fighting for the sovereignty of the country while the Loya Jirga makes abhorrent law, like the Shiite Personal Status Law?
DeGette: It’s certainly a difficult situation in Afghanistan. They’ve just come off of 30 years of war. The women leaders who we met with in Kabul and the other women seem to welcome the concept of U.S. troops providing security and fight back the extremists while they’re trying to put their society together.
We also met with leaders of the Afghan Army and that was pretty interesting too. That’s the thing I’m not sure we realize it’s not like Iraq in that we’re not conquering the Afghan people. We’re really trying to drive out the extremists which, in the end, is in our national security interest if we can keep the Taliban out of there and stop that breeding ground.
TCI: Any last thoughts on what the U.S. media can do to better inform the American public about what’s happening in Afghanistan?
DeGette: I think we need to let people know that the women and girls are hungry to learn. Despite daily personal risk that they’re going to school and we need to work hand-in-hand with the Afghan government and security forces to give them that opportunity.