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Feminism, the Taliban and the Politics of Counterinsurgency

by Saba Mahmood & Charles Hirschkind

n a cool, breezy evening in March 1999, Hollywood celebrities turned out in large numbers to show their support for the Feminist Majority’s campaign against the Taliban’s brutal treatment of Afghan women.

The person spearheading this campaign was Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife, who had been catapulted into political activism when she heard about the plight of Afghan women living under the brutal regime of the Taliban. Continue reading

adorning afghan walls

Adorning Afghan Walls

by Nagmani

After Tunisia and Egypt, it was Afghanistan’s turn to be covered in the bold and beautiful colors of graffiti. It all became possible because of one young woman’s unflinching determination. She stood up and vowed to help her country; she is Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist. Her cry for freedom is an example of the serious changes she wants to see across the Middle East. But it was not an easy ride for the twenty-four year-old Shamsia Hassani—who highlights injustices against women in conservative Afghan society.  Continue reading

CEDAW and Islam

Women, War and Fundamentalism in the Middle East

by  Haideh Moghissi

A constructive discussion and dialogue about Islam and gender has never been free of its controversies. The task has been how to explain the stubborn survival of traditions and practices hostile to women in Islamic societies without adding to the arsenal of racist imagery about Islam and Muslim women, targeting diasporic communities in the West. How to challenge the inferiorizing stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women without resorting to apologetic and self-glorifying accounts of Islam and Muslims Continue reading

US Soldiers, ANP raid bomb-making facilities

Ireland Out of Afghanistan

In 1988, just a year before the end of the U.S.-Russian proxy war in Afghanistan, Sher Zaman Taizi, a well-renowned Pashto writer authored The Field, a short story that laconically summarizes the past four decades of war in Afghanistan:

Sultan Bacha was killed. Mir Bacha was sentenced to transportation for life. And that field for which the two brothers were fighting was taken by others.1  Continue reading

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Karzai: Women’s Rights are Not a Bargaining Chip

About 6 million fled as Afghan refugees to Pakistan and Iran, and from there over 38,000 made it to the United States. and many more to the European Union. Faced with mounting international pressure and great number of casualties on both sides, the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Their withdrawal from Afghanistan was seen as an ideological victory in America, which had backed some Mujahideen factions through three U.S. presidential administrations to counter Soviet influence in the vicinity of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The USSR continued to support President Mohammad Najibullah (former head of the Afghan secret service, KHAD) until 1992.

In response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Reagan administration in the U.S. increased arming and funding of the Mujahideen who began a guerilla war thanks in large part to the efforts of Charlie Wilson and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos. Early reports estimated that $6–20 billion had been spent by the U.S. and Saudi Arabiabut more recent reports state that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia provided as much as up to $40 billion in cash and weapons, which included over two thousand FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, for building up Islamic groups against the Soviet Union. The U.S. handled most of its support through Pakistan’s ISI. Saudi Arabia was also providing financial support.

Afghan leaders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud received only minor aid compared to Hekmatyar and some of the other parties, although Massoud was named the “Afghan who won the cold war” by the Wall Street Journal.

Massoud’s part in the driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan earned him the nameLion of Panjshir. His followers call him Āmir Sāhib-e Shahīd (Our Beloved Martyred Commander). He strongly rejected the interpretations of Islam followed by the Taliban,Al Qaeda or the Saudi establishment. His followers not only saw him as a military commander but also as a spiritual leader.

In April 1992, the Islamic State of Afghanistan was created, following the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government.

Afghanistan was in a state of unsettled transition, with an interim government. Atrocities were committed by individuals of the different factions while Kabul descended into lawlessness and chaos, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 1994, the Taliban developed in Afghanistan as a politico-religious force, a movement originating from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-run religous schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In 1994 the Taliban took power in several provinces in southern and central Afghanistan.

The Taliban started shelling Kabul in early 1995 but at that time were defeated by forces of the Islamic State government.

“This is the first time in several months that Kabul civilians have become the targets of rocket attacks and shelling aimed at residential areas in the city.”
Amnesty International 1995 report

On September 26, 1996, as the Taliban with military support by Pakistan and financial support by Saudi Arabia prepared for another major offensive and the next day the Taliban seized Kabul and established the established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They imposed on the parts of Afghanistan under their control their political and judicial interpretation of Islam issuing edicts forbidding women to work outside the home, attend school, or to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.

“To PHR’s knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment.”
Physicians for Human Rights, 1998

According to a 55-page report by the United Nations, the Taliban, while trying to consolidate control over northern and western Afghanistan, committed systematic massacres against civilians.

Upon taking Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, about 4,000 civilians were executed by the Taliban and many more reported tortured. The documents also reveal the role of Arab and Pakistani support troops in these killings. Bin Laden’s so-called 055 Brigade was responsible for mass-killings of Afghan civilians.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Shah Massoud served as military commander and political leader of the United Islamic Front (Northern Alliance) from 1996 until his assassination in 2001. When the Taliban seized Kabul, Massoud and his troops retreated to the northeast of Afghanistan.

From the Taliban conquest in 1996 until November 2001 the United Front controlled roughly 30% of Afghanistan’s population in provinces such as Badakhshan, Kapisa, Takhar and parts of Parwan, Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Samangan, Kunduz, Ghōr and Bamyan

Human Rights Watch cites no human rights crimes for the forces under direct control of Massoud for the period from October 1996 until the assassination of Massoud in September 2001. As a consequence many civilians fled to these regions.

In the areas under his control, Massoud set up democratic institutions and signed the Women’s Rights Charter. in these regions, women and girls did not have to wear the Afghan burqa by law. They were allowed to work and to go to school. Massoud personally intervened against cases of forced marriage in favour of the women to make their own choice. 

The Taliban repeatedly offered Massoud a position of power to make him stop his resistance.Massoud wanted to convince the Taliban to join a political process leading towards democratic elections in a foreseeable future.

In early 2001 Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Brussels asking the international community to provide humanitarian help to the people of Afghanistan. He warned that his intelligence had gathered information about a large-scale attack on U.S. soil being imminent. Massoud also stated that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had introduced “a very wrong perception of Islam” and that without the support of Pakistan the Taliban would not be able to sustain their military campaign for up to a year.

On September 9, 2001, two Arab suicide attackers, allegedly belonging to Al Qaeda, posing as journalists, detonated a bomb hidden in a video camera while interviewing Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Commander Massoud died in a helicopter that was taking him to a hospital. The year following his assassination, in 2002, Massoud was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The date of his death, September 9, is observed as a national holiday known as “Massoud Day” in Afghanistan.

“He was the only one, ever, to serve Afghanistan, to serve Afghans. To do a lot of things for Afghanistan, for Afghans. And we lost him …”
Afghan journalist Fahim Dashty

Two days after Massoud’s assassination, 19 terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and notoiously crashed two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

When the Taliban refused to hand over bin laden to U.S. authorities and refused to disband Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, the U.S. and British air forces began bombing al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Afghanistan.

From 2002 onward, the Taliban began regrouping while more coalition troops entered the escalating US-led war with insurgents.  Meanwhile, NATO assumed control of ISAF in 2003 and the rebuilding of Afghanistan began. he European Union, Canada and India also play a major role in reconstruction.

By 2009, a Taliban-led shadow government began to form complete with their own version of mediation court. According to a report by the United Nations the Taliban were responsible for 76 % of civilian casualties in 2009.

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama deployed an additional 30,000 soldiers over a period of six months and proposed that he will begin troop withdrawals by 2012.

At the 2010 International Conference on Afghanistan in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he intends to reach out to the Taliban leadership. Supported by senior U.S. officials Karzai called on the group’s leadership to take part in a loya jirga meeting to initiate peace talks.

Many Afghan groups believe that Karzai’s plan aims to appease the insurgents’ senior leadership at the cost of the democratic constitution, the democratic process and progess in the field of human rights especially women’s rights.

Afghanistan still remains one of the poorest countries due to the results of 30 years of war, corruption among high level politicians and the ongoing Taliban insurgency from Pakistan.

Gender equality is an issue which is never far from the minds of many young Afghans, both women and men.

There are concerns that, in efforts to ‘reach out’ to the Taliban leadership, President Hamid Karzai may be forced to severely compromise on issues affecting women in particular.

It is hoped that such fears will be addressed at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, will take place on 5 December 2011.

Read more:

‘Massoud – An Afghan Life’ - by Nasrine Gross – Oct 2001

Afghan Women Roqia Center for Rights, Studies and Education – ‘The Messy Side of Globalization’ – Talk given by Nasrine Gross, Nov 2000 – Symposium on Globalization and Women in Muslim Societies

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Sources:

Wikipedia: History of Afghanistan
Wikipedia: Ahmad Shah Massoud
Amnesty International Document: Afghanistan: Further information on fear for safety and new concern: deliberate and arbitrary killings: Civilians in Kabul
UNHCR – Refworld – Afghanistan: Situation in, or around, Aqcha (Jawzjan province) including predominant tribal/ethnic group and who is currently in control
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder – Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition
Chicago Tribune – Taliban massacres outlined for UN
The Telegraph – Afghanistan resistance leader feared dead in blast
The Last Interview with Ahmad Shah Masood – Hoja Bahauddin- conducted by Piotr Balcerowicz
North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO’s role in Afghanistan
ABC News – Pakistan Accused of Helping Taliban
The Telegraph – Wikileaks: Pakistan accused of helping Taliban in Afghanistan attacks
The Weekly Standard – UN: Taliban Responsible for 76% of Deaths in Afghanistan
The Washington Post – Taliban establishes elaborate shadow government in Afghanistan
Scotsman.com – Karzai’s Taleban talks raise spectre of civil war warns former spy chief
NPR – Abdullah Abdullah: Talks With Taliban Futile
Afghan News Centre – Afghan FM Welcomes More NATO Peacekeepers 
University of Missouri – CIA – The World Fact Book – Afghanistan
Law.com – Despite Obama Ban, Official’s Lobbyist Past No Obstacle
Canada in Afghanistan – The War So Far – by Peter Pigott

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Afghanistan: Ten Years at War

AMY GOODMAN: It was ten years ago today when then President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against out, terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime

AMY GOODMAN: Ten years later, the Afghan war rages on. It has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. There’s no end in sight. The Taliban remains in control of major parts of the nation. Peace talks have collapsed. Civilian and troop casualties continue to mount. There have been a number of major setbacks in just the past few weeks. On September 13, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy and the NATOheadquarters in Kabul. A week later, the Taliban claim responsibility for assassinating former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the Afghan Peace Council. Just this week the Wall Street Journal reported Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given up on negotiating with the Taliban. In a recent interview, retired General Stanley McChrystal said the U.S. and NATO were only 50% of the way towards achieving their goals in Afghanistan. Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American progress.

BRIAN KATULIS: If you look at the main metric, the measure for success, in the counterinsurgency strategy, it is, how safe is the local population? 2011, this year, will be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. More than 80% of those deaths are caused by the Taliban insurgency. But the key metric of whether we’re succeeding on a counterinsurgency strategy — are we keeping the local population safe? — the answer is, no. The number has gone up

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Afghanistan, we are joined by two guests – first, we go to Afghanistan, to Reena. She’s 19 years old, a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Reena is a pseudonym, her face concealed since all RAWAmembers maintain anonymity for security reasons. Welcome toDemocracy Now!, Reena. Describe what is happening now – ten years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. REENA: Thank you so much, Amy. It is a pleasure to be on your show. Ten years ago when U.S. invaded Afghanistan, they made promises of democracy, women’s rights, and a general improvement in the lives of people. But ten years later, today, the situation is clearly getting worse for our people. Everyday life has not improved. Women’s situation has gotten worse. There is no sign of democracy or freedom or peace anywhere. In fact, civilian deaths have reached 10,000 on this anniversary. And it’s going to continue to rise with the surge of troops and increase in assaults, this will obviously be continuing. AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, we’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. There was a great deal of attention to the young people who grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center, both specifically and also just in this age metaphorically. You, Reena, or 19 years old. You were nine when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. Where were you born? What are your thoughts growing up in the Afghan War? REENA: At that time, I was in Pakistan, in a refugee camp, but I do remember a lot of people who were there at that time, like our close relatives. We lost some people that we knew, some friends, in the bombings of the U.S. So I did not exactly witness the deadlier Civil War of 92-96. I have vague images of the Taliban regime of 96-2001. But this ten year war has definitely had a very deep impact on this generation. The civilian casualties, the fear that people live with these days, the terror that there is in the streets everywhere for the IED attacks or other kinds of threats, it is increasing day by day. It has just made everyone extremely insecure and bad for the people. AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined here in New York by Anand Gopal. He reported for The Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan then for the Wall Street Journal. Now he is writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. Your thoughts ten years later — the longest U.S. war in U.S. history. ANAND GOPAL: By any metric we look at, the war has gotten worse. Security has gotten precipitously worse every single year. 2011 has seen the most civilians being killed of any year since the war started. We’ve seen the most number of attacks – suicide bombings, roadside bombings, since the war started for any year. The amount of territory the Taliban controls has been undiminished, despite the fact we’ve seeing a major troop surge in the last year or two years. We’ve seen a fragmentation within Afghanistan where the people who we are aligned with are starting to arm themselves and thinking about a post-American scenario where they want to all fight against each other. Really we’re at a knot here in Afghanistan in the last ten years. AMY GOODMAN: Listening to the talk shows on the cable networks, it is quite remarkable to see how things are turned on their heads. The Republicans talking about Obama presiding over the longest war. The issue of what it means if the U.S. pulls out, and the mantra often repeated that the Taliban will take over. I want to get both of your thoughts on that beginning with Anand. ANAND GOPAL: The Taliban already have de facto control of almost half of the country in the countryside. Beyond that, what we’re doing in Afghanistan is we are arming militiamen, warlords, strong men, we’re actually going into the countryside and giving them weapons, giving weapons to all sorts of human rights violators and abusers. These are people in many cases who have been disarmed after 2001 and we’re rearming now because we need help in fighting the Taliban. So what that’s actually doing is creating the conditions in which the civil war is more and more likely. In fact that I think the longer we stay and continue this policy, a civil war becomes more likely. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, your thoughts on the issue of the Taliban? REENA: Yes, I absolutely agree with him. The U.S. has armed the most dangerous warlords and is continuing to arm and support them. If they were drawn out, yes, a civil war may be inevitable. But again, we have to remember that, as we always say, this war is part of the problem. It is not going to solve anything for us. If the troops withdraw and if they give Afghanistan a chance to decide its own fate, I think things will work out. If they do not support these warlords, as he said, and the U.S. and its allies pressure the other countries not to support the Taliban, then I think maybe a civil war will not take place. It might not be as bloody as it will be if they continue supporting or if this war goes on. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, a reason often given for staying in Afghanistan — it was one that Laura Bush put forward, it was one that was picked up again, things all turned around, the kind of feminist reason, particularly put forward by the Republicans but many Democrats also support this and Democratic women — that it is about saving the women of Afghanistan. Your response? REENA: Yes, these claims were all extremely false. If they have brought to power the misogynists, the brothers and creed of Taliban into power, who are the exact copies of Taliban, mentally and have just been physically changed, then I do not think the feminist situation can improve. Today, there are slight improvements in women’s lives in urban areas, but again if you look at statistics, Afghanistan remains the most dangerous place for women. Self-immolation, suicide rates, are extremely high – it has never been this high before. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are poor. They do not have healthcare. It has the highest mortality rate in the world. There are, as I said, some improvements. And in some aspects, it might have been a little better for a handful of people, for women, but it has definitely has gotten worse for others. There is insecurity, there are threats. They always say that there are six million girls in schools and the schools have opened, but nobody looks at the dropout rates. Nobody looks at the attacks, the threats that the Taliban makes to the girls. And they do not dare go out again. Nobody looks at the quality of the schools. All these things — there have been slight changes. It has been very widely used, and to just highlight a few positive things, but overall, things have gotten worse. AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking earlier this week about the Haqqani network threat, blaming the ISI for orchestrating attacks on U.S. targets inside Afghanistan.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: A second but no less worrisome challenge is the impunity with which certain extremist groups are allowed to operate from Pakistani soil. The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable army of Pakistan’s internal services intelligence agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.

AMY GOODMAN: Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Anand Gopal, your response? ANAND GOPAL: It’s absolutely the case that Pakistan is in some way supporting the Haqqani network and the rest of the Afghan insurgency. But I think it is important to have some historical context in all of this. We once, the U.S., once supported the Haqqani network, back in the ‘80s when we were fighting against the Russians. We poured millions, in fact billions of dollars into Afghanistan to fundamentalists, to Islamic radicals and we’re getting the blowback of that now. And also that has fundamentally changed the dynamic within Pakistan, where we helped create, in a sense, the way that the ISI, the Pakistani Security Agency, acts today. They have been pretty much consistent in the last thirty years in their position. We just changed our position ten years ago. AMY GOODMAN: And the role that Pakistan — if you could talk further – plays in Afghanistan, and the fact that Pakistan has been supporting or in the past supported the very forces that they’re fighting against, that the U.S. is fighting against in Afghanistan, and helped to establish the ISI, which it now is critiquing. ANAND GOPAL: Well, there is no doubt that the insurgent leadership, the Haqqani network, the Taliban and other groups, they have a safe haven in Pakistan. There is no doubt that elements of the ISI, the security apparatus, is giving advice and support to the insurgent leadership. Pakistan is planning a double game. On the one hand, they are aligned with the U.S. and getting millions of dollars in aid for military, on the other hand, supporting insurgency. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, you are 19 years old, you are a young woman who goes back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. How do you function? Reena is not really your name, you’re not saying where you are in Afghanistan, you’re with the organization RAWA. Explain what your group does and how you get around. REENA: RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was established in 1977 by a martyred leader, Mina, and a group of other young women. It is an anti-fundamentalist group, women’s group, that fights for freedom, democracy, secularism and women’s rights. Because we are the only women’s group that speaks against fundamentalists — the warlords in power today — we have any security issues and we cannot be open in our activities. So we are underground and semi-underground. We function mostly in Afghanistan, but a small part of our activities are also based in Pakistan. AMY GOODMAN: Malalai Joya make a statement this week where she said, let’s see if I can find it, “we’re at a point today when Afghanistan is at its most violent since war started and the government at its weakest. Civilian casualties higher this year than any previous year, the territory Taliban controls more or less the same as last year, there’s no progress toward making a political solution.” Anand Gopal, what if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow? ANAND GOPAL: I think if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow, it would be very likely that we would see a civil war. When you talk to Afghans, and particularly in the countryside where the war is being fought, what many of them say is, we want the U.S. troops to pull out and we want there to be some sort of peace settlement from all the sides. This never really happened, even from day one in 2001. The Afghan state was not constituted on a broad-based system. It was a deal between a certain set of warlords and the U.S. You want to include civil society, groups like RAWA, other groups, and try to come together to tell Afghans to configure their state in some way, which they’ve never had a chance to do until now. So I think a peace settlement of some sort, together with the troops pulling out, would be the only way we can forestall a Civil War. AMY GOODMAN: Would you say, Reena, that each day of this war increases hostility toward the United States? REENA: Absolutely. Absolutely, it does, as it has increased from 2001 until now. Because in the start, the people were very hopeful. They had some hope that the U.S. would actually help them, that their situation would improve in the last ten years. But the U.S., unfortunately, supported the war lords, like Sayaff, Abdullah Abdullah, Ismail Khan, Khalili, and they recently killed Burhanuddin Rabbani. So all this has increased the People’s hostility, in addition in the countryside and in provinces other than Kabul and some other urban cities, the U.S. airstrikes and night raids are increasing day-by-day. This itself is drawing a lot of hostility from the people toward the U.S., and they want them to leave our country as soon as possible. AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Anand Gopal, for people to understand and as you both lived in Afghanistan for years covering the war and you come back to the United States and see how generally it is covered as you write your book? ANAND GOPAL: It is covered very poorly. I think a lot of the discourse about the war in Afghanistan is that it is a series of mistakes. And it is a mistake. But I think at the core underneath those mistakes is a fundamental wrong policy, which was the war on terror, going into Afghanistan and thinking that the occupation of a country can solve the problem of terrorism. I think that everything that we are seeing in Afghanistan today, you can relate it back to that fundamental core issue. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, I don’t know if you heard the Nobel peace Prize was just announced. It is going to three women from the Arab world and from Africa. Two from Liberia, including the current president of Liberia, and one brave Yemeni activist, the youngest ever to receive the Nobel peace prize. Had you heard about that? Does this matter at all to in Afghanistan? REENA: Yes, I did read about this. I would like to say that the Nobel Peace Prize is, I do not think, it is a very big prize in the opinion of our people. Because every time there is usually a political motive behind giving it to somebody. And the actual real people who struggle for something or who are trying to get something are never considered for this prize. For example, last year, a warlord woman from our country, Sima Samar, was on the list of these people. She almost won the Nobel Peace Prize. That woman is in the Warlord Party. If not directly, is an agent of other countries. If you can consider giving this prize to such a woman, then it does not mean anything for our people. Anybody else can win it for political reasons or whatever is behind it. AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts in that, Anand Gopal? ANAND GOPAL: I think also more importantly, from the point of view of the Afghans, Barack Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he’s the person who increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and increased the violence in fact in Afghanistan. A lot of my Afghan friends question with the value of the Nobel Peace Prize is if it leads to more war in Afghanistan. AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, now the U.S. engaged in the longest war it has ever been involved with in U.S. history. Anand Gopal, independent journalist, writing a book Afghanistan, previously with the Christian Science Monitor and then the Wall Street Journal. AMY GOODMAN: And Reena, not her real name, speaking to us from Afghanistan, her face covered. She is anonymous for her own protection. Tonight, _KPFK_’s Uprising host, Sonali Kolhatkar. KPFK is the Pacifica Station in Los Angeles—-will be leading a conversation with Reena via live video stream and taking questions from the viewing audience. You can see it at afghanwomensmission.org, we’ll put a link there on our website at democracynow.org.

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UNAMA report: Mistreatment of conflict-related detainees in Afghan facilities

(For full report visit UNAMA page.)

From October 2010 to August 2011, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) interviewed 379 pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners at 47 detention facilities in 22 provinces across Afghanistan. In total, 324 of the 379 persons interviewed were detained by National Directorate of Security (NDS) or Afghan National Police (ANP) forces for national security crimes – suspected of being Taliban fighters, suicide attack facilitators, producers of improvised explosive devices, and others implicated in crimes associated with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Interviews were conducted at facilities including ANP detention centres, NDS facilities, Ministry of Justice prisons and juvenile rehabilitation centres; as a result of transfers, the interviews dealt with detainees located in 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. With two exceptions, Government officials from the ANP, NDS, Ministry of Justice and other departments cooperated with UNAMA and provided full access to detainees and facilities.

NDS and ANP are the main Afghan security forces engaged in detaining and arresting conflict-related detainees with NDS responsible for investigation of national security crimes and interrogation of such detainees. NDS is the State’s principal internal and external intelligence-gathering organ, conducting security and law enforcement operations to gather actionable intelligence to prevent crimes against public security. As the country’s police force, ANP deals with both criminal and conflict-related offences. International military forces also play a significant role in detention of individuals for conflict-related offences.

UNAMA’s research focused on detention practices of the NDS with a secondary focus on detention by ANP. UNAMA’s interviews concentrated on the treatment of detainees by NDS and ANP officials and the Government of Afghanistan’s compliance with due process guarantees under Afghan and international human rights law. UNAMA made no assumptions or findings on the guilt or innocence of those detainees it interviewed for crimes of which they were suspected, accused or convicted.

UNAMA acknowledges the critical and extremely difficult role that NDS and ANP have in safeguarding national security in the current situation of armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Torture and Abuse of Detainees by NDS and ANP

UNAMA’s detention observation found compelling evidence that 125 detainees (46 percent) of the 273 detainees interviewed who had been in NDS detention experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture, and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan. Nearly all detainees tortured by NDS officials reported the abuse took place during interrogations and was aimed at obtaining a confession or information. In almost every case, NDS officials stopped the use of torture once detainees confessed to the crime of which they were accused or provided the requested information. UNAMA also found that children under the age of 18 years experienced torture by NDS officials.

More than one third of the 117 conflict-related detainees UNAMA interviewed who had been in ANP detention experienced treatment that amounted to torture or to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

In situations where torture occurred, it typically took the form of abusive interrogation practices used to obtain confessions from individuals detained on suspicion of crimes against the State. The practices documented meet the international definition of torture. Torture occurs when State officials, acting in their official capacity inflict or order, consent or acquiesce to the infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering against an individual to obtain a confession or information, or to punish or discriminate against the individual. Such practices amounting to torture are among the most serious human rights violations under international law, are crimes under Afghan law and are strictly prohibited under both Afghan and international law.

Detainees described experiencing torture in the form of suspension (being hung by the wrists from chains or other devices attached to the wall, ceiling, iron bars or other fixtures for lengthy periods) and beatings, especially with rubber hoses, electric cables or wires or wooden sticks and most frequently on the soles of the feet. Electric shock, twisting and wrenching of detainees’ genitals, stress positions including forced standing, removal of toenails and threatened sexual abuse were among other forms of torture that detainees reported. Routine blindfolding and hooding and denial of access to medical care in some facilities were also reported. UNAMA documented one death in ANP and NDS custody from torture in Kandahar in April 2011.

UNAMA found compelling evidence that NDS officials at five facilities systematically tortured detainees for the purpose of obtaining confessions and information. These are the provincial NDS facilities in Herat, Kandahar, Khost and Laghman, and the national facility of the NDS Counter-Terrorism Department 124 (formerly Department 90) in Kabul. UNAMA received multiple, credible allegations of torture at two other provincial NDS facilities in Kapisa and Takhar. UNAMA did not find indications of torture at two provincial NDS facilities, Paktya and Uruzgan, at the time of its visits to these facilities.

UNAMA received numerous allegations regarding the use of torture at 15 other locations covering 17 NDS facilities. Twenty-five percent of detainees interviewed in these 17 facilities alleged they had been tortured. At the time of writing of this report, UNAMA had not established the credibility of the allegations based on the number of interviews conducted and the need to corroborate allegations satisfactorily. UNAMA continues to investigate these allegations.

Detainees in ANP custody reported that abuse occurred in a broader range of circumstances and settings. Some of this abuse constituted torture while other methods amounted to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Reports of abuse by the ANP included police officers committing torture or ill-treatment at the time of arrest, at check posts, at district headquarters, and at provincial headquarters.

The Government of Afghanistan is obliged under Afghan law and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to investigate promptly all acts of torture and other ill-treatment, prosecute those responsible, provide redress to victims and prevent further acts of torture. The Government’s obligation to respect the prohibition against torture is also non-derogable meaning that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, can be invoked as a justification of torture. UNAMA calls on the Afghan authorities to take all possible steps to end and prevent torture, and provide accountability for all acts of torture.

Transfer of Detainees to NDS and ANP by International Military Forces

UNAMA’s detention observation included interviews with 89 detainees who reported the involvement of international military forces either alone or together with Afghan forces in their capture and transfer to NDS or ANP custody. UNAMA found compelling evidence that 19 of these 89 detainees were tortured in NDS custody and three in ANP custody.

Under the Convention against Torture States are prohibited from transferring individuals to another State’s custody where a substantial risk of torture exists. Rules of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) also state that consistent with international law, persons should not be transferred under any circumstances where there is a risk they will be subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.

The situation described in this report of transfer to a risk of torture speaks to the need for robust oversight and monitoring of all transfers of detainees to NDS and ANP custody by international military forces in Afghanistan, and suspension of transfers to facilities where credible reports of torture exist.

Canada and the United Kingdom ceased transfers of detainees to NDS facilities in Kandahar and Kabul at various times in recent years based on reports of torture and ill-treatment. These countries implemented post-transfer monitoring schemes allowing them to track the treatment of detainees their armed forces handed over to Afghan authorities. The United States Embassy recently finalised plans for a post-transfer detainee monitoring programme and a proposal is with the Government of Afghanistan for its consideration.

The Embassy advised UNAMA that it regards the programme as a positive way for the US to continue its work with the Government to ensure its detention system is safe, secure and humane.

In early July 2011, US and ISAF military forces stopped transferring detainees to NDS and ANP authorities in Dai Kundi, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul based on reports of a consistent practice of torture and mistreatment of detainees in NDS and ANP detention facilities in those areas. In early September 2011, in response to the findings in this report, ISAF stated that it stopped transferring detainees to certain NDS and ANP installations as a precautionary measure.

Torture and ill-treatment by NDS and ANP could also trigger application of the “Leahy Law” which prohibits the US from providing funding, weapons or training to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross human rights violations, unless the Secretary of State determines that the concerned government is taking effective remedial measures. In the situation of Afghanistan this would presumably require the US to resume transfer of detainees only when the Government of Afghanistan implements appropriate remedial measures that include bringing to justice NDS and ANP officials responsible for torture and ill-treatment.

Lack of Accountability of NDS and ANP officials for Torture and Abuse of Detainees

UNAMA found that accountability of NDS and ANP officials for torture and abuse is weak, not transparent and rarely enforced. Limited independent, judicial or external oversight exists of NDS and ANP as institutions and of crimes or misconduct committed by NDS and ANP officials including torture and abuse.

Most cases of crimes or abusive or unprofessional conduct by NDS officials are addressed internally. Senior NDS officials advised UNAMA that NDS investigated only two claims of torture in recent years, neither of which led to charges being pursued against the accused.

In December 2010, NDS established an internal oversight commission to examine allegations of mistreatment of detainees, due process issues and detention conditions. Following monitoring visits to several NDS facilities in January 2011, the commission was to report to the Director General of NDS. UNAMA observed the commission’s visits to several detention facilities and had concerns regarding the scope and quality of its investigations. Although a positive measure initially, the oversight body appears to have been ineffective to date in addressing torture, abuse and arbitrary detention as this report’s findings suggest.

Internal and external accountability mechanisms exist for ANP criminal conduct with most cases addressed internally through the Ministry of Interior. Alleged crimes committed by ANP officials should be referred to the Directorate of Military Affairs in the Attorney General’s Office for investigation and criminal trial by a military prosecutor. However, little information from the Ministry of Interior is available regarding any referral of such cases to the judicial system. Although private citizens can report crimes or misconduct committed by police officers through an office of the Ministry of Interior which assesses claims for investigation by one of three Ministry of Interior structures, few cases are pursued through this mechanism.

Due Process Violations and Arbitrary Detention

In almost all criminal cases in Afghanistan, including national security prosecutions, the case against the defendant is based on a confession, which the court usually finds both persuasive and conclusive of the defendant’s guilt. In most cases confessions are the sole form of evidence or corroboration submitted to courts to support prosecutions. Confessions are rarely examined at trial and rarely challenged by the judge or defence counsel as having been coerced.

Under Afghan law, where a confession is obtained illegally or forced, for example, under torture, it should be inadmissible in court. However, even in cases where defence lawyers raise the issue of forced confession through torture, courts usually dismiss the application and allow the confession to be used as evidence. This evidentiary practice clearly violates the letter and spirit of the law and is inconsistent with many expert studies that show information gained by torture is manifestly unreliable and non-probative of an individual’s guilt or innocence.

UNAMA documented other due process concerns and violations by NDS and ANP officials. These include the routine failure to meet procedural time limits demarcating the phases of the pre-trial criminal investigation and chain of custody, lack of clarity in the roles of arresting authorities and prosecutors, and lack of judicial oversight of pre-trial detention until very late in the pre-trial process. Since most conflict-related detainees do not have access to defence counsel or information about their rights, the absence of these procedural safeguards has a huge negative impact on detainees’ ability to challenge the legality of their detention, prepare a credible defence, or seek protection from torture or coercion.

Under Afghanistan’s Interim Criminal Procedure Code, custody is linked with the phase of a criminal case. Police may detain an individual for up to 72 hours after an arrest, while they conduct initial interviews, prepare charges and hand the case over to a primary prosecutor (Saranwal-e-btadaiah) who confirms the charges and basis for detention. Prosecutors then have a maximum period of 30 days from the time of arrest to investigate and file an indictment. During this process, suspects are to be transferred to a detention centre administered by the Central Prison Directorate – currently within the Ministry of Justice.

Separation of detention authority is aimed at ensuring suspects do not remain in the custody of those responsible for their interrogation for long periods, effectively serving as a safeguard against coercion and abuse. This safeguard is all the more important since the Interim Criminal Procedure Code does not provide for judicial review of the legality of detention in the early investigative stages after arrest. Rather the prosecutor effectively retains the ability to detain or release from the time in which charges are brought until the beginning of trial with minimal judicial oversight.

In practice, ANP and NDS officials routinely disregard these time limits and safeguards. UNAMA found that 93 percent of all NDS detainees interviewed were held for periods longer than the 72 hour maximum — an average of 20 days — before being charged with a crime and transferred to a Ministry of Justice detention centre. Many ANP and NDS officials attributed their inability to meet time limits to inadequate human resources, lack of logistical and technical capacity, and difficulties in travel to and from remote locations with poor infrastructure and insecurity to detention facilities.

UNAMA found that many prosecutors in national security cases delegate their investigative authority to the NDS and interview the detainee only after NDS completes its initial investigation and transfers the detainee to a Ministry of Justice prison which can take several months. In some cases, prosecutors draft the indictment solely on the basis of information gathered by NDS. This system of delegating the prosecutor’s authority along with the lack of speedy judicial review of the legality of detention means that most detainees do not see a judge or a prosecutor until they reach trial – a period of time that can extend up to three months from the time of arrest. This situation violates Afghanistan’s obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to ensure all Afghans arrested or detained are brought promptly before a judge or other appropriate judicial official, and is inconsistent with provisions in the Constitution of Afghanistan that prohibit arbitrary detention.

Another weakness in procedural safeguards for detainees in NDS custody is the lack of access to counsel. Despite the right of all detainees under Afghan law to a defence lawyer at all stages of the process, only one of the 324 detainees UNAMA interviewed in ANP or NDS detention reported they had defence counsel. Almost all defence lawyers and legal aid providers informed UNAMA they had minimal access to NDS facilities as NDS officials deliberately prevented them from accessing detainees. NDS officials told UNAMA they deny detainees’ access to defence lawyers for fear they will influence detainees and hinder NDS investigations. Defence counsel reported they generally had better access to detainees held in ANP facilities but only after ANP investigating officials presented the case to the prosecutor.

Although detainees have the right under Afghan law to family visits, only 28 percent of detainees interviewed were permitted family visits during their detention in NDS facilities.

Torture and Arbitrary Detention Undermine Reconciliation and Reintegration

Torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention by the NDS and ANP are not only serious violations of human rights and crimes they also pose obstacles to reconciliation and reintegration processes aimed at ending the armed conflict in Afghanistan. UNAMA’s research along with the findings of other experts who have analysed the emergence and growth of the insurgency post-2001, highlights that such abuses in many cases contributed to individual victims joining or rejoining the Taliban and other anti-Government armed groups.

The findings in this report bring into focus a tension between programmes the Government of Afghanistan launched to promote reintegration and reconciliation with insurgents and abusive practices, particularly against conflict-related detainees, by ANP and NDS officials. The Government’s Peace and Reintegration Programme established incentives for insurgents to resolve grievances, reconcile with and reintegrate into their communities. At the same time, ANP and NDS abuses continue to provide individuals with an incentive to put their security in the hands of anti-Government elements and to fight actively against the Government.

The need to reduce the number of persons arbitrarily detained has been also recognised as a key confidence-building measure in efforts to promote reconciliation nationally among local communities and with anti-Government elements. The Government established several prisoner-release programmes to address the lack of confidence and mistrust in Government among local communities caused by high numbers of individuals detained arbitrarily and mistreated in detention. The High Peace Council recently began reviewing cases of conflict-related detainees held without evidence or access to courts as a means of confidence-building. Such efforts are undermined when the ANP, NDS, and the criminal justice system as a whole continue to tolerate torture and prolonged, arbitrary and abusive detention.

Torture and Abuse by State Officials Compromises National Security

It has long been the position of the United Nations that effective counter-terrorism measures require compliance with human rights and that torture and other abusive practices by State officials such as those documented in this report undermine national security. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and Plan of Action affirm that human rights for all and the rule of law are essential components of counter-terrorism, recognising that effective counter-terrorism measures and protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing. The UN Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism notes there is broad consensus that combating terrorism in compliance with human rights is not only a legal and moral obligation of States but also the most effective way to fight against terrorism.

Observations

Torture and arbitrary detention are two of the most pressing human rights issues impeding the establishment of rule of law, transition of lead security responsibilities from international military forces to Afghan National Security Forces and arguably long-term reconciliation in Afghanistan. Persistent ill-treatment of detainees and the inability of judicial authorities to respect basic due process guarantees have long been factors fostering public mistrust in the Government, dissatisfaction with Afghan security forces and the growth and viability of the insurgency. Individuals detained by the NDS or ANP suffer torture without recourse or accountability, the ability to seek redress, to challenge the basis of their detention or, ultimately, to refute the persuasive power of a coerced confession gained through torture.

Afghanistan’s Constitution, laws and international legal obligations provide an effective legal framework for prohibiting torture and ill-treatment. While some critical safeguards are not yet in place, particularly the right to challenge the basis of detention, effective implementation of existing laws could ensure the worst abuses are stopped and hold accountable perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment.

UNAMA’s detention observation shows that NDS officials are responsible for the serious human rights violations and crimes documented in specific NDS facilities. UNAMA’s findings to date are that NDS officials systematically tortured detainees in a number of detention facilities across Afghanistan. Torture does not appear to have been practiced systematically in each NDS facility UNAMA observed. In other facilities UNAMA observed, more investigation is required to determine whether torture is used systematically in the facility. UNAMA concludes on the basis of the findings of this observation programme that the use of torture is not a de facto institutional policy directed or ordered by the highest levels of NDS leadership or the Government. This together with the fact that NDS cooperated with UNAMA’s detention observation programme suggests that reform is both possible and desired by elements within the NDS. In response to the findings of this report, the leadership of NDS advised UNAMA that it plans to investigate reports of torture and address concerns through a time-limited action plan.

The comments and response of the Government of Afghanistan, the NDS and the Ministry of Interior to the findings in this report are attached as Annex II.

Use and acceptance of abusive interrogation tactics amounting to torture also reflects the need for much greater attention to reforms in the judiciary, prosecution and law enforcement sectors. Police, prosecutors and NDS intelligence officials and interrogators should be trained in national and international legal frameworks prohibiting torture and in interrogation techniques that have proved to be more reliable in gaining the long term trust and cooperation of detainees and suspected perpetrators of terrorism that strengthen national security. These techniques also provide reliable intelligence, information and testimonial evidence on which courts can base decisions and on which police, prosecutors and courts can minimise arbitrary detention and increase respect for due process guarantees the Government is obliged to provide to all detainees.

UNAMA offers the following recommendations to the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to address and end the practice of torture and ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention in all NDS and ANP facilities.

Key Recommendations

To the National Directorate of Security (NDS)


- Take immediate steps to stop and prevent torture and ill-treatment at all NDS facilities and particularly at facilities where such practices have been used as a method of interrogation:
– Investigate all reports of torture and ill-treatment at provincial NDS facilities in Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Laghman and NDS Counter-Terrorism Department 90/124 in Kabul. Remove, prosecute, discipline and punish those officials found responsible. Permit independent oversight of these investigations and publicly report on findings and remedial actions;
– Promptly issue directives prohibiting torture and ill-treatment in all circumstances to all NDS personnel and advise them and their superiors they will be prosecuted and disciplined if found committing, ordering or condoning such practices;
– Permit full, regular and unhindered access of independent monitors to all NDS facilities including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, UNAMA, International Committee of the Red Cross and others.
– Review the working methods of the NDS oversight/detention monitoring commission, identify why it has not uncovered torture at the facilities visited, and adopt methods that ensure future monitoring missions are effective.
–  Implement an external accountability mechanism that allows independent and transparent investigations into alleged abuses within NDS facilities.
– Ensure all NDS interrogators and their superiors receive mandatory training in lawful and effective interrogation methods, alternative investigative approaches (such as forensics), and legal obligations under Afghan and international law that prohibit torture and ill-treatment, in coordination with international partners.
– Change policies and practices on access of defence lawyers to detainees. Permit defence lawyers to visit all detention facilities and offer their services to any detainee at all stages of the process as required by Afghan law.

To the Afghan National Police
– Take immediate steps to stop and prevent torture and ill-treatment:
– Investigate all reports of torture and ill-treatment at police facilities and remove, prosecute, discipline and punish all police officers and their superiors found responsible for committing or condoning such practices;
– Permit independent oversight of these investigations and publicly report on findings and remedial actions.
– Permit full, regular and unhindered access of independent monitors to all Afghan National Police and Ministry of Interior facilities including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, UNAMA, International Committee of the Red Cross and others.
– Issue and implement regulations instructing police that a limited number of designated officials with the Criminal Investigation Division, Counter-Terrorism Unit, and similar units conduct interrogations. Issue and train these officials on a standard operating procedure on lawful and effective interrogation and legal obligations on the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.

To the Government of Afghanistan
• Make the legal framework and procedures regulating NDS public and transparent, and ensure legal procedures provide for the external investigation and prosecution of allegations of serious criminal conduct, including torture and ill-treatment of detainees by NDS officials, in the civilian criminal justice system.

To the Supreme Court
• Direct primary and appeal court judges to routinely investigate all allegations of torture and coerced confessions and strictly enforce prohibitions on the use of evidence obtained through torture as required under the Constitution of Afghanistan and the Interim Criminal Procedure Code.

To the Supreme Court, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and Parliament
• Revise the Interim Criminal Procedure Code to guarantee the right of detainees to be brought promptly before a judge for an initial and periodic review of the lawfulness of pre-trial detention, and the right of detainees to challenge the legality of their detention with a speedy court decision.

To Troop Contributing Countries and Concerned States
• Suspend transfer of detainees to those NDS and ANP units and facilities where credible allegations or reports of torture and ill-treatment have been made pending a full assessment. Review monitoring practices at each NDS facility where detainees are transferred and revise as necessary to ensure no detainees are transferred to a risk of torture.
• Review policies on transferring detainees to ANP and NDS custody to ensure adequate safeguards and use participation in joint operations, funding arrangements, the transition process, intelligence liaison relationships and other means to stop the use of torture and promote reforms by NDS and ANP.
• Build the capacity of NDS and ANP facilities and personnel including through mentoring and training on the legal and human rights of detainees and detention practices in line with international human rights standards.
• Increase efforts to support training to all NDS and ANP interrogators and their supervisors in lawful and effective interrogation methods, and alternative investigative approaches (such as forensics).

Pakistan

Afghan Women Writers

by: NILANJANA S. ROY

(originally published in the New York Times)

6 September 2011

NEW DELHI — If Tabasom wants to meet other Afghan writers or to use the Internet, she faces not just a four-hour walk but other constraints.

“I need to have a man all the time with me when I come to Kabul,” writes Tabasom, a woman in her 20s. “We can’t walk alone here in Logar,” the province southeast of the Afghan capital. She says she would like to work outside the home, but is afraid. An aunt, a nurse, was killed by the Taliban.

And yet, like the 75 or so participants in an unusual initiative called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, Tabasom has found ways over the last two years to tell her story.

For the first year or so after its inception, the project was “flying under the radar,” its founder, Masha Hamilton, an American journalist and novelist, said by phone. The initial contributors were recruited through friends in Kabul; these women in turn referred others from farther afield, in Herat, Fargana, Kandahar and elsewhere.

As the women began offering anecdotes about their lives, political commentary and even poems to this online magazine, Ms. Hamilton brought together a loose coalition of activists and fellow writers to act as mentors. To remain part of the workshop, the women must reside in Afghanistan and file at least once a month. In August, the project went a little more public with a campaign called Freedom to Tell Your Story.

Still, the project maintains a certain level of secrecy to protect its writers, women who may fear reprisals from family or the local authorities when they discuss arranged marriages or the disappearance of relatives. The Internet center in Kabul that serves as a hub for many of the women is at an undisclosed location. Most of the women are identified only by first name, or by pseudonyms. Two of the 75 have insisted on complete anonymity.

“In most cases,” said Ms. Hamilton, who is based in the United States and recently returned there from a visit to Afghanistan, “their families don’t know, and they don’t want their families to know.”

The women are free to write about anything they choose, and many of them do just that. Fattemeh wrote about the scent of wet grass; Roya created a childhood “Museum of Memories”; Norwan mused about marriage traditions.

But while the project began, as Ms. Hamilton said, as “a kitchen table idea” after she had worked as a reporter in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2008, she is also clear that it was intended to be “an act of activism.” Many of the writings the women have submitted are about the difficulty of getting an education or being allowed to work. A participant named Leeda wrote about a girl’s descent into “poppy addiction” after her forced marriage.

Other issues include family pressures, wearing the burqa, President Barack Obama’s speeches and debates over the merits of partitioning Afghanistan — in the two years of the project, the contributors have offered their views with a growing self-confidence.

Perhaps what they reflect is the subterranean history of resistance by women in Afghanistan.

As is well documented, the women of Afghanistan lost many of their rights when the Taliban seized power in 1996, forbidding women to work outside the home, or to leave home unless accompanied by male relatives. Change since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001 in the U.S.-led invasion has been slow. Afghanistan was recently named the world’s most dangerous country for women in a survey conducted by TrustLaw Women, a program of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But 2001, before the invasion, was also when Nasrin Arbabzadeh, then the leader of the Afghan delegation to the Third Muslim Women’s Games, made an impassioned plea to the Taliban authorities. “We are here to say Afghan women are alive and want an active part in social life,” she said.

In 2003, Malalai Joya made international headlines when, as a delegate to the Loya Jirga, the national assembly called to consider a new constitution, she delivered a speech denouncing the domination of local warlords, calling them anti-women. Her criticism of what she called “war criminals” in government earned her death threats and suspension from Parliament in 2007. She chronicled her struggles as an Afghan woman in her 2009 memoir, “A Woman Among Warlords.”

And in February 2011, the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella organization of rights groups, resisted when the government attempted to shut down all 14 shelters in the country for abused women. In an open letter, the women’s network castigated President Hamid Karzai: “We, the women activists, are accused by the government of having dishonored the national pride by publicly exposing the egregious and often humiliating violations of rights that women are exposed to. This, they said, shames us in the eyes of the world. This? The revelation of human rights abuse? This shames us?”A few days after the letter was released, Mr. Karzai’s government appeared to backtrack, and the shelters are still operating.

The women in Kabul and Herat who help to run the Afghan Women’s Writing Project come from this tradition of resistance in often desperate circumstances. “It’s when women write about the tough stuff going on in their lives that empowerment happens,” said Ms. Hamilton, who stressed that it was always the women who decided what they wanted to write about, and how much they wanted to disclose. “We believe that it is important, crucial, to hear the voices of ordinary women — especially as Afghanistan moves towards the planned pullout of troops in 2014,” she said, referring to the promised withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. “It’s crucial for women’s experiences to become part of the discussion about national development.” The diversity of these experiences is enormous.

In one piece, a woman running for Parliament describes the experience of campaigning among Pashtun nomads, her own steep learning curve and her ambitions for the future. If that story is relatively upbeat, the next one, by an unnamed writer, underlines the bleaker reality of the lives of many Afghan women. She says that she is being pushed into marrying a man whose family will not let her work, study or even step outside the house. “What I write here are the wounded and torn pieces of my heart and the secrets an Afghan girl suffers. I am like a piece of cloth. I cost little. Who will buy me?”