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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 14

11 March 2002

Six Months On
Part III: The Liberated


In his speech to the Labour Party Conference on 2 Oct. 2001, the Prime Minister offered a wide-ranging justification for the coming war on Afghanistan. He invoked the terror of those killed on 11 September. He went on to suggest reasons for taking action against the Taliban regime quite apart from the fact that they had harboured Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organisation.


Mr Blair said that in Afghanistan, ‘Women are treated in a way almost too revolting to be credible. First driven out of university; girls not allowed to go to school; no legal rights; unable to go out of doors without a man. Those that disobey are stoned.’ Interestingly, ‘Women voters are supporting the war and President bush in numbers previously undreamt of by Republicans. A recent Los Angeles poll showed that 85 per cent of women were backing military action... The figures are seen as a triumph for the strategy of highlighting the repression of women by the Taliban and emphasising the fight for women’s rights.’ The Telegraph added, ‘Republicans hope the women’s support will translate into victory in November’s mid-term elections.’ (23 Jan. 2002, p. 15)

Has the destruction of the Taliban increased women’s freedom? Yes. ‘The Taliban may be gone, but the women of Afghanistan remain under wraps. Still forced to wear the burqa, their faces, bodies and clothes are hidden. Their only means of public self-expression is footwear, visible under the head-to-calf veil.’ High heels, buckles, painted toe nails and open toe sandals are now permitted in Herat, one of the most liberal areas of Afghanistan. ‘After six years of Taliban rule, Roya [Hamid, 23, a fine art student at Herat University] and her peers have won the right to study and to work, but to their intense frustration, little more.’ (Telegraph, 29 Jan. 2002, p. 16)

Sima Samar, Afghanistan’s first minister of women’s affairs, has no office, budget or staff. ‘She cannot afford her telephone bill and she is growing weary of western protestations of support for the oppressed women of Afghanistan.’ She began her job in tears at accounts of women’s suffering under the Taliban. Now, ‘she is merely angry: at cabinet colleagues who are suspicious of her mission, at the delays in getting her ministry off the ground, and at the international community for making a cause celebre of Afghan women and then failing to stump up the cash as quickly as she would like.’ Ms Samar says, ‘I keep telling people the situation of women is not the product of the Taliban. It’s a product of 23 years of war. The Taliban... achieved the maximum peak of human rights violations after all those years of war, but the violations were already on the ground.’ (Guardian, 17 Jan. 2002, p. 5)

Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra points out that ‘The press reports [of Taliban brutality towards women] came mostly from the cities, where less than 10 per cent of the population lives; almost all of them came from Kabul,where the rural men of the Taliban had tried vengefully to impose the ways of the Pashtun countryside upon Afghans they perceived as belonging to the privileged urban minorities - the urban elites that the Taliban hardliners in Kandahar blamed for the near-genocidal project of modernising Afghanistan. In contrast, the Taliban were barely visible in the villages, where in any case power rested with the local mullah or tribal chief.’ (New Statesman, 11 Feb. 2002, p. 28)

There are other factors also. Women own 40 per cent of the private wealth in Saudi Arabia, and account for more than 50 per cent of university graduates - ‘a situation that is unique in the Arab world’ - but ‘they make up a mere 4 per cent of the country’s workforce.’ The black abaya, or robe, and strict gender segregation ‘are often raised in the west as the ultimate examples of discrimination, [but] Saudi women say their priorities lie elsewhere.’ Restrictions in the field of work, discrimination in divorce, and the ban on women drivers, for example. (Financial Times, 25 Jan. 2002, p. 7)

It was clear before the new government was installed what the likely fate of Afghanistan’s women would be. In the Northern Alliance-controlled areas (the Northern Alliance [NA] being the dominant force in the new administration), women were walking around fully covered in the burqa. ‘The majority of Afghan men do not believe women should have rights,’ said Farahraz Nazir, head of the Afghanistan Women’s Association, the only women’s organisation operating openly in the country in mid-Nov. 2001. ‘Taliban or Northern Alliance, there are fanatics everywhere,’ she added. A woman not wearing a burqa was beaten and stoned in a NA-controlled town near to Nazir’s headquarters shortly before she was interviewed. (Time, 12 Nov. 2001, p. 51)

The women of Afghanistan can benefit now from international solidarity in a way that they could not under the rule of the Taliban. However, it is clear that the defeat of the Taliban was contributed little to women’s freedom in Afghanistan.


Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference in Oct. that the Taliban were ‘a regime founded on fear and funded on the drugs trade’: ‘The biggest drugs hoard in the world is in Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban. Ninety per cent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan. The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets.’ This was ‘another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy.’

The new Afghan administration promised its aid donors in Jan. 2002 that it would try to reduce the flow of narcotics out of the country: it officially banned opium-growing and drug trafficking on 16 Jan. 2002. (Telegraph, 17 Jan., p. 14) Afghanistan is the world’s largest exporter of heroin and provides about 80 per cent of Western Europe’s supply. ‘Between a third and a half of the Afghan population is believed by experts to be involved in growing, producing or trafficking in narcotics.’ The first action taken by the Hamid Karzai administration in relation to narcotics control was the eviction of the main drugs control agency from its headquarters and the seizure of its vehicles. ‘They literally threw us into the street,’ said Mir Najibullah Shams, the Secretary-General of the State High Commission for Drug Control. ‘I don’t have a phone to call up commanders in the provinces. They didn’t even leave us with a bicycle.’ (Independent, 24 Jan. 2002, p. 13)

‘Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had successfully banned the planting of poppies in 1999, but the collapse of central government control in much of Afghanistan in the last two months may mean that farmers will once again produce opium.’ (Independent, 24 Jan. 2002, p. 13) ‘The Taliban were too demonised to earn much international credit for their campaign against producing opium. But the farmers of Kalawal, a mud-brown settlement of 200 families, say that Mullah Omar’s decree against cultivating the crop in July 2000 was highly effective. Faiz Mohammed, from the village, said: ‘The Taliban had complete control and could stop us growing the poppies but in the near future we think the new government is not strong enough to prevent us.’ ‘Mullah Omar had been able to enforce his so-called Decree 19, which outlawed growing opium, in 2000 by sending orders to the provincial governors. The new government in Kabul is too weak to do this. Outside the capital it controls very little. In southern Afghanistan, newly appointed governors are struggling to assert their authority. They are unlikely to give priority to destroying the crop on which so many of their people rely.’ (Independent, 14 Feb. 2002, p. 14)

In the northern areas, the Northern Alliance authorities are deeply involved in the drugs trade. Ali, a drug smuggler in Badakhshan, ‘the traditional stronghold of the now triumphant Northern Alliance’, told the Independent that he did not move drugs inside the country: "We usually got the military commanders to move them for us." ‘Northern Alliance commanders were greedier than the Taliban, said Ali, sometimes seizing heroin and only selling it back for large sums. Ali added that many heroin laboratories were now in Badakhshan, in Northern Alliance territory, whereas previously they had mostly been around Jalalabad.’ (Independent, 14 Feb. 2002, p. 14)

‘According to western intelligence and customs officials, Afghans planted vigorously in the autumn in areas liberated from the Taliban and now beyond the control of the new administration in Kabul... For the UK, the political stakes are high. Tony Blair, prime minister, identified the opportunity for eradicating opium production in Afghanistan when justifying British military involvement with the US bombing campaign last October. But now British officials say that such early optimism was misplaced, with the US government showing little interest in evidence that opium is being cultivated.’ (Financial Times, 18 Feb. 2002, p. 9)

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