Foreign Policy Afghanistan Photo Essay

In a televised address to troops in Virginia on Monday night, President Trump outlined his plan to recommit the US to war in Afghanistan. Trump didn’t share any new initiatives, nor did he specify how many additional troops would be sent. Instead, in his typically animated style, Trump described how the US would “fight to win” by “obliterating” and “crushing” the enemy.

His speech marked a U-turn from his previous stance on Afghanistan. During his presidential campaign, Trump called for a military withdrawal from the country. So what helped to change his mind?

Well, for one, apparently a photo of Afghan women wearing miniskirts.

According to the Washington Post, one of the ways national security adviser HR McMaster helped to convince Trump was to show him a black and white photo from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through the streets of Kabul. The idea was to show him “western norms had existed there before and could return” and that Afghanistan was “not a hopeless place”.

Concern for women’s rights is usually short-lived, often only used as a tactic to merely initiative military action

Black and white photos of Afghan women in the 70s have consistently gone viral over the years. The photos are a fixture on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter, and regularly shared on “History in photos”-type accounts, which share a range of “never seen before” or “forgotten” photos from the past. The most popular photo shows three unveiled Afghan women in long-sleeved shirts and short skirts, strolling along in a line wearing square heels and smiling. Often, they’re shared by well-meaning people who exclaim how jarring it is to see “liberated” Afghan women compared with the typical depiction of them being “oppressed” and “silent”.

The photos are also regularly discussed on Reddit threads, with “Afghan women in the 70s vs Afghan women today” photo comparisons popping up year after year. Often, Reddit users make smart observations about the photos. In one thread, they discuss how “this is what life was like for a very small part of the elite around Kabul … the vast majority never saw anywhere near this level of westernisation.” Another snarkily added: “Because, as we all know, the entire modern history of a nation can be summed up by a single image with absolutely no context.”

And there’s also another area online where these photos are always widely shared – on far-right social media.

As a journalist covering women’s rights, I observe far-right online spaces for work purposes, focusing on how women are discussed, depicted, and treated by far-right social media users. I’ve seen the same images of women come up time and time again: “feminazi” memes; outspoken women photoshopped to appear nude; targeted harassment campaigns; “debunking” of feminist myths such as the pay gap.

Another image the far right has often shared on Facebook and Twitter is of the Afghan women wearing miniskirts, or anti-Islam memes such as this one that suggest the arrivals of migrants in Europe mean it will become “like how Afghanistan is today”. Accompanying the photos, they write comments that compare Afghan women with western women, claiming Islam has “oppressed” women to the point where they can no longer dress how they want, and that they should take note from western women because they are “free”.

To be clear, I am not suggesting anyone who has ever shared those photos of Afghan women is associated with the far right. And it’s perhaps unsurprising that it took a visual aid of women being a prop – not research, expertise, or, say, history – to shape Trump’s decision on Afghanistan.

But it’s important to highlight that these photos of Afghan women in miniskirts have always gone viral specifically in far-right online spaces because the people who share them are also some of Trump’s loudest supporters. They are the same people who helped him to win the presidency, and who are now rallying together to move their online white supremacy presence into real-life spaces, such as the protest in Charlottesville. And it’s also the same far-right social media users in the US or Europe who feign concern for women in the Middle East for the purpose of undermining, derailing or silencing women, preventing them from speaking up about feminist issues at home. A photo that the far right has long wielded as a sexist trope against women, and as an anti-Islam meme in their social media feeds, is now being presented to Trump by national security advisers.

When it comes to the photos of the Afghan women, context is key. Selective photos showing women from different parts of the country (city and rural), backgrounds, and class can not begin to accurately depict the reality women have faced in Afghanistan over the past 40+ years. Discussing women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as the photo of Afghan women in miniskirts, Amnesty International says: “Until the conflict of the 1970s, the 20th century had seen relatively steady progression for women’s rights in the country … But during coups and Soviet occupation in the 1970s, through civil conflict between Mujahideen groups and government forces in the 80s and 90s, and then under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan had their rights increasingly rolled back.”

The Guardian view on Trump and Afghanistan: unwinnable and unlosable | Editorial

And certainly, Afghan women continue to face grave human rights violations. Some women are being subjected to “virginity tests” to determine if they’re guilty of “moral crimes”. Even though Afghan women are making their own gains when it comes to advancing their own rights and involvement in politics, they’re also being pushed out from being involved in the country’s peace talks, which is especially important now as the number of female casualties in Afghanistan leapt 23% since 2016.

But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Trump’s decision to recommit to Afghanistan has anything to do with supporting Afghan women’s rights.

It’s not new for the US and other countries to believe it’s up to them to “liberate” women in countries embroiled in conflict and war. But the concern for women’s rights is usually short-lived, often only used as a tactic to initiate military action, and not an end goal. And much like the far right’s fake concern for women in the Middle East to be “free” like women in their country, Trump is also conveniently overlooking his past record regarding women’s rights. This is a man who has openly bragged about sexually assaulting women, signed in a global gag rule that’s been described as a “death warrant for women around the world”, and repeatedly attacked Planned Parenthood in the hope of rolling back American women’s access to reproductive healthcare. So it’s hard to believe that he’s stumbled on to a new-found concern for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

• Rossalyn Warren is a foreign affairs journalist, reporting mostly on women’s rights and gender violence

Since the formation of the Afghan National Unity Government in 2014, Kabul has used “Pashtun Diplomacy” as an instrument to bring the bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship back on track and make grounds for re-initiating normal official talks. The Afghan government also seeks the support of Pakistani Pashtun nationalist and religious parties as facilitators and confidence-builders in the Afghan peace process.

However, “Pashtun diplomacy” is not unique to the current government. Kabul has been playing the Pashtun card since before the creation of Pakistan. During the 19th century’s Great Game, the apparent motive behind Pashtun diplomacy wasn’t to improve bilateral ties, but to pressure the British Empire by helping and supporting Pashtun uprisings in British-controlled tribal areas. As part of this policy, Afghan leaders gave asylum to Wazir, Mehsud, Sherani, and many other Pashtun tribes to live in Afghanistan with legal property documents. Kabul’s support for the anti-British insurgency was based on Pashtun ethno-nationalism and the concept of “Pashtunwali.” Pashtunwali, the unwritten code that guides Pashtuns, embraces concepts such as melmastia (hospitality), nanawatay (asking for asylum), nang (honor), meraana (courage), and nyao aw badal (justice and revenge). Under Pashtunwali, handing over persons (even rebels) and not helping the weak is impermissible.

The Emergence of Pakistan and Kabul’s Pashtun Card

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After Pakistan’s emergence in 1947, Kabul strove to safeguard Pakistani Pashtuns’ right to self-determination and raised concerns regarding the violation of Pashtun nationalists’ human rights by Pakistani security agencies. Afghanistan was especially vocal about Pashtun rights during Ayyub Khan’s period of martial law, when Pakistani authorities regularly arrested and jailed non-violent Pashtun leaders such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai solely for their political views: primarily their calls for an independent Pashtunistan and later for provincial autonomy and sovereignty.

Kabul’s Pashtun diplomacy was designed to achieve two ends: first, to get support for its non-recognition of the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, second, to promote “Pashtunistan Khwahi” (Pan-Pashtunism). The first is still the policy of Afghanistan, while the latter was more a Cold War-era foreign policy doctrine and in general is missing from today’s Afghan politics. Under this policy, during the Cold War, Afghan governments supported Pashtun nationalists (along with some Baluch nationalists such as Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri). Kabul gave them asylum, citizenship, sanctuaries, and even brides (for instance Juma Khan Sufi married a former Afghan minister and famous Pashto poet Suliman Laiq’s daughter). The most famous of these who took shelter in Afghanistan were Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Fatih-ul-Mulk Nang Yousufzai, Ajmal Khattack, Juma Khan Sufi, and Ayub Achakzai.

In addition to geostrategic imperatives, Kabul helped Pashtun nationalists because it considered itself to be the vanguard of Pashtun interests abroad. Along with the ethnic dimensions, Pashtunistanism in Afghan foreign policy had an ethical aspect as well, driven by Pashtunwali.

Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Pashtun Nationalists

In the post-Taliban era, Hamid Karzai resurrected Pashtun Diplomacy with Pakistan because of radicalization and insecurity on both sides of the Durand Line. Karzai tried to convince Pashtuns on both sides  to gather in a loya jirga (grand assembly) and decide about their future, since the Pashtuns of both Afghanistan and Pakistan were the people most affected by the “war on terror” and ‘Jihadi’ phenomena. After many disagreements and difficulties in several meetings with the Pakistani side, with Washington’s support and pressure, more than 700 members from Afghanistan and Pakistan participated in the Peace Loya Jirga held on August 9-12, 2007. The Peace Jirga paved the way for a jirgagai (mini jirga) which in 2008 called for peace talks with the Taliban. The 2007 Peace Loya Jirga paved the way for another loya jirga in 2009 in Afghanistan, which then advised the Afghan government to form the High Peace Council for the Afghan Peace Process.

Karzai repeatedly invited Pashtun nationalists to visit Kabul and discuss extremism in Pashtun lands. His government held many national and international conferences about Pashtun nationalists such Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Ghani Khan, and Ajmal Khattack. Apart from this, Kabul also invited many Pashtun musicians, drama artists, academics, journalists, civil society figures, and others to Afghanistan to increase people-to-people contacts and increase Afghan soft power. In general, however, Pashtun religious parties didn’t come to Kabul — probably due to both ties with the Afghan Taliban and opposition to the U.S. military presence.

However, Karzai’s behavior was reactionary, responding to Pakistani deeds as compared to former Afghan President Daud Khan’s proactive Pashtunistan policy. Karzai’s Pashtun diplomacy didn’t have the desired results, but was useful in enhancing soft power among Pashtun nationalists and parties. These figures could then speak out against Pakistan’s Afghan policy. But, on the other hand, this policy didn’t improve bilateral ties between Kabul and Islamabad — instead, it further intensified Pakistani concerns.

Ashraf Ghani’s Pashtun Diplomacy

Ashraf Ghani, as an academic and historian, has critically studied the last two centuries of Afghan history. In the post-Cold War era and during Afghan Civil War, in his interviews with BBC Pashto/Dari he pegged Pakistan as the country that can do more to influence peace in Afghanistan than any other. Therefore, when he became president, Ghani tried to create good ties with the most powerful power house in Pakistan, the Pakistani Army. He broke Afghan diplomatic protocol and visited the General Headuarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, laid a floral wreath at the Shuhada Monument, and offered Fateha. To give a positive signal and increase the confidence of Pakistani Army, he suspended a request for heavy weapons from India, and sent Afghan cadets to Pakistan for training. At that time (and still today) such outreach to Pakistan was seen as potential political suicide, a major gamble for Afghan leaders. Ghani did all this to persuade Pakistan to help in Afghan peace process by influencing the Taliban to enter into negotiations with Kabul.

Moreover, like his predecessor, Ghani invited the Pashtun nationalists and religious parties of Pakistan to visit Kabul. However, only the nationalist parties’ representatives (such as Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Afrasiab Khattak and Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao) came to Kabul in January 2015, where they met with Ghani, Karzai, National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, and others. Once again, the Pashtun religious parties of Pakistan didn’t come to Afghanistan.

In response to Ghani’s outreach, Pakistan originally promised that it would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table in late February and then March 2015, but failed. This enhanced the mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad and hence Pakistan was on the verge of losing a historic opportunity to right ties with its neighbor. Against this backdrop, an international conference on Pashtun nationalist leader Afzal Khan Lala was held in Kabul in November 2015, and the Afghan government had invited a ten-member delegation from Pakistan to attend. According to Afrasiab Khattak, Ghani invited the delegation to “get their opinion for improvement in bilateral relations and regional piece” because “Afghan leaders believe feedback of the Pakistani Pashtun leaders and tribal elders would help in maintaining peace.” The Pashtun delegation had also bought a special message from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, seeking to to persuade Ghani to meet him on the sidelines of Paris Climate Change Conference in December 2015. The message followed rumors and media reports that Ghani would refuse to meet Sharif. The Pashtun nationalists were able to persuade Ghani to meet the Pakistani PM in Paris. Those talks saw Ghani and Sharif agree to start a quadrilateral grouping composed of the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to further the Afghan peace process.

In 2016, however, the efforts of the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) once again failed to produce the desired results for Ghani and Kabul-Islamabad ties worsened, to the point of skirmishes along the border at Torkham and Chaman. In response, the Afghan government is now pursuing a two-pronged approach to Pashtun diplomacy: seeking to not only decrease tensions between Kabul and Islamabad, but also to persuade religious Pashtun groups to influence Taliban thinking regarding talks with the Afghan government. Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal has twice met Maulana Sami-Ul-Haq, a Pakistan religious leader known as the “Father of the Taliban.” According to a Pakistani source cited in Pakistani media, in these meetings the Afghan ambassador “mainly discussed two issues. He wants the Maulana to play [a greater] role in reducing tensions [between Afghanistan and Pakistan] and use his influence to encourage Taliban to come to negotiate.” The source further says that “Maulana Samiul Haq assured [the envoy of] his support for political negotiations.” Later Zakhilwal facilitated a 30 minute phone call between Ghani and Sami ul Haq. The Afghan president asked the maulana to play a role in the Afghan peace process because he is not only respected by the Taliban but by many Afghans who “consider you a teacher.”

Moreover, Zakhilwal met Pashtun politicians, both religious leaders and nationalists, in Islamabad in late December 2016. The apparent objective of this meeting was to invite these Pashtuns to play a role in bridging the gap between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The plan is for an Afghan delegation to visit Pakistan first; in a return a Pakistani delegation composed of mostly Pashtuns will visit Kabul and try to decrease tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.

Ghani is trying to enlist both nationalist and religious Pakistani Pashtuns to not only influence the Taliban, but only as a confidence-building measure to rebuild bilateral ties. His intention is not to pressure or threaten Pakistan but to bring the relationship back on track.

The author is thankful for Hallimullah Kousary, acting director of Conflict and Peace Studies, and Rafiullah Niazi, director of Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan, for reading the first draft of this piece.

Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul. He follows Afghan foreign policy, Islamists, regional geopolitical and geoeconomic matters, and Kabul’s relations with its neighbors (especially China, Pakistan, and India). He is working on a book on Sino-Afghan relations from 1955-2015 in Pashto and tweets at @abilalkhalil.

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