The Village in Afghan Society
“I certainly hope we stop with the handicrafts and start pushing these women to become leaders in their villages. They need to be dreaming of higher education and better opportunities,” said one USAID representative to myself and other Army officers in a small meeting room on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
The meeting was one of many to evaluate the progress of village stability and civil-military projects in a handful of Afghan villages overseen by my unit. While the words of the USAID rep may seem resolute and bold, I found them to be highly idealistic and more difficult than imagined to accomplish.
As a US Army officer deployed to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013, I gained incredible insight while living in several rural Afghan villages conducting Village Stability Operations (VSOs). Through my own difficult and, at times, rewarding experiences interacting with tribal leaders and village locals, I became convinced that ongoing top-down implementation of women’s rights through US diplomacy, NATO programs, nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists, and the Afghan government is not sufficient to bring about lasting or meaningful social change. These efforts must occur in tandem with bottom-up approaches such as VSOs where local and tribal leaders are engaged with gender equality issues occurring in their village and encouraged to foster communication with the central government pushing similar issues, on a larger scale, from the top down.
Seth Jones, a past senior advisor to the US Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, has noted:
“Experts on state building and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan fall into two competing camps.…The first believes that Afghanistan will never be stable and secure without a powerful central government capable of providing services to Afghans in all corners of the country. The other insists that Afghanistan is, and always has been, a quintessentially decentralized society, making it necessary to build local institutions to create security and stability.”
After my experience, I lean toward the latter camp. However, I believe it necessary for a strong bottom-up approach to meet somewhere with a centralized government pushing similar ideals, even if the bottom-up approach takes the bulk of the effort.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE AFGHAN VILLAGE AND THE TRIBAL REGIONS
When the media or press discuss the progressive opportunities some women in Afghanistan experience in the post-Taliban era, they often point to women in urban environments or in the immediate outskirts of these city centers. In truth, however, with approximately 20 million people living in rural or countryside settings in Afghanistan, versus six million in urban areas, this reflects only a tiny percentage of the population. This also, disappointingly, highlights an important issue: that, since the formation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2001, much of the headway in gender equality and women’s rights in Afghanistan has been focused in NATO-heavy urban and suburban areas, and not the environs beyond. It is in these rural areas though—with villages scattered throughout—where influence and power in Afghanistan lie.
The predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun tribe whose members live by a code of honor, called Pashtunwali, a system that governs much of their daily lives. This unwritten code predates Islam though it is highly influenced by the strictest observance to the religion. One of the tenets of Pashtunwali empowers the individual man to be his own ruler over both his family and his immediate tribe; this makes loyalty to a central government—almost entirely absent from the tribal regions—completely nil:
“Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of behavior, shapes daily life through obligations of honor, hospitality, revenge and providing sanctuary. Jirgas and shuras—which are decision-making councils—remain instrumental at the local level, where state legal institutions are virtually nonexistent.”
The tribal system has always been extremely powerful, and the tribal leaders that practice Pashtunwali outside the cities have historically stood and continue to stand as autonomous forces against the central government present in Kabul and other urban centers. These self-governing tribes wield immense influence when they do participate in politics and have at times banded together to topple whatever central government was in power at the time. Thus, it is no secret that the open-ended insurgency in Afghanistan continues to stem from the tribal regions and rural villages.
NATO has remained heavily focused on nation-building and legitimizing the central government under Karzai since 2001. Though NATO provincial reconstruction teams have often put security forces into tribal areas for a limited amount of time, the mission has continually been to bring the central government to village locals instead of garnering the support of the locals from the bottom up. Another aspect of this issue is that aid workers, diplomats, and activists almost exclusively travel for their work into areas that are protected by NATO security umbrellas. Venturing out to areas beyond NATO security is an almost certain endangerment to one’s life as numerous scenarios have attested over the years. This being said, the tribal regions, too, lay outside the reach of most aid workers or activists who could bring support to local women or notions of women’s rights to village leaders.
Legitimacy of the central government has not trickled down to the villages in twelve years of NATO presence and, likewise, whatever small progressive steps or modern ideas that have taken root in urban areas have not made their way to the countryside (if some have, they have been quickly quashed from suspicious and xenophobic villagers). Unless tribal-village leadership in local jirgas or shuras accept changes from within, no amount of diplomatic pressure or hard work done at the national and urban/suburban levels will ever change Afghanistan as a whole.
VILLAGE STABILITY OPERATIONS: THE BOTTOM-UP APPROACH
In the fall of 2009, the United States implemented a new national priority effort to address the importance of the Afghan village unit, to reach out to local tribal leaders, and to combat the insurgency (rising from the rural areas) from within the villages themselves. This ongoing effort is called the Village Stability Operations, or simply, VSO. This program strives to be the precise program needed to address the bottom-up approach and to interact with, again, the roughly 20 million Afghans who live outside the reaches of the NATO-heavy centers of reform and centralized government.
VSOs are conducted by US Special Operations Forces (SOF) that are unique from the conventional NATO security forces primarily tasked with training the Afghan military and police as well as protecting key central government institutions. SOF personnel embed themselves in rural tribal areas where NATO or Afghan military, police, or government elements are wholly nonexistent, making the environment in which the SOF team operates incredibly dangerous. However, SOF teams do not embed themselves in just any village; they assess ahead of time that the village they choose to operate in seeks autonomy from Taliban exploitation and coercion, and desires help in achieving this autonomy. Too often is this the case in the countryside where villages become tributary entities to the Taliban despite the village leaders’ wishes for autonomy from the exploitation. When an SOF team is invited by these village leaders, they first seek to enable local security in the village by promoting the creation of “local police” or men of the village that receive defensive training from the team in order to thwart the Taliban threat.
The next step is to re-establish or re-empower the traditional local governance mechanisms that represent the populations, such as the shuras and jirgas, which promote critical local development to improve the quality of life within village communities and, by extent, the districts. A part of this step is also to free the village of Taliban collaborators who seek to sit in on the shuras and turn the influence back to support of the insurgency. In these cases, removal by force of such individuals is not protocol as it is imperative that the locals see the SOF team as an advisory element that serves the village opinion. If, over time, the village sways back toward Taliban support, the SOF team leaves the village and moves to another village where their support is welcomed. Finally, measures are encouraged through the shuras and jirgas, in which the SOF team gradually has a part, promoting progressive projects in the village such as the building of a girl’s school, for instance, or pushing for lines of communication to open between the village and the district-level government that in turn opens to the central government.
These steps are not easy and often take many months to achieve. Often, the SOF team must win the support of the local leaders who invited them to their village by periodically providing them with monetary aid or paying contractors to conduct civil projects such as the refurbishing of a village mosque. In theory and practice, SOF efforts at the village level expand to connect village clusters upward to local district centers, while national-level governance efforts connect downward to provincial centers and then to district-level centers.
“Top-down reconstruction strategies may have been appropriate for countries such as Japan after World War II and Iraq after 2003, both of which had historically been characterized by strong centralized state institutions. But they do not work as well in countries such as Afghanistan, where power is diffuse.”
MY TIME IN AN AFGHAN VILLAGE
As a member of an SOF element, I spent time embedded in a village in eastern Afghanistan. The small compound, which my team occupied, lay at the end of the main dirt road that ran through the village. The village had no electricity and no running water, and with the exception of a generator and about a dozen light bulbs within the SOF compound, we lived in roughly the same conditions as the locals. The insurgency was strong in the periphery of the village and in neighboring communities as well. This resulted in frequent enemy attacks on both civilian targets in the village and on the SOF compound. When I arrived, the SOF team that was already present had been successful in training several dozen villagers to be “local police” and was also successful in forming, beyond simply a security alliance, a friendship–albeit weak–with the village leaders.
The leaders of the village were traditional and misogynistic men who held total influence over all laws and customs that governed gender issues, property, marriage, inheritances, and crime and punishment. Permission to build a girl’s school and the forming of a bi-weekly women’s shura were always pushed for by the SOF officers during the shuras, but were always denied by the village elders. The traditionalist attitude of these village leaders was not unique to this particular village by any means–such attitudes by the locals and such difficulties in introducing small reforms were noted by nearly every SOF element conducting VSO throughout Afghanistan from 2009 onward.
The village leaders, eventually, agreed to allow a school to be built for the girls of the village but only after certain demands of theirs were met. Three months after this, in a similar quid pro quo, the leaders allowed for the formation of the bi-weekly women’s shura that would allow the women of the village to come together and discuss relevant issues pertaining to their roles in the village or households. It became apparent to me and my team members that the women’s shuras were also, essentially, the only time for the women to get out of their homes, away from their husbands, and to be among other women with the freedom to talk of anything from the banal to the theological. Sadly, not all women were allowed by their husbands to attend such meetings, nor were all girls allowed to attend school. We mentioned this concern during one shura to the village leaders and also briefly informed them of women’s constitutional rights under the current central government, but we were told that this issue was a matter of Pashtun code (the individual man’s decision to allow what his wife or daughter may or may not do) and not the central government’s, nor our, duty to involve ourselves with such matters.
Every time a female-related issue was brought up, the leaders became more and more concerned about our intentions and eventually brought forward their concern during a shura of how “Americans are trying to free Afghan women from their husbands throughout the land and we will oppose this with force if we must.” Given the underlying threat and vagueness of what constituted the “freeing” of Afghan women, this outrageous and misinformed statement silenced my team on women’s issues for weeks.
After the capture or killing of several Taliban commanders in the area by other US forces, the partnership between the village leaders and my SOF team grew to new heights. With the removal of these enemy commanders, for a time the attacks on the village slowed and this new level of security allowed for the local bazaar in the village to begin operating again. This bazaar employed many locals who had been too afraid to open up shop in fear of Taliban exploitation. The Taliban had spies everywhere in the village but these spies too seemed to lay low during this period of security. The number of “local police” grew and my SOF team charged them with patrolling the bazaar regularly. The village leaders seemed more open to discussing issues that my team wanted to discuss during the shuras, and so the topic of women in the village was brought up again. It was agreed, with some reluctance from the leaders, to allow a number of USAID projects to come to the village, such as a water sanitization team, and to allow for a US Army Female Engagement Team (FET) to hold a number of classes for the local women.
The FET element brought members of various NGOs with them and set up important classes on midwifery, female hygiene, sewing, and handicrafts. These skills proved to be valuable and practical for the local women. Again, there were women who were not allowed to attend these classes, but those who did benefited. It was mentioned by the leaders in the subsequent shuras that some of their sons and daughters were now able to sell handicrafts and sewn items in the bazaar, which female members of their family had made.
By late 2012 and early 2013, at the national level, US troops were already being ordered to retrograde; the time for mass US-troop drawdown had begun. For SOF elements conducting VSO, this meant a retrograde from the villages back to higher echelons where they would conduct VSO progress from afar, travelling out to villages only when necessary for periodic, no longer weekly, shuras. Leaving the villages completely dissolved the integrity of the VSO mission. Once the village leaders learned of my SOF team’s inevitable departure, things took a turn for the worse. It became apparent that some of the leaders did not feel that their village could maintain their autonomy once the defensive support that we provided was gone, and quiet deals were cut with the Taliban among the leadership. Some village leaders that opposed working with the Taliban were abducted from their homes at night never to be seen again. Days before we left the village, two women were found hanged in the village center, signaling that the influence of the Taliban had returned as our influence began to wane. After the SOF element’s retrograde, it only took weeks before the village was re-labeled as an insurgent-aligned village; the women’s shuras ceased and the girl’s school was abandoned (I was informed before I left Afghanistan in May 2013 that the school was eventually burnt down).
THE POTENTIAL OF PRAGMATISM
Village Stability Operations were implemented too late in the Afghanistan conflict. By the time we achieved moderate success in introducing social reforms, quelling the insurgency from the bottom up, and fostering links between the village tribal leadership to the central government, SOF troops were already being ordered out of the villages. Unless social changes are accepted here through village leadership in local jirgas or shuras, the villages within the rural-tribal regions will continue to be the unswerving and time-tested backbone of Afghanistan, and the central government, from the top down, will never be able to implement social changes beyond the borders of urban areas. The vast majority of women in Afghanistan, those in the rural areas, will continue to live their lives in utter detachment from the small advances in gender equality found in government-controlled areas and will continue to live under the traditional rule of misogynistic tribal elders. When NATO pulls out of Afghanistan in entirety later this year, the practical and simple skills, like midwifery or sewing, taught to the women in my village, will prove to be much more valuable than mathematics or a push toward village leadership.
To recall the opening of this article, when a USAID representative chastised me and other officers about teaching handicrafts and not pushing the women in our villages to be “dreaming of higher education,” such words could not have sounded less ridiculous to me. Issues of gender equality in Afghanistan must be approached through a realistic mindset: Small, pragmatic goals must be set with generous timelines, and a bottom-up approach must be taken.
*The content and opinions of this article are the author’s own and do not seek to officially represent the position of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 Col. Ty Connett, and Col. Bob Cassidy quoting Seth G. Jones, “Village Stability Operations: More Than Village Defense.” The United States Army | SWCS. US Army Special Warfare Center and School, July-Sept. 2011.
Seth G. Jones, “It Takes Villages: Bringing Change From Below in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, May-June 2010.
Col. Ty Connett, and Col. Bob Cassidy quoting Seth G. Jones, “Village Stability Operations: More Than Village Defense.” The United States Army | SWCS. US Army Special Warfare Center and School, July-Sept. 2011.