Women and child in Kabul, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–In expressing her opposition to the U.S. troop buildup, Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a prominent civil society and human rights activist in Kabul, makes one thing clear: "I am not taking a pacifist position. But I am saying the war against terror cannot end by military means."

What is needed, says Nemat–along with other rights activists working inside the country–is comprehensive development, further assistance, job creation, involving local communities in security efforts and serious and strong emphasis on the justice sector.

"There has been too much emphasis on the army and police and not enough on the justice sector," said Nemat, who worked underground on behalf of girls and women during the Taliban era. She founded Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children in Afghanistan, a group that has started one of the country’s first shelters for battered women.

"We need comprehensive development for stabilization," she said.

Other groups also intent on bolstering Afghan women’s rights, however, say the United States must continue its fight against the Taliban to improve, among other things, the health of its female citizens.

"We can blame a lot on us but the Taliban wiped out the health system," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, based in Arlington, Va., in a recent interview.

Health Care in Crisis

Smeal said the Taliban government was a major cause of the current health care crisis in Afghanistan, including a maternal mortality rate that UNICEF ranks as second in the world, after Sierra Leone. For every 62 infants born, one Afghan mother dies during pregnancy, in labor or during the postpartum period, UNICEF reports.

In addition to supporting Obama’s decision this year to add more U.S. troops, Smeal and others have called for a Marshall Plan-type of rebuilding effort to create national infrastructure that is capable of alleviating much of the suffering and desperation that drives recruits to insurgency and drug trafficking.

"The Taliban think and the citizens fear that we will not stay long enough to rebuild," Smeal said. "They think time is on their side."

"Since the invasion, access to basic health care and a reduction in maternal mortality have been key goals," said Melanne Verveer, the U.S. State Department’s global ambassador on women’s issues, during a July congressional briefing on maternal health in Afghanistan.

While some activists in Afghanistan questioned the gains for women in the past eight years of a U.S.-led war, Verveer and Afghan health officials speaking at the July event cited numerous improvements in women’s health since 2001. Those gains include the training of 1,150 midwives by the Afghan health ministry and an increase to 84 percent from 10 percent in the percentage of the population with access to basic health care.

"Health care is at the center of the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan," said Dr. S.M. Amin Fatimie, minister of public health for Afghanistan, during the event.

Major Problems Persist

But Verveer also pointed out major problems that persist: Potable water remains scarce, electricity and equipment in hospitals is often unavailable and women’s health supplies are lacking.

"We still have a way to go," said Verveer to the gathered lawmakers and congressional staff.

 Najiba Ayubi in Killid Media Group office in Kabul

Several female leaders in Congress also told Women’s eNews that although more development resources are needed, the security provided by the U.S. military is primary.

"The only reason to have the U.S. military presence is to allow these improvements in women’s health to occur," said Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat from California, in an interview. "They can’t occur under the Taliban."

In Afghanistan, a handful of rights activists told Women’s eNews that it is too soon for international troops to leave the country because the Taliban is too strong and the country’s security forces are still too weak.

International troops are needed, said Wazhma Frogh, the Afghanistan country director for Global Rights, an international rights group with headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Their presence is useful while there are warlords in power and the insurgency is going on."

Troops Need for Training

But Frogh, who is based in Kabul, and others said the troops were needed to train the Afghan army and police, not to wage direct war against the Taliban.

"I can only say an increase in international troops–especially American troops–does not help heal our wounds," Frogh said. "We are standing on others’ legs and we will fall down again when they leave. We will go back to the situation we had eight years ago."

Frogh said that people in Afghanistan still don’t know why foreign troops are in their country. "Afghans do not understand why the international troops are here," she said. "They do not understand the Bonn process and the mandate of the international forces has never been made clear."

The Bonn process set out a roadmap for the reconstruction of Afghanistan following international military intervention in 2001.

"International troops are not the solution for Afghanistan," agreed Najiba Ayubi, director of Killid Media Group, a journalism outfit based in Kabul. "Other ways and techniques have to be found for arriving at peace. Increasing the number of soldiers is not the solution. Foreigners have to study Afghanistan and understand it, not just increase soldiers."

More soldiers means more fighting, says Ayubi, since international troops–especially American soldiers–have been killing civilians.

"We have stories from Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul about wedding parties being bombed because the international troops do not understand our culture of having a big cook out in the open and think it is a Taliban camp," she said.

Rich Daly is a writer in Washington, D.C. Aunohita Mojumdar files from Kabul.