Shortly after speaking with US Representative Niki Tsongas last week about the “cautious optimism” she felt after a recent visit to Afghanistan, I checked the latest news about that country.
It wasn’t promising. “Taliban attacks across Afghanistan kill 21 people,” declared US News and World Report. An Al Jazeera report said 16 police officers were killed by fighters, who beheaded eight of them.
As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, violence levels are steadily rising as American-led troops continue to exit Afghanistan. According to the Journal’s report on an analysis by the International Crisis Group, the number of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan “increased 15 to 20 percent from a year earlier.”
Afghan forces now oversee their country’s security as the US-led coalition turns from combat to training and advising. According to the ICG report, at least 8,200 Afghan troops were injured or killed in 2013.
The Taliban’s annual spring offensive began on schedule this May. Tsongas was there for it, having traveled with congressional colleagues to Kabul from May 9 to 13. She told me that she woke up one day to explosions at the Kabul airport and witnessed rocket fire at a base north of there. Yet she insists this year’s trip — her sixth — revealed “a marked change” in atmosphere from last year’s. The sunnier vibes are due to what is tentatively hailed as the relative success of the April 5 presidential election.
Some 6.9 million votes were cast, 64 percent by men and 36 percent by women. Violence was moderate by Afghan standards. Also in the good news category, election results were accepted, and the two top candidates — Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — are campaigning for a run-off vote June 14. Final results are to be announced by July 22.
“Despite all the Taliban’s efforts, there’s a renewed sense of a commitment to the democratic processes, and for women, cautious optimism in their own future role,” Tsongas said.
Tsongas was part of a bipartisan congressional delegation of female members. The group met with US military officials and, on Mother’s Day, they spent time with “military moms” — female coalition soldiers who have children back home. They also met with Afghan leaders, including a group of women parliament members, female journalists, and women’s rights leaders.
Tsongas said those meetings with Afghan women are the basis for her positive outlook. But it’s tempered with knowledge of the dangers these women face. Speaking about one of the female members of Parliament, she said: “Her life is at risk. But she was the one who said the election gave her the sense, ‘We can do this. We can deliver.’ We saw that in other places, but it does take determination. There’s no denying people’s lives are at risk.”
The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, passed last week by the House of Representatives, included an amendment authored by Tsongas that addresses the need to protect the gains of women and girls in Afghanistan. It requires the Pentagon to report on American efforts to support Afghan women’s rights and encourages Afghan and coalition officials to include women in conflict resolution.
Yet to most Americans, who seemingly prefer to focus on elevator confrontations between Beyonce’s husband, Jay-Z, and her sister Solange than wars abroad, Afghanistan feels far away and irrelevant. Yet, as of May 2014, conflict there has resulted in at least 2,181 US military deaths and more than 19,000 wounded in action.
Thanking our troops for their service is now rote political rhetoric. But last February, a Gallup poll showed that for the first time since the United States became involved in Afghanistan, nearly half of those surveyed said American involvement was a mistake.
American support was strong when this country first took up its crusade against the Taliban for harboring terrorists involved in 9/11. Depending upon the headlines, that support has fluctuated over the 12-plus years the country has been involved there.
Public opinion might run more positively if the gains for Afghan women seemed more solid. However, Afghan women worry their freedoms will fade with the fading US presence, according to a recent LA Times report. A UN report released last December noted an increase in the number of reported acts of violence against women and girls over the previous year, adding that “prosecutions and convictions under a landmark law [to reduce such violence] remained low.”
Those are ominous signs, which help stir feelings of dread.
“We all share that sense, call it cautious optimism or enduring uncertainty,” said Tsongas.
It will take more than good karma from a five-day trip to determine whether optimism or dread will rule the day.