Most people remember the harrowing cover of TIME in late July 2010 depicting the 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off following a Taliban sentence for her attempt to flee from an abusive husband. Many can recall the penetrating glare of the green-eyed Afghan girl in a refugee camp on the cover of National Geographic. Both images are powerful reminders of the past atrocities, present humanitarian strife, and future aspirations of millions in Afghanistan as the international military presence draws down. Many Afghans ask, "Can my country avoid a relapse into civil war?" Even those who assess this question with some optimism still find themselves asking, "Will Afghanistan be safe enough to raise my children and build a livelihood?"
Preventing an outright civil war is directly related to the national interests of the coalition countries engaged in Afghanistan. A civil war would strengthen the hands of the numerous terrorist groups that operate on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Moreover, destabilizing spill-over effects would weaken an already fragile Pakistan, exacerbating the internal cleavages and security threats confronting the state with the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the primary objective of the U.S.-led coalition is to ensure a stable and cooperative Afghan political order that denies terrorist groups the capacity and opportunity to conduct large-scale attacks against Western interests.
Human rights perspectives, beyond those necessary to achieve this primary objective, are at best second order issues. If human rights were a primary objective, the international community would have intervened earlier and stayed longer-something that is unfeasible and not in the interest of any of the coalition countries currently engaged in Afghanistan. But this does not and should not preclude an effort to advance human rights in Afghanistan while the international coalition is present. Though a second-tier objective, the international community has an interest in and a moral duty to improve human rights, or at least to do no harm.
The problem is that the human rights agenda has been undermined by unrealistic goals and ineffective efforts, too often driven by a desire to please domestic, Western audiences rather than to help the Afghan population. International rhetoric has often elevated the drive to promote human rights-in particular the equality of women-as a goal on par with the primary security agenda. This reflects measures of both idealism and cynicism. Some have held sincere yet naïve visions of Afghanistan's social and political transformation. Others have simply used the human rights agenda as an instrument to garner political legitimacy and justify the human and material costs.
Both views have led to vast amounts of foreign aid and political attention being squandered. Many schools and clinics have been built irrespective of the local demand. Foreign aid has been conditioned by counterproductive gender quotas. Incredible amounts of time and resources have been spent on largely symbolic cases such as legislation on women's shelters or on Shiite marriages or the recent appointment of the new intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid. But battling atrocious laws or a controversial appointment is the wrong fight. What matters is what affects the human rights that Afghan's exercise in their daily lives.
This raises the question: What is the right fight? What is the realist perspective on human rights in Afghanistan? Without reverting to naïve aspirations and while maintaining a realistic order of objectives, how can the international community more effectively advance human rights?
The single most effective thing the international community has done to promote human rights in Afghanistan and empower women is to send Afghan boys to school. This should certainly not be understood as an argument against girls' schools or female education in general. But under conditions tantamount to patriarchal totalitarianism, the key to promoting human rights resides in the hands of Afghan men. Save a rebellion by Afghan women, only a voluntary shift in the attitudes of Afghan men can empower women and advance the human rights of every Afghan. All Afghan girls should get an education, but unless the men ease their repressive dominance, half of the population will never have the opportunity to exercise their human rights. Such attitudinal shifts are more sustainable if nurtured indigenously and voluntarily through education. Conditioning aid on gender quotas and human rights principles mostly leads to counterproductive tension or symbolic gestures by Afghan counterparts.
In theory, conditioning aid could perhaps entice a shift in Afghan behavior but unless the international community is ready to withhold aid entirely if conditions are unmet-and be willing to jeopardize their national interests at stake-it is very unlikely to occur in practice. Afghans know this. Besides, once the international presence in Afghanistan recedes, human rights gains will erode in the absence of the indigenous preference shifts necessary to sustain them. For change to last, Afghans must want it.
The good news is that primary education is one of the greatest legacies of the international effort in Afghanistan since 2001. Fewer than 1 million children were in school before the intervention and virtually no girls received primary education. Today, some 9 million children receive primary education and about 40 percent are girls. This is a monumental achievement. Unfortunately, it is not mirrored in the higher education sector. Although progress has undoubtedly occurred-Kabul, for instance, has witnessed a surge in newly established universities-the capacity of the higher education sector is still far from sufficient to absorb the influx of students from the primary sector. A more concerted international effort to improve the higher education sector would significantly increase the opportunity of the youth to fulfill their potential and, in doing so, improve conditions for advancing human rights and greater gender equality.
A realistic time horizon is also important to establishing an effective human rights effort. Too much, too soon is too risky. Some say clocks tick slower in Afghanistan. It is safe to say, at least, that past attempts to quickly roll out vast social reforms have triggered civil unrest. Modernizing efforts by King Amanullah Khan ignited revolts and eventually a civil war in 1928. He was forced to abdicate the next year. Only the Soviet intervention in 1979 kept the Communist rule from the same fate after it had introduced its radical reform agenda in 1978.
The lesson is that sustainable social change in Afghanistan is slow. The human rights agenda must therefore be attuned to a long-term perspective. Here is great potential. Navigating between currents of modernization and conservatism, between forces of societal change, tradition, and stagnation, Afghans will chart their own course on human rights after 2014. In doing so, the Afghan youth can be decisive. In a country stricken by an adult illiteracy rate around 70 percent, and where 43 percent of its 30 million inhabitants are aged 14 or younger, the 9 million children currently in school have truly transformative potential.
Surely the lives of too many Afghans can still be described in Hobbesian terms as brutish, nasty, and short. Immediate and concerted action remains necessary as human rights violations and humanitarian strife across the country must be addressed. It is because of this that many international actors take a short-term view when assessing how to advance human rights and show legible results. This has a persuasive logic, but it also has counterproductive implications. In particular, this short-term lens has led to a strong inclination in the international community to focus on the near-term ebbs and flows of the human rights agenda in insulated Kabul.
International pushback against proposed legislation and specific cabinet appointments has often dominated the human rights agenda. Highly visible international intervention in a specific political or legal case may resonate well with Western audiences, but through Afghan eyes it risks tainting the human rights agenda as an avenue of international social engineering and a principle question of Afghan sovereignty. Such perceptions render Afghan advocates of human rights much less effective and undermine the local ownership which is so difficult to nurture, but so important in order to sustain change.
An incremental, low-profile, long-term international effort holds the greatest chance of success in the promotion of human rights in Afghanistan. A more realistic and effective approach must cultivate and support Afghan agents of change, particularly the educated youth. But their potential can only be unleashed if they are given the opportunity to do so by a stable environment. As security is the basis of any human rights progress in Afghanistan, the primary objective of a stable country bereft of terrorist havens both meets and complements the human rights agenda.
Christian Bayer Tygesen is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Copenhagen University. He conducted field research and diplomatic assignments in Kabul in 2011 and 2012.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images