Casey Discusses Upcoming Afghan Elections and the U.S. Role Beyond 2014

Casey Discusses Upcoming Afghan Elections and the U.S. Role Beyond 2014

Washington DC- U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) delivered remarks on the upcoming Afghan Elections and the role of the United States in 2014 and beyond. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

Afghan Elections & the U.S. Role Beyond 2014
March 10, 2014 at the Center for American Progress

Neera, thank you for that kind introduction, and Caroline, thank you for agreeing to moderate our conversation today.  I am grateful that the Center for American Progress invited me here today to talk about Afghanistan, a topic which has dominated our discussions in Washington for over a decade now.  I want also to thank the Center for American Progress for the work that you do.  I am grateful also to the folks in the audience who have worked on our Afghanistan policy, including NGOs who are represented today. 

On a trip to Afghanistan in 2011, I met with a group of women parliamentarians in the American Embassy.  One of them told us about her journey into politics. Her father had been killed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and she lost her brother to a Taliban attack.  But this woman, like so many in Afghanistan, decided to fight back.   This would have been impossible under Taliban rule.  Her story of courage and activism is remarkable and inspiring, but it is not unique.  During the last twelve years in Afghanistan, brave leadership by women has been a driver of change.

Since 2001, our American men and women in uniform achieved results that frankly we do not talk about enough. First, violent, oppressive Taliban rule has given way to a nascent democracy, in which women reportedly make up one third of the registered voters.  Due to improved basic health services, the average life expectancy has risen from 45 to 62 years. A perhaps most strikingly, where once there were very few educational opportunities, especially for girls, now more than 8.3 million children are in school.   By one estimate, 40% of those are girls.

These results have come at a great cost to the American people and to the Afghan people.  More than 2,300 Americans have been killed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).  In Pennsylvania, 91 servicemembers have been killed in action and 737 have been wounded in action in action in OEF.  Nationally, nearly 20,000 have been wounded in action.  Many more bear the invisible scars of war. 

Many Americans now believe that going to war in Afghanistan was a mistake.  Frankly, this does not surprise me.  In recent months, arguing about troop numbers and the Bilateral Security Agreement has dominated our national conversation.  There are many dimensions of our Afghanistan policy that we could discuss, including security issues, but I would like to focus today on two vital aspects: the upcoming elections and support for women and girls.

As this chapter of our Afghanistan policy unfolds, it is critical for the Administration and members of Congress to take the necessary steps to maintain the gains of the last decade.  To allow these gains to wither on the vine would dishonor the sacrifice of the 2 million men and women in uniform who have served in Afghanistan. It would diminish the work of the civilian personnel who have been on the front lines of our diplomatic and assistance missions, working in remote and insecure regions.   It would also be an affront to American taxpayers, who, despite the understandable anxiety, frustration, and sadness that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused, still expect a reasonable return on their significant investment.  

I believe there is another way to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifices that our servicemembers and their loved ones have made these past twelve years. There is another way to build from our investment.  Instead, we should solidify gains that have already been made across all sectors of Afghan society and determine our priorities for any engagement going forward.

The United States has clear national security interests in Afghanistan’s future stability and prosperity.  No one wants to see Afghanistan return to the safe haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that it was before 2001.  The reality is that – whatever the outcome of the BSA negotiations – most of our servicemembers are coming home.  I have supported an expeditious and responsible drawdown of our military presence.  Budget constraints will require our diplomatic and development efforts to contract, as well.  I have consistently urged the Departments of State and Defense to plan well in advance for that eventuality.  While I recognize that planning has already begun, I am concerned that, absent a strategy for future U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, we could lose sight of our primary goals and national security interests there. 

In November, Senator Ayotte and I sent a letter to Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, outlining some areas of focus for continued U.S. engagement.  We said the security and safety of U.S. personnel – both civilian and military – should be paramount.  Given the work that I have done to help combat the IED threat to our personnel and the recent spate of IED attacks just over the past several weeks, I can appreciate how hard a task this is.   But even as we draw down our military presence, we must take even greater precautions for the security of our civilian personnel.

Our letter also called “on the Administration to articulate a clear plan for our continued civilian mission and oversight of U.S. assistance programs that makes clear that America will stand with the Afghan people to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to the type of oppressive, intolerant, and violent Taliban rule that served as fertile ground for al-Qaeda.”  This engagement “should support an inclusive political transition, provide continued training for the ANSF, and maintain investments in vital sectors such as education and health.” 

The most immediate of these priorities is the political transition, since Afghanistan’s Election Day is now less than a month away.  When I met with President Karzai in 2012, I urged him to support a peaceful transition of power. He told me that he was proud to have served as the first democratically-elected President of Afghanistan, and that he planned to hand power to the second democratically-elected President of Afghanistan.  President Karzai has been at times duplicitous, transactional, and insulting.  But I believe that he understands that the future of Afghanistan depends on this transition.   

Karzai’s legacy aside, this transition is also a critical milestone for the Afghan people.  Last year, I authored a Senate resolution that outlined steps the Afghan and U.S. governments could take to support transparent and credible elections.  The resolution passed the Senate unanimously last summer.  Since then, the international community and Afghan people have put a significant amount of time and effort into preparations. I believe we now have reasons to be cautiously optimistic about these elections.   

In past elections, security concerns and voter intimidation impeded the ability of people in Afghanistan to cast votes safely and resulted in low voter turnout.  Widespread fraud in previous elections not only reduced voters’ confidence in the system but in their elected leaders, as well.  Afghan women, in particular, have been prevented from meaningful participation in the electoral process due to the security environment, the scarcity of female poll workers, and lack of awareness of women’s political rights and opportunities. 

This time around, at the international community’s urging and with its support, the Afghan government has taken steps to address the issues that plagued past elections. For example, over 12,000 Afghans will serve as domestic election observers, and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has invited international observers as well.  Recently, the IEC also released its list of polling centers – six weeks before Election Day.  In 2009, the list was not available until days before the election.  The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have conducted their own security assessments and made them available to the public. 

My 2013 resolution called on Afghanistan to put measures into place to promote women’s participation in the electoral process.  Female candidates are again running in the Provincial Council elections and others have been selected as Vice-Presidential candidates. The Afghan government is reportedly training approximately 13,000 women to serve as security guards for female voters and polling staff.  This is a step in the right direction.  Of course there is still work to do – according to a Congressional Research Service report, about 40 of the 407 districts in Afghanistan do not have female election staff because of security issues. 

While the Afghan government has made several important electoral reforms, security remains a grave concern for these elections.  Just today, the Taliban declared its intention to “use all force” possible to disrupt the elections.  While the ANSF leadership has said that they will be able to secure 94% of planned voting centers, this assessment strikes me as overly optimistic.  In the 2009 and 2010 elections, when Afghan forces were bolstered by international security forces, the IEC was able to open a little more than 5,000 polling centers.  This year, with Afghan security forces squarely in the lead, the IEC has declared that they will be able to open 6,775 centers. Insufficient security on Election Day could prevent voters from coming to the polls - leading to ghost polling centers and opening opportunities for fraud.

During remarks at the U.S. Institute for Peace at the end of February, Ambassador Dobbins said “Enthusiasm for the elections is on the rise … with lively media coverage focusing on candidate rallies and platforms, and voter opinions.”   However, success is dependent on President Karzai, his Administration, and all the candidates respecting the electoral process and the independence of the IEC.  We should hold them to the commitments made in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework in 2012, when the Afghan government agreed to “conduct credible, inclusive and transparent” elections in which all Afghans could participate.  Afghanistan’s checkered electoral history tells us this is easier said than done. 

We need to be clear-eyed about the limits of what is possible for this year’s elections– Afghanistan’s democracy is not the Jeffersonian model we might like it to be.  It is young and imperfect.  Our own history in the United States provides plenty of examples of how difficult and long the road to electoral reform can be. We must continue to be forceful in our calls for a transparent and credible process.  The probability is good that both violence and fraud – or a combination of the two – could derail the good progress that has been made.  But I believe that this election – if it yields a peaceful transition of power to a credible leader – could be a sign that democracy has begun to take root in Afghanistan.

Women’s participation in the upcoming elections will be a substantial factor in their success. However, women play a much broader role in Afghanistan today, which I would like to outline.   Study after study has shown that women often emerge as the peacemakers in conflict situations, and that is true most recently in the Senate. 

Where Afghan women were once marginalized and oppressed under Taliban rule, now they flourishing as leaders.  Over the past twelve years, Afghan women have made tremendous gains in education, government, business, and national security.  Solidifying and sustaining these gains is not only consistent with American values, but will help promote our national security interests in a stable Afghanistan.   It would be unconscionable to allow this progress to be reversed beyond 2014. 

However, we have already begun to see an effort to chip away at Afghan women’s rights and security. In recent months, female police officers have been targeted and assassinated. The Afghan parliament reduced the quota for women’s provincial seats, after attempts by the lower house to remove the quota entirely. The lower house has also proposed provisions that would significantly weaken Afghanistan’s landmark Elimination of Violence Against Women law. The parliament also recently attempted to effectively deny women protection from domestic violence and forced or child marriage, which was thankfully rejected by President Karzai.          

Many of you will recall, as I do, an article in the New York Times from 2009, by Dexter Filkins.  The story described Shamsia Husseini, a seventeen year old girl from Kandahar, who was walking to school with her sister one morning in November 2008.  In a traditional Taliban stronghold, she dared to seek out an education.  Filkins told the story well, so I will quote from his words: “Shamsia and her sister, Atifa, were walking along the highway when they spotted the men on the motorbikes. Shamsia, then 17, was old enough to be married; she was wearing a black scarf that covered most of her face. Shamsia had seen Taliban gunmen before and figured the men on the motorcycles would pass. Then one of the bikes pulled alongside her, and the man on back jumped off. Through the mask, he asked Shamsia what seemed like a strange question.

“Are you going to school?”

The masked man pulled the scarf away from Shamsia’s face and, with his other hand, pumped the trigger on his spray gun. Shamsia felt as if her face and eyes were on fire. As she screamed, the masked man reached for Atifa, who was already running. He pulled at her and tore her scarf away and pumped the spray into her back. The men sped off toward another group of girls. Shamsia lay in the street holding her burning face.”

In a media campaign that followed, one of the attackers alleged that the Pakistani ISI offered a sliding pay scale for such attacks - $3700 for burning a school, $1200 for spraying acid on young schoolgirls.  This story stuck with me because of the response Filkins’ first article on it elicited - an outpouring of donations to help Shamsia and girls like her.  The money bought the girls at Shamsia’s school a bus and driver, so they would be less vulnerable to attack. Months after surviving a disfiguring and devastating acid attack, Shamsia was back at her school, Filkins found her sitting in the front row, participating in a geography class. 

I’ll paraphrase from Filkins again:  “Build a school for girls, and they will face down death to come.  Their illiterate parents will support them.”  Shamsia’s headmaster, Qadari said, “I told them, if you don’t send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins.  I told them not to give into darkness.”

The Afghan people have fought back against that darkness.  UNICEF reports that of the 8.3 million young people in school now, nearly 40% are girls.  Women and girls who have gained access to health care do not want to see a return to high maternal mortality rates and low life expectancy.  The young women who tenaciously fought for their education and health now want jobs that utilize their skills and allow them to contribute to society. 

One such woman is Suraya Pakhzad, an entrepreneurial and philanthropic woman from Herat, in western Afghanistan.  I have come to know Suraya over the past several years, and when she has traveled to the United States, she has come to my hometown in northeastern Pennsylvania to meet with American supporters and civil society activists.  Suraya spearheaded an effort to build shelters for women, especially victims of domestic abuse, in Baghdiz province.  She aspires to start a restaurant owned and run by women, in which female customers could gather and socialize in safety.

Security is still a very real challenge for Afghans, particularly for women and girls.  Solidifying and sustaining the gains made over the past twelve years will require support from Afghanistan’s security forces.  For the past two years, I have led an effort in the Senate to ensure that the Departments of State and Defense are working to bolster the role of women in the Afghan National Security Forces.  In the 2013 and 2014 National Defense Authorization bills, I have worked to put resources behind the recruitment and retention of women in the ANSF.  About 1,800 brave women are now serving in the ANSF.  Some have broken the glass ceiling to become pilots in the Air Force, while one has risen through the ranks to lead the police district in Kabul city.  These women are role models for younger Afghans who would like to pursue these critical careers.  According to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, more women are now showing an interest in joining the security forces. 

However, DOD has acknowledged that much more work remains to be done. According to the Defense Department’s most recent 1230 Report, female recruitment and retention rates for the ANSF fell far short of the Afghan government’s goals.  The international community – especially any military trainers who stay to support the ANSF – must continue to stress that women have a key role to play in Afghanistan’s security going forward. 

For Afghan women and girls, the stakes for the transition are particularly high.  But for Afghanistan to work through its political, security, and economic transition in 2014 and beyond, Afghan women need to keep their place at the negotiating table, in the police stations, in university classrooms, and at the helms of companies.   Afghan women can help foster stability, promote economic growth and prosperity, and keep fighting for inclusiveness, human rights, and democracy. 

Last week, the State Department honored Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil (NAS-reen Or-ee-ah-khill) as an International Woman of Courage, for her work as an OB/GYN and her commitment to getting medical care to Afghan women in the face of Taliban oppression.  In her speech, Dr. Nasrin said: “It is vital to come to the realization that women are half of the population… Empowering a woman means empowering a society and generation.” Supporting Afghan women should continue to be a top priority in our post-2014 engagement strategy.

Total disengagement from Afghanistan after 2014 could precipitate backsliding not only on women’s rights, but on progress across all sectors of Afghan society.  To be sure, the U.S. presence will be smaller.  We can still accomplish our goals and protect our national security with a smaller footprint.  However, this will require us to review our priorities – political inclusivity and transparency around the elections, support for Afghan women and girls, promotion of human rights and economic growth, and building professional security forces that can protect the Afghan people.  It will require a clear strategy and better communication with the Afghan people, the American people, and with our international partners. 

I will keep working to push that message forward.  Over the course of my remarks I have mentioned the stories of three women who exemplify uncommon courage and resolve.  Their stories should continue to remind us of how transformative the past twelve years have been for Afghanistan.  We have a clear enduring national security interest in Afghanistan’s stability and security.  We owe it to the U.S. servicemembers and the American people, who have sacrificed so much, to ensure the gains we have fought for are not rolled back. 

Thank you, and I would be glad to take your questions.   


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