Anja Niedringhaus/AP

A Return to Stoning Won’t Help the Effort to Rebrand Afghanistan

UPDATED: This article was updated from its original version to include additional information.

Even as a group of diplomats and advocates tries to shift the storyline on Afghanistan to focus on the gains the country has logged this past decade, a blast from the country’s brutal past has resurfaced to further complicate already difficult US-Afghan relations: Stoning may once again become the law.

“It is absolutely shocking that 12 years after the fall of the Taliban government, the Karzai administration might bring back stoning as a punishment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a press release. Added his colleague Heather Barr in an interview: The “Karzai government cannot think that an effort like this can go ahead unnoticed and without a response from international actors.”

The proposed penal code change to make adultery punishable by stoning comes as the Afghan grand assembly known as the loya jirga okayed a U.S.-Afghanistan security deal hashed out over months of diplomatic wrangling. The agreement paves the way for up to 15,000 troops to remain in the country. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai surprised U.S. diplomats by saying he wanted to wait until next year to sign it.

It is not just troops that are on the table when it comes to the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan. At Tokyo and Chicago last year, donor countries including the U.S. pledged billions in aid for economic development along with health and education.  But that money was tied to Afghanistan’s record on governance and human rights. Already this summer Norway threatened to hold off on its promised $120 million in aid through 2017 given that “progress is either incomplete or lacking altogether in other fields such as reform of election laws and reporting on the implementation of the law on violence against women.”

The Obama administration is said to have been taken by surprise by Karzai’s move to delay the BSA signing until next year following the loya jirga’s approval of the deal.  And now it is doing all it can to convince the Afghan president that this is the time for a deal — or there won’t be one.

In a statement Monday afternoon, the White House noted that National Security Adviser Susan Rice, on her surprise visit to Afghanistan, “stressed that we have concluded negotiations and that deferring the signature of the agreement until after next year’s elections is not viable, as it would not provide the United States and NATO allies the clarity necessary to plan for a potential post-2014 military presence.”  The statement continued by noting that “lack of a signed BSA would jeopardize NATO and other nations’ pledges of assistance made at the Chicago and Tokyo conferences in 2012” and “without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.”

The uncomfortable diplomatic standoff comes as a group of Afghan hands, think tank types and former US officials are banding together to shift the storyline on Afghanistan. Counted among this group are former ambassadors Melanne Verveer, Ryan Crocker and Ron Neumann; writers, including Steven Coll and Peter Bergen; Bruce Riedel, who led an Obama administration Afghanistan review during the president’s first term; and advocates from organizations including Human Rights Watch and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Their battle is to rebrand the Afghanistan war from hopeless cause to cause for hope in the minds of Americans exhausted by the fight’s toll in both lives sacrificed and dollars paid. It is a slog of a task and one made by more difficult by the mercurial Karzai and his on-again, off-again relationship with his American interlocutors and backers. Shoddy governance and cronyism only serve to aggravate and alienate Americans even further. For what are our men and women sacrificing their lives, they ask? Two-thirds of those answering a Washington Post poll now say the war is not worth its cost.

And yet for those leading this charge to shift the Afghanistan story, all is not lost. To the contrary, those seeking to change the grim narrative of America’s longest-ever war, one dominated by suicide bombings and insider attacks, say that Americans are leaving behind a country that has experienced more positive change in one decade than others do in several.  In sectors from health to education to technology, they point to gains made that can continue if the international community keeps investing in a country that could be a durable ally for stability in a tough neighborhood and an interconnected world. 

I have seen those gains, from women’s health to girls’ education, firsthand and written about them, most recently in a story about Afghan tech start-ups. They are fragile, but real.

Life expectancy has stretched from 40-something to the low 60s in the past decade. Infant mortality has dropped by roughly half. Midwives now top 2,500 in a country that counted fewer than 300 after the Taliban fell and in which one in 11 women die of complications of childbirth.

Economic growth reached 13 percent last year, with help from strong agricultural production. More than two-thirds of the population is age 25 and under, and those who can connect to the outside world do so. Afghanistan counts close to half a million Facebook users. (Facebook remains more popular than Twitter.) Cell phones in urban areas and, increasingly, in rural villages are fast forming part of the local landscape. Two-thirds of Afghans report using cell phones — and not just men. A recent survey by the U.S. Agency for International Development found that around 80 percent of Afghan women have at least occasional access to mobile phones. An even higher percentage believe cell phones improve women’s lives. Six telecom companies and dozens of internet service providers now serve the Afghan public.

Media is also booming in a country that in 2001 had no TV stations and one Taliban-controlled radio station outside of BBC and Voice of America radio. Afghanistan today has a slew of private TV stations, including one that featured the Afghan version of the The Office — a takeoff on government bureaucracy — and a local version of American Idol  known as Afghan Star. Turkish soap operas are incredibly popular. Regional and local radio stations broadcast around the country.

Women, denied the right to work and go to school under the Taliban, now make up a quarter of the country’s parliament. They are entrepreneurs, doctors, health care workers and teachers. A network of women’s shelters now takes in girls and women beaten at home who are trying to escape violent marriages and families in a country where such violence is widespread. Some brides have barely reached their teens; others are even younger. Now, while the violence continues, they have a place to go to seek sanctuary.

All of these developments in themselves mean little to the American public. But place them against the backdrop of the ongoing fight to create a more stable and secure Afghanistan and they are beacons of progress and possibility in a neighborhood that desperately needs both. So Crocker, Verveer and others are trying to illuminate the other side of the story, the side that America doesn’t fully know, about the stakes of the way forward.

Whether the American public will care a dozen years and nearly 3,000 lives into the Afghanistan war — a war Americans simply want to end — remains to be seen. The sense of exhaustion and desperation concerning the war already is so cemented in Americans’ minds that shifting the narrative is an uphill challenge.

And the stoning storyline only serves to make that task even harder.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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