Interview with Munira Yousefzada, former Afghan deputy minister of defense

Former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense posing for a photo, July 2021 (Photo by Fariba Pajooh)

Ms. Munira Yousefzada graduated from Azad University in Iran. She started her career as a public servant working as an Executive Assistant to the Deputy Minister of Policy for Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance. In 2015, she was promoted to serve as the spokesperson for the Directorate. In 2016, she was appointed the Director of Communications for the Independent Directorate of Local Governance and subsequently served as the Deputy Minister for Afghanistan Ministry of Defense from 2019 to 2020.

This interview was moderated by Fariba Pajooh, a PhD student and journalist who has been reporting on Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East for over 15 years. She graduated from the Medill School of Northwestern University and has written for Iran’s Shargh newspaper as well as Euronews, Buzzfeed, RFI, and other outlets. 

TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW

FP: What has the US-led mission achieved pertaining to the Afghan National Army over the past two decades?

MY: To understand what the United States has achieved in the last twenty years, we must look at Afghanistan twenty years ago. First, we have to see where Afghanistan was. Twenty years ago, Afghanistan was a desperate, tired, and devastated country without infrastructure and coherent military training. The Taliban made decisions for the people for five years. They did not know anything about civilization and the modern world and did not let anyone think about it and to make a difference. By abusing religion, they had strangled Afghan society and had turned their religious extremism into law. In such a society, US-led international forces to support the Afghan people created a new promise and a message of hope. Today, any change we see in Afghan society is the joint work of the international community, the Afghan government, and the Afghan people.

But in the case of the Afghan Army, after the fall of Dr. Najibullah’s government, the Afghan military disintegrated, and their equipment was looted. The regular army was replaced by the Mujahideen and followed by the Taliban fighters taking over. After the formation of the new government, it was a challenge to revitalize the Afghan military, recruit volunteers, provide them with modern training, deploy them in the required areas, and sustain their military equipment. Today, we can say that the dream of having a cohesive military force for Afghanistan has come true. However, more fundamental steps have to be taken to institutionalize these reforms and make them self-sufficient. Today, we are talking about an army of almost 200,000 people who have fought independently since 2014. And now, with the departure of the international community–especially the US military–the Afghan Army is the only hope for the people against the imminent threat of terrorists.

Although the positive and comprehensive global role in the formation of the Afghan Army cannot be ignored, the performance of foreign troops in Afghanistan can be criticized. The international troops did not have an accurate understanding of the geography of the Afghan war, and a lack of attention to the issue of psychological warfare has led to most of today’s problems.

The formation of each army is determined by the geography of each country’s war. The unfamiliarity of the geography of the Afghan war to international supporters sometimes led to errors and misallocation of resources. The Afghan Army was used for the implementation of plans made by the international forces rather than making the war plans. The leadership of the Afghan Army went to the planning and leadership of the war in an unprincipled and rapid manner after 2014. At the same time, the geography of the war expanded over time, and this expansion caused panic.

On the other hand, no one knew precisely when the international forces would leave Afghanistan. The common belief was that the international troops would remain a constant ally of the Afghan people because of Afghanistan’s strategic geographic location. This thinking led to dual dependence in many areas, such as organizational reform, budgeting, equipment, operations, and resources.

In recent years, efforts have been made to enable Afghans to manage the national army by creating a centralized system in different parts of the Ministry of Defense. But widespread corruption and lack of independence made it difficult to make progress. This widespread administrative corruption turned the Afghan National Army into an affiliated army twenty years later. However, we should not forget the ability of the Afghan military commandos and air force, which will remain golden areas of the history of the Afghan Army.

FP: How has the presence of US troops in Afghanistan affected the issue of women’s rights?

MY: The presence of women in the security sectors is due to the international community’s support. After years of war and the black rule of the Taliban, the presence of women in various sectors–especially the military–was a major taboo. For this reason, and undoubtedly without the support of the international community and especially the US government, the presence of women in the Afghan Army would not have been possible. The facilities, equipment, and policies that increased women’s participation in the military was the result of US government support. Today, women serve as pilots and commandos in various parts of the army. The same goes for the civilian sector, especially girls going back to school.

It should be noted that Afghan society is a traditional society. In a traditional society, the illiterate majority of women are not even considered part of any ethnic group. Even national unity and national participation, for most Afghan politicians, mean the presence of men of different ethnicities. Currently, the majority of politicians and people consider giving women their rights and supporting women to be a foreign phenomenon and do not want to accept that women are part of society.

FP: How was your experience during your two years as Deputy Minister of Defense?

MY: When I was appointed the Deputy Minister of National Defense, because it was a military and fundamentally a male dominated position, I was not accepted by most as a government official. Many insulted me with ads on social media. My character was assassinated and threatened. They thought that the presence of a woman had shattered their masculine authority. On the other hand, as soon as the Taliban challenged the security of small towns, men also armed women and asked them to fight the enemy to maintain their local or national male authority. In my view, twenty years later, our patriarchal society is still not ready to accept women in management and leadership roles. In such a society, the support of the international community for women has been vital and promising. Women have made gains in politics, economy, education, military, and generally in society during the past decades of voicelessness. According to the prevailing view, with the international community’s departure, Afghan women’s presence will be challenged, limited, and eliminated from society again. But I emphasize that women did not know about their rights twenty years ago and the violation of women’s rights was a normal part of life. However, twenty years later, women are aware of their rights. Hence, re-isolation and the re-domination of the Taliban’s ideology is yet more painful and intolerable for women.

FP: There have been many reports in the media of the harassment of women in the Afghan security sector. What is your take on this?

MY: As I said before, harassment of women is an undeniable fact in Afghanistan. Men do not take women seriously. Unfortunately, our security and defense forces also come from a society that is mostly male dominant. While I was in charge of the Ministry of Defense, I learned some aspects of women in the military. We have reasonable policies and laws at the national level and at the level of the Ministry of Defense to protect women. Firm support had made every effort to provide military women with special privileges and resources, giving them psychological security and safety in doing their job. But it had its challenges. First, militarization was often of less interest to women, but they sometimes turned to this vital sector out of compulsion to obtain a job. Also, due to cultural poverty, the militarization of society was a flaw for women, and military women faced severe moral charges. In the face of this issue, I adopted my policy. I was against giving privileges to women just because they were women. As a woman, I knew and believed that if the same opportunity was given to women by society, they would equally carry their weight in the armed forces sector. I often encountered formal and informal complaints from girls about the discriminatory treatment and sexual harassment from their commanders and bosses. When formal cases were sent to the relevant departments, this issue was not taken seriously by most male department heads. Much of the time, women were either forced to withdraw their complaints or asked to document proof which is not possible in most cases. I dare say that the issue of women is not essential to the majority of the military and men. The tolerance of women in the Afghan Army was mainly due to the support of the international community. On the other hand, in terms of cultural conditions, most females in the army are from one ethnic group. They were also sometimes discriminated against at the lower and middle levels by gender and ethnic discrimination. No one took their ability seriously; men opposed their presence. Because advancing the war, in the eyes of the majority of the military, is a masculine task, even the presence of a woman on their team was considered a disgrace.

FP: On this account, the reports appear to be accurate.

MY: The issue of harassment of women is usually not taken seriously. The issue is generally not given importance and women have been the target of such issues. However, several people who were reported by women for harassment were not reprimanded but instead promoted because they had influence within the organization. Without considering the history of their sexual misconduct against women in the workplace, men were promoted to important positions at various levels.

FP: What do you think about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan after twenty years?

MY: It is illogical for us to expect the permanent presence of the international community within a specific framework. Because they never intended to stay forever, they had goals for themselves that were tied to Afghanistan. We were supposed to work together to eradicate terrorists from Afghanistan. Based on this presence and this mutual commitment, Afghanistan was able to achieve relative development. On the other hand, we Afghans must not forget that before the US government voiced its call for peace with the Taliban, the rulers and politicians at the helm of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan repeatedly called the Taliban a “disgruntled brother,” a “deceived brother,” and “political opposition.” This was while international forces and Afghan forces were making sacrifices to defeat the Taliban. What is at stake in this departure is the preservation of the common achievements of the international community and the people of Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the international community was a strong supporter of democracy, civil values, and human rights. Instead of further isolation, the Taliban have become part of Afghanistan’s political equation, which is a concern for my generation. After a twenty year war, how can a terrorist group that violates all human principles in its dialogue and action become a significant part of the political equation when the ultimate goal is to destroy them, not to revive them?

FP: What do you think will be the future of Afghanistan? What do you think of the peace talks?

MY: The future of Afghanistan is uncertain and this ambiguity can be seen in the views of many experts and the state of peace talks on the battlefield. On  one hand, there is corruption, oppression, injustice, and discrimination in our current government. I think we can predict three scenarios for the future of Afghanistan.

Scenario 1: Continuation of the war, failure of peace talks.

Scenario 2: The outcome of peace talks, the preservation of the current system and the values and achievements, and the presence of the Taliban as part of the power structure.

Scenario 3: The fall of the regime and the repetition of the brutal era of the Taliban.

All Afghans want peace, even the military. But I must say that the Taliban’s actions in the areas under their control show that the Taliban did not change. They do not believe in the presence of women. They have created an extreme version of religion. They also talk about peace at the peace table and at the same time set fire to public places. They catalyzed other terrorist groups to start operating in Afghanistan. For this reason, in my view, just as the war in Afghanistan was a war with the sinister phenomenon of international terrorism, we must have a different idea of peace in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan does not mean laying down arms and ending the war. There was no war during the Taliban black era, but there was no peace. People were tortured in various ways, and emigration increased.

So, our request to the world is not to think of hasty peace, extremism, and terrorism; do not think of limited geography, but human freedoms. Accelerated stability is to the detriment of the Afghan people, especially Afghan women and the world. The Taliban holding power means increasing narcotics cultivation and trafficking, as well as the oppression and rule of oppressors and increased flight (the rate of Afghans leaving the country is currently increasing). Consequently, the Taliban’s increase in human trafficking signals a haven for other terrorist networks and human rights violations. I hope to realize the second option so that one day the Taliban will accept the new face of Afghanistan and consider the achievements as the achievements of the Afghan people and respect it. But, unfortunately, I do not know if that day will come.

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