Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Fawzia Koofi: A Leader for Afghanistan

by Isobel Coleman
February 14, 2013

Fawzia Koofi speaks during an interview in Kabul on April 12, 2012 (Mohammad Ismail/Courtesy Reuters). Fawzia Koofi speaks during an interview in Kabul on April 12, 2012 (Mohammad Ismail/Courtesy Reuters).

This week, I had the pleasure of hosting courageous Fawzia Koofi at the Council on Foreign Relations. Koofi is one of sixty-nine female members of Afghanistan’s 249-seat lower house of parliament. As she likes to note, she was elected to her seat by beating out a male candidate–above and beyond the quota system that preserves 25 percent of parliament for women. Elected as parliament’s first female deputy speaker, she plans to run for president in the 2014 elections.

Koofi was remarkably measured, and candid, in her comments at CFR. On the prospects for a negotiated peace with the Taliban, she was not optimistic, remarking, “I think there is more violence from the Taliban, there is more suicide bombing, there is more killing, there is more chain assassination of our leaders—they kill our leaders back-to-back.” She noted that to move forward with the Taliban, it’s imperative that they publicly agree to support Afghanistan’s constitution. To date, they cling to the notion of establishing the “Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan” based on their harsh interpretation of sharia. Additionally, she says the Taliban must accept women’s social, economic, and political participation. Her red lines for reconciliation are clear.

Koofi also expressed concern that the Afghan people are being forgotten in the peace process. Noting that there is not a new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (the seat formerly held by Richard Holbrooke, and then his successor, Marc Grossman, who resigned at the end of the year), Koofi said, “Things are different [than] they were three or four years back when the late Richard Holbrooke was in office…we could see him, we could present our concerns, there was more inclusiveness…Right now, we are kind of lost in this peace process. No one really knows who is the right person [to talk to].”

On the all-important issue of security, Koofi questioned the role of armed militias in the country’s future. She explained that as the withdrawal of international troops rapidly proceeds, the government of Afghanistan has been relying on armed local militias in parts of the country to pick up the slack, and some of them have been involved in human rights violations. Discussing a program called the “Movement Against the Taliban,” where local commanders are armed to combat the Taliban, Koofi said, “Today, they might use [weapons] for a good purpose, but tomorrow [they] will be used for a wrong purpose.” In order to promote accountability, “we need to have all Afghan security forces within Afghan structures.” Koofi is not alone in her concern about abuses by local-level militias.

On U.S. drones, a topic that has been vehemently debated in policy circles recently, Koofi had the nuanced response of someone on the front lines. Pointing out that drones are not even much discussed in Afghanistan (it is more of a topic in the border areas), she said that when you’re in the middle of a war, you need to choose between “bad and worse” and even worse than the drone strikes “would be the return of those people who are now killed by some of the drones.”

Yesterday, Koofi was interviewed by Jon Stewart in front of an enthusiastic Daily Show audience, and discussed the importance of U.S. support for the country and Afghans’ struggles under the Taliban regime. Mentioning the difficulties she had attending school and the opposition of some of her family members to her education, she said, “…now my daughters have the choice to go to the best school in Kabul, and I think it’s because of all the social changes that have happened in the past eleven years in Afghanistan, and it’s hardly measurable and reported through media.” At the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking about women’s rights, she declared, “you [the U.S.] also sacrificed blood and treasure for those values with us. You also spent a lot of money and blood in Afghanistan to help us get to that level—are you ready to reverse, are you ready to go back and start from scratch?”

After more than eleven long years of fighting in Afghanistan, I think it’s long past due that we hand this war back to the Afghans, but I hope we’ve learned our lessons from the past and don’t just walk away. Continued technical assistance, financial support, and targeted military back-up in terms of intelligence and training are essential so as not to “start from scratch.” Still, Afghanistan is in for a rough transition, but I’m rooting for determined leaders like Koofi.

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