New Delhi: Entering into its 15 years of turmoil, Afghanistan still needs NATO support to live in a ‘peaceful environment’. Jens Stoltenberg, alliance head of NATO, announced on Wednesday that over 12,000 security troops would stay put in Afghanistan for an extended year till 2016 to eliminate any threat of the country becoming a terrorist safe haven.
The initial plan of the organisation was to vacate Afghanistan by now, but reality seldom matches schedules. Now, NATO is considering to keep troops till next year and extend its funding of the Afghan security forces till 2020.
NATO’s resolute backing assistance and training operation were expected to end this year but Taliban battlefield victories, particularly their recent brief detention of the northern city of Kunduz, stimulated a radical re-think.
Stoltenberg, after a talk with foreign ministers, endorsed the decision and said in an interview with Reuters, “Today, NATO allies and Resolute Support operational partners have agreed to sustain the Resolute Support presence … during 2016.”
The US and NATO forces were to progressively retreat their forces from Afghanistan In 2011 and hand over the undertakings in 2014 to the Afghans. Although, US and NATO troops succeeded in removing themselves from prime focus to a rather supporting role, but they still stayed there in the name of a new mission till 2015 and the timetable has now been stretched further.
The US President Barak Obama had announced from the White House on May 2014, that by the end of 2016, merely a rudimentary force of Americans would persist in Afghanistan. A year and a half later, in October 2015, Obama announced a change in plan that the US would continue with 9,800 US armed forces in the country through “most of 2016” and 5,500 through 2017.
Contrasting the US, NATO never mentioned a time frame to end its “Resolute Support” in the training mission of Afghanistan. The non-combat force comprises of troops from some 40 countries, including NATO members, the US and their partners.
NATO does aim at seeing Afghanistan free of external forces and be self-sufficient to maintain peace in the country not later than 2024 and take “full financial responsibility” for their individual security forces, according to a statement given in 2012 by the forces.
The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.
But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.
The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.
Hope and music
Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.
The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.
Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.
Advances for women
Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.
“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.
But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.
“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.
Ethnic groups help each other
Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed.
“It’s hope for the future,” he said.
Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.
“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.
Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.
“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.
The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.
The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan. (VOA)