- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2015

Saying the effort plays a key role in the battle against Taliban insurgents, U.S. military and Afghan officials are moving ahead with the latest phase of a cash and training plan to recruit more women to serve in Afghanistan’s national police force.

In a heavily male-dominated culture, the Afghan National Police consists mostly of men, and the addition of female personnel would enhance the force while advancing the cause of women’s rights, officials say. There are practical benefits as well: In Afghan culture, male officers can’t enter rooms of houses that belong to female family members or go into a female-only section of a mosque because it would be considered dishonorable.

Backers of the program argue that the female force also could forge bonds with other women in the community, which could provide leads that otherwise might be ignored or overlooked or simply don’t reach their male counterparts.

“Imagine a policeman being called to settle a domestic abuse situation,” said Ahmad-Bilal Askaryar, a spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington. “Some would consider it inappropriate for a strange man to go and be alone with a woman for a long time. So in this case, it’s in the wife’s benefit to have a policewoman to talk to directly.”

Under the 10-year plan, the U.S. government would help Afghanistan introduce an additional 5,000 female officers into its police force of about 156,750.

The latest batch of female recruits began training in Turkey and Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul late last year and graduated Thursday, said Army Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Force in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Afghan officials have been able to attract recruits with a $945,000 recruitment and retention fund. Some analysts hail the incentive as an essential tool that will help Afghan President Ashraf Ghani build a less-corrupt, more-efficient security force.

It also will help maintain advances in gender equality made during the U.S. occupation, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report, “Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition.” That progress otherwise could be lost as President Obama winds down the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, the council said.

“The significant gains that Afghan women and girls have made since the 2001 U.S.-led military invasion and overthrow of the Taliban are endangered,” the report said. “Presidential elections and possible peace efforts with the Taliban raise uncertainties about whether the future leadership in Afghanistan will protect gender equality. Further, President Barack Obama’s plan to completely draw down U.S. troops in the country by the end of 2016 risks withdrawing critical security protection, which has provided Afghan women and girls with increased safety and opportunities to participate in education, employment, the health system, politics, and civil society.”

Moving too quickly?

Some women’s advocates say the Afghan government is trying to do too much, too quickly, without properly protecting women from the sexual advances of their instructors or colleagues.

Few policies are in place to shield female police recruits from unwanted comments or inappropriate behavior of their male peers, said Palwasha Kakar, a senior program officer for religion and peace-building at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“All women who enter the police force are sexually harassed in some way, shape or form,” she said.

U.S. and Afghan officials should halt their ambitious equal opportunity plan until they can ensure that female police officers are treated equally, Ms. Kakar said.

“There’s a huge push by the international community to say we’ve got this 5,000 target and we need to have 5,000 women in the police. But we need to make sure the process of recruiting these women is not putting them in more harm’s way than they already are,” she said.

Still, some security analysts say the initiative is critically important for Afghanistan’s security forces to be able to combat a Taliban insurgency that has launched attacks since the drawdown of U.S. troops.

“You look at these challenges Ghani is facing and you need a stronger police force,” said Michael Kugelman, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “There’s no other way of putting it.”

But the road ahead may prove rocky for the Afghan government, which is struggling to make good on its promise to pay female recruits cash bonuses and supply them with various types of financial assistance. Those recruitment and retention funds are supposed to provide the women long-term incentives, such as child care and food stipends, Col. Belcher said.

“These incentives will be used as a motivator to encourage participation during their first year,” he said. “Females recruited will receive incentives while in basic and advanced training to help them become independent and confident in their future.”

Of the $945,000 in the program, $500,000 will be spent on recruitment bonuses, $200,000 will be spent on retention bonuses, $165,000 will go toward performance bonuses and $80,000 will be set aside as another cash incentive, Col. Belcher said.

Every woman who decides to re-sign with the Afghan National Police will receive $500, he said.

Those financial incentives could be critical in motivating Afghan women to pick up weapons and fight alongside men to defend Afghanistan from internal threats, said Rebecca Zimmerman, a Truman Project fellow and associate policy analyst with the Rand Corp.

“You have some women go into the police because they really need the income,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “Maybe they’re widows. Maybe their husbands don’t make a decent salary themselves. Maybe there are problems with their husbands not making enough money for the family.”

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