CFR’s Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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A policy expert on Afghanistan, the best-selling author and former journalist weighs in on that country’s historic presidential and provincial elections.

After almost 10 years as a journalist, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon left her ABC News post to earn her MBA from Harvard. During her case study research, she met and began writing about women entrepreneurs in war zones, including Afghanistan and Rwanda. She's now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy and a policy expert on Afghanistan. Her book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, credits the women she met as real entrepreneurs who got their families through hard economic times, political turmoil and war. Lemmon also served as an informal advisor on women’s empowerment for economic officials at the American Embassy in Kabul.


Tavis: This week, officials continue to count ballots from the record number of men and women in Afghanistan who went to the polls to vote in an election that may result in the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.

Joining me now to talk about what this election may mean for Afghanistan is Gayle Lemmon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written extensively about that country, including in a “New York Times” best seller, “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” which looked at the changing role of women in Afghanistan. Gayle, good to have you back on this program.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Great to join you.

Tavis: Let me jump right in. What do you make of what happened, because it seems that people around the world are heralding the way these elections turned out.

Lemmon: You’ve had an attack of good news coming out of Afghanistan, right, (laughter) which people rarely expect.

Tavis: Yeah.

Lemmon: People really braved all kinds of danger, all kinds of physical danger to themselves and their families to go to the ballot box. I think for all the people who’ve said Afghans share so many values, to watch people wait in line for four hours to vote on a rainy day was something remarkable.

Tavis: Were you surprised?

Lemmon: No, no. I’ll tell you why I wasn’t surprised – because I think for years, everybody’s been speaking about Afghans, and Saturday they got to speak up for themselves. If you think about this, they had almost 60 percent, roughly 60 percent voter turnout, seven million voters.

The last time, other than ’08, that we had 60 percent turnout was, like, the Nixon years, when gas was, like, 55 cents a gallon and the DOW was at 1020. People just had this pent-up desire to speak for themselves and argue for something that was peaceful and stable.

Tavis: How do you think this will, or is at the moment, being viewed around the world? We know what the U.S. view of it is, and we’ll come back to that in a second. Around the world, how do you think this is being, this will be interpreted?

I think a lot of people who have long argued for an international engagement in Afghanistan feel vindicated, like this was just a down-payment on what is possible coming out of Afghanistan, if given half a chance.

I think for those who say look, the old normal has long been only doom and gloom coming out of Afghanistan, right, only bad news, we’re expecting. We know it for suicide bombs and IEDs, not for voter lines and young people going on Facebook, showing their fingers, that they voted.

So I think people who want to change the narrative will find good news, and people who don’t will find more of the same.

Tavis: I’m probably putting the cart in front of the horse, but since I’m talking to a woman who’s written a book about women in Afghanistan, let me start with a woman question.

I don’t want to color it too much. Talk to me about what this election meant for, the involvement of, the advancement of women in Afghanistan.

Lemmon: Well it’s been stunning. Over the years, and you’ve done stories on this, you have seen the sophistication, the increasing real awareness of women, about how to vocalize, how to organize, how to mobilize for themselves.

You think about this: In 2001, when women left the house they had to worry about vice and virtue forces really chasing them through the streets. In 2014, they can go out and maybe vote for a female vice presidential candidate. That’s a stunning turn of events in 13 years.

I think women have just said look, world, we know you may or may not get tired of our cause, but for us, this is about our lives. So they spoke up for themselves.

Tavis: What about elected officials?

Lemmon: It’s fascinating. So you had more women than ever before running. Three hundred women ran for provincial council seats, which is more women than ran for Congress in 2012 in the United States.

You had vice presidential candidates, and it wasn’t even a big deal. Vice presidential candidates who were drawing huge crowds, actually sometimes better than the top of the ticket, because people really liked what they had to say.

Just to think about that, in a country the Taliban ruled not very long ago, to think that women could fill a stadium and really get people on their feet cheering for a political moment. I think it’s incredible.

Tavis: To your point about the Taliban now, what do we take, Gayle, from this about the future of the Taliban? Did they stay home, were they kept at home? How do you interpret the fact that this election, these elections went off smoothly and we didn’t hear about the Taliban?

Lemmon: I think it was a victory for Afghan national security forces and the United States and international forces who’ve trained them, clearly. Because there was no question that if they, that they were determined to wreak havoc, and they did, in the days leading up to the election.

But I think what it shows was that Afghan security forces took very seriously their responsibility, and Afghans decided, you know what, we’re going to send a message to the Taliban, and it’s going to be at the ballot box, and it’s not going to be in a body bag.

Tavis: Does this mean, does the effect of this one day of voting, this one incident, does that suggest that they are ready now to secure themselves, and that we can come home?

Lemmon: Many people in the United States wish it did mean that, but I think if anything it just shows that there is more work to be done, but there’s a whole lot of reason to do that work.

I think that Afghan forces stood up and risked their own lives, but they did have people helping them behind the scenes, just in case. Trainers have been there. The question is, what does that look like come 2014 from the United States’ side? How committed, how engaged does the United States stay?

Tavis: So what should we do? I ask that against the backdrop of, or in light of the fact of the piece that I saw. You had a conversation with General John Allen –

Lemmon: That’s right.

Tavis: – the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who had one point of view about this, and I’ll let you share what he told you in his conversation with you.

But give me some sense of what he had to say as a former NATO commander, U.S. commander, rather, and then give me some sense of where you think this is headed in terms of our remaining in the country.

Lemmon: So General Allen, as you mentioned, we had a conversation yesterday morning, and he said the Afghans did their part, now it’s time for the United States to do its.

That we should be there, because they have more than done, held up their share of the bargain, and now it’s time for us to eliminate the one threat that he really saw, which is uncertainty.

Let’s say what we want to do in the country, let’s show our commitment to the country, and let’s make it clear that we aren’t going anywhere in terms of international engagement.

Not in terms of tens of thousands of troops, but in terms of a small residual force that will be there to train, and also in terms of the wallet. Because the wallet does matter in a country where 90 percent of the budget comes from foreign donors.

Tavis: So that’s the opinion of one general, one former U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Lemmon: That’s right.

Tavis: How is that going to play, how will this play in Washington and Congress? Are we going to stay there past 2014?

Lemmon: Well, stay tuned, right? Because I think you have this quiet battle going on between the Afghan hands and the Afghan just-handed-overs, people who are just like, look, we’re done. (Laughter) It’s 2014 when it’s over.

I had a conversation with administration officials this week saying look, it’s been hard to get Afghanistan on the agenda. We’ve got Syria, we got Iran, we got Middle East peace, and now we have Ukraine.

We want to argue for a sustained presence in Afghanistan, but it’s been very hard to make that case at a time when the U.S. is tired from 12 years of war, understandably so.

So my personal view is that we should stay. Not in tens of thousands of numbers, again, but in a residual force, and in an international partnership agreement that we have on paper. On paper.

There’s a strategic partnership agreement the U.S. already signed with Afghanistan that says we are going to be there supporting you through 2024. But I would guess 98 percent of America has no idea we even signed that.

Tavis: I saved this till the end of our conversation. I could have began here, but I wanted to build up to what we know about who has the best chance of succeeding Hamid Karzai.

There’s no doubt about the fact that we’ve had a – pick your metaphor – on-again, off-again, up-down, red light, green light relationship with him over the years. He’s an interesting character, to say the least.

Are we better off with the guy that we knew, or the guy that we don’t know who may be coming in, who will be coming in?

Lemmon: I think we are going to be better off with a peaceful transition of power, and I think there are three real questions that are kind of waiting to be decided and will also help determine what happens with the U.S.

A, how does the vote count go? B, is there a runoff, and what does that runoff look like?

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick, and because of the way that this – it’s going to be a while before we get these numbers.

Lemmon: Yeah, weeks.

Tavis: Weeks before we get the tally and who the actual winners are. But finish your point, I’m sorry.

Lemmon: Oh, no, I think final point is, is there a peaceful transition of power for the first time in the country’s history? I think the United States has been kind of waiting.

Politically speaking, the U.S. has been dating Afghanistan for a long time without actually committing to it, and I think those three questions and their answers will help determine what our engagement looks like going forward.

Tavis: The U.S. always has a dog in the fight, whether they publically say that or not. Do we have a dog in this race?

Lemmon: I think there are people that they might be slightly happier with for sure from the administration end, but I actually think that they like – all three of the major leading candidates are people who’ve said they’ve signed the BSA, they’ve served in government, the United States knows them well.

So I don’t think that there is a level of panic at all within Washington about any one of the three.

Tavis: I think most of us believe – I suspect you do as well – that a strong Afghanistan is important for that region. Obviously our eyes are always on Pakistan, but give me some sense of what this does for – to the extent you believe it does – have an impact on stability in the region.

Lemmon: So I think that it is a very tough neighborhood, and when you talk to people who really believe in staying the course in Afghanistan, they’ll say listen, this is just a small glimmer of what Afghanistan can be in terms of a democracy that’s stable.

Two-thirds of the country is under 25. Seven out of 10 of them were 12 or under before the Taliban came – I mean when the Taliban left, sorry. So if you think about that, it’s a young country.

With this Facebook generation, more than 300,000 Facebook users in Afghanistan now that is desperate to be connected. If that generation can be connected to the outside world, I think we’re in much better shape, because a stable, secure, prosperous Afghanistan in a very tough neighborhood is in everybody’s interest.

Tavis: Let me ask maybe a strange question, but I’m curious as to your take on this, so I’ll ask. I was just reading an article the other day about the rebranding of images of former presidents.

So Jimmy Carter was just in Washington for a play that just premiered about his work on Camp David. It’s 50 years after the civil rights movement, so LBJ is getting a look-over at what he did to pass the Civil Rights Act. Even George W. Bush is having a bit of a renaissance; his paintings are now on display.

Lemmon: Leno.

Tavis: Yeah, so again, everybody’s having a – his father, George H. W. Bush. So everybody’s getting a different, they’re getting that, they’re trying to rebrand their image.

What does the success of this election say in the future about the George W. Bush administration of the past?

Lemmon: That is such an excellent question, because I think the ghost of Iraq has hung over his legacy so much. I think that also the ghost of Iraq has impacted Afghanistan. People don’t know the difference most of the time. They know we’ve fought 12 years of war over there that have cost a terrible toll in terms of treasure and dollars.

I think if Afghanistan ends up a stable, peaceful, prosperous place that is actually a good part of a rough neighborhood, then maybe you get some credit for the fact that Afghanistan was not a mess in the end.

It had some rough years, but it got back on track. I think we’ll see in the coming months what that looks like.

Tavis: I can see George Bush and Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice writing their speeches right now about what they did right to make Afghanistan turn out this way. We will see what history says about this in the coming years.

In the immediate future, we’ll continue to watch to see what happens in Afghanistan once these numbers actually come in and we see who the new leader, first time democratic transition that’s taking place in this country. We’ll follow this.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” now out in paperback. Gayle, thanks for your insights. Good to have you on this program.

Lemmon: It’s great to join you.

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Last modified: April 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm