International Affairs

War, Women, and the Taliban

July 19, 2010

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War, Women, and the Taliban

It’s only dire necessity
That’s taking me to war;
And if I were a moneyed man
I wouldn’t go for sure.

-Miguel de Cervantes de Saavedra, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (translated by John Rutherford), Penguin Books, 2000, page 651.


The time has come to justify anew the war in Afghanistan, and excuses for keeping American and other NATO troops in combat there are coming hot and heavy in Washington and London. Last month’s trillion dollar mineral bonanza was not enough. Nor was the changeover of military command from an apparently insolent general to one who minds his Ps and Qs. Uncertain successes on the battlefield are not doing much to help. So, how can the Obama administration sell this despicable war to an increasingly wary public? The latest rabbit in the magician’s top hat is the creation of “local police units,” home guards to keep the Taliban away from the villages. Announced with great fanfare in Kabul and Washington, a new plan calls for village militias to turn the tide. (If you believe that, please send me a check for $10,000 for the name of the next Kentucky Derby winner.) These militiamen are unlikely to do anything more than denounce their traditional enemies to death squads, making them as unpopular as the Green Berets they are going to serve under.


Minerals, new commanders, new local collaborators, new strategies. All are failing, not only to win the war, but to persuade the American and European public to support it. What else is left? Alas, women. Just when you thought there was no reason to prolong the nine-year war in central Asia, along comes a new excuse. A CIA memorandum of 11 March, “Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission – Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough,” (posted on Wikileaks) puts the propagandists’ case: “Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.” Hey, if no one is marching to Washington’s drumbeat on defeating terrorism, why not change the tune to “I Am Woman”?

Representative of the latest barrage of Afghan apologetics was a recent op ed in the International Herald Tribune (15 July 2010) by Thea Garland, who urged the US to stay the course in order to protect Afghan women. She quotes Hilary Clinton, “Women’s rights are human rights.” This would appear to justify the expenditure of lives and treasure in a land that has an unlimited capacity to absorb both. Ms. Garland reminded readers of the Taliban’s reprehensible record on women: denying them education, abusing them for laughing aloud, forcing them to dress in a certain way and even executing some in a football stadium for minor infractions of Taliban rules. That such things happened under the Taliban is true, just as it is likely a restored Taliban will behave no more humanely than did the shock troops of Mullah Omar. However, Ms. Garland and others make no mention of the abuses of women by Afghan society at large and especially by the militias of the Northern Alliance who allied themselves to the United States in 2001. One of these, General Abdul Rashid Dustom’s Uzbek militia, systematically raped women in the Pashtun district of Balkh. Neither the American force commanders nor President Karzai objected to Dustom taking a place in the Afghan cabinet or maintaining control of his fiefdom in the north, where torture of men and women is a fact of daily life. Another rapacious enemy of women was the Hazara militia of Muhammad Mohaqiq, now another respected leader of the pro-American polity in Kabul.

Back in the 1980s, the Soviets urged Afghan men to accept female equality, sponsored schools for girls and permitted women to work. Where are those schools and jobs today? Well, the militias that overthrew the pro-Soviet regime of President Mohammed Najibullah eliminated them. Under Najibullah, women exercising their civil and sartorial rights feared no one more than the “freedom fighters,” who sprayed their uncovered faces in acid. Material and propaganda support for those lovers of freedom came from the administration of President Ronald Reagan, Charlie Wilson’s buddies in Congress and that great liberal democracy with a record of unparalleled service to womankind, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Any element in a society that depends on an unwelcome foreign occupier becomes the object of revenge when the occupier departs. This happened to the right-wingers in post-Vichy France, the Harkis when the French left Algeria and to the Hmong when the US pulled out of southeast Asia. It will happen again to Afghan women, because no one remembers their suffering after the Soviets left them to the mercy of the mujahedeen that the US and Saudi Arabia helped into power. Post-Soviet Afghanistan under America’s friendly warlords descended into such deadly chaos that much of the public demanded rescue from groups of students who came to be known as the Taliban.

“We must not abandon them again,” Ms. Garland writes of Afghanistan’s beleaguered women. Yet who are we? We are not an army of feminist Hilary Clintons, risking our own lives for our beliefs.  Instead, we are young Americans without jobs in a failing American economy. We are the youth of America whose only means to an education and an income is to kill and die on behalf of an enterprise that will not empower and assist Afghan women one day longer than American forces remain in the country. Waging the western onslaught against the Taliban in their name will make Afghan women appear as collaborators with the foreigners most Afghans want expelled from their country as soon as possible. To use Afghan women’s plight that cynically is the worst betrayal.

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