The latest entry into the trumped-up debate over the fate of women in Afghanistan comes from Judy Bachrach, an editor at Vanity Fair. It’s all part and parcel of a campaign, by some well-meaning people and some not so well-meaning, to justify America’s failing counterinsurgency policy in that devastated nation by raising the banner of women’s rights, a debate kicked off by the now ubiquitous Time magazine cover photograph of an Afghan woman whose face was mutilated, allegedly by a Taliban-allied, reactionary tribal potentate. Referring to a CNN interview of Nancy Pelosi by Christiane Amanpour, Bachrach writes:
For effect she shoved the photo of the mutilated face right under the speaker’s startled gaze, adding: "To put it right down to its basics, is America going to abandon the women of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan, again?"
“To put it right down to its basics—Yes, Christiane. We are. You can bet your ass Nancy’s not going to tell you this, in fact she’ll tell you nothing at all substantive on your show in response to any of your questions, but abandonment is the American way.”
To her credit, Bachrach does go on to admit that the United States is not in Afghanistan because of the plight of its women but, as Pelosi told Amanpour, “because it’s in our own strategic national interest.” But, since the Time cover hit the newsstands, it’s allowed proponents of the war to argue that America has a moral obligation to defend that country’s woman against the predatory nature of the Taliban.
However it’s being used by the supporters of the war, it’s an issue that progressives and antiwar activists need to address squarely, too.
The issue is, what might happen if there is a Taliban restoration in Afghanistan. Now, it's true that it's possible to argue that the departure of US and NATO forces might not inevitably lead to a Taliban comeback. It's even possible to argue that the US presence in Afghanistan makes a Taliban comeback more likely, not less. But that's not the issue. The question is: might they come back? Might they seize Kabul, or just entrench themselves, in the manner of the autonomous Kurdish zone in Iraq, in the Pashtun areas? Personally, I'm an agnostic on this question. But it's foolish to dismiss the possibility, even probability. It's one thing to argue that the Taliban is a complex organism with many moving parts, and that it would be resisted by non-Pashtun minorities in the north and west and by liberal and enlightened Afghans everywhere. Still, it might come back, especially if Pakistan decides that's the game it wants to play.
If the Taliban does come back, it would be a bad thing for Afghanistan—and not just for women. Women may have their noses sliced off when they act uppity, and schools for girls may close. But the cultural backwardness and reactionary politics of the Taliban will slice across all sexes, ages and ethnic groups. In other words, the Taliban's comeback isn't just bad for women. Both men and women will be forced to live under the benighted and despicable reign of the Taliban's thugs. Like the reign of the mullahs in Iran, the Taliban is bad news for all. Men and boys, like women and girls, will be forced to abandon modern life; they will be crowded into oppressive Islamist schools, compelled to forget that they live in the twenty-first century, and beaten or killed for listening to music, reading banned books (pretty much everything but the Koran), watching DVDs or flying kites. Tribal and clan leaders who are more enlightened, who'd like to bring Afghanistan into the modern world, will be slaughtered, just like tribal leaders who opposed the Taliban in FATA were obliterated by the hundreds since 2001.
Is this a women's issue? I don't think so. Now, it's true that the sorts of reactionary drivel that comes from the Taliban is intrinsic to the institutionalized cultural life of that part of the world, in which men come first, women are treated as property, and so on. That is, only part of the deadening and oppressive conditions that existed under Taliban rule 1994-2001 arose because the Taliban were political reactionaries; some of it was already there, deeply ingrained into Afghan life. Indeed, even since 2001 there have been numerous reports of both official and unofficial mistreatment of women and women’s rights by warlords, local and provincial official, and by the supposedly enlightened government in Kabul. It' s chicken-and-egg problem, and I'm not sure whether Afghanistan in the 1990s was so bad because the Taliban imposed an alien system or because an inherently reactionary system was already there and that that system helped produce the Taliban. Either way, however, the Taliban and its allies are bad news.
The problem, as I said, can't be ignored by saying, "Oh, if the US leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban won't come back." The fact is, if the United States does leave Afghanistan, it is at least a 50-50 possibility that they'll storm back into power, and that civil war will result. (The US is leaving Iraq, and there is a real possibility that there, too, the result will be civil war sometime in late 2011 or 2012.)
What's sad is the naked attempt by supporters of the war to put the women's issue out front so shamelessly. That's because it's effective. Back in the 1990s, when the Clinton adminstration, Khalilzad et al. were happily ready to make deals with the Taliban-in-power, it was the women's issue that overthrew those efforts, riled up Hillary Clinton and helped push the Taliban regime into Untouchable Land. Don't think for a minute that the war supporters who bemoan the issue of women-under-the-Taliban don't remember that. The fact remains that the forces of reactionary political Islam are dangerous and oppressive, whether its power is wielded by the CIA (in backing the anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s), by Shin Bet (in supporting the rise of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood between 1967 and 1987) or by the ISI.
Yet the US has neither the right to fix Afghanistan nor the ability. All the economic aid in the world isn't going to do it, and promises of US postwar assistance to Afghanistan are a joke, if indeed the Taliban comes to power. Can you imagine any US Congress appropriating a dime to help Afghanistan in that case?
Progressives need to take a cold-eyed look at the consequences of leaving Afghanistan. Pollyannish views and soothing bromides won't cut it.
If there is any hope for Afghanistan after the United States leaves, that hope will reside in two places. First, India, Iran, Russia and the 'Stans will have to assert themselves in support of anti-Taliban Afghans. Second, Pakistan will have to decide whether supporting the most reactionary elements of the Taliban movement is worth continuing a bloody civil war that is the most likely result of America's departure. As I've argued for a long while now, the July 2011 deadline from President Obama ought to light a fuse on American diplomacy aimed at getting all of those parties to underwrite a deal that starts with an accord with the Taliban. I've spoken to Indian government officials who recognize that a deal with the Taliban ultimately is what's needed, even if they'd like to see Pakistan's influence radically diminished. Perhaps, inside the Taliban, there are relatively more enlightened individuals and pragmatists willing to acknowledge at least the minimal rights of Afghan women. But whether that’s true or not, some sort of deal is going to be cut eventually.
Is that abandonment? Maybe so.