Earlier this year, I challenged the notion put forth by some feminists and human rights groups that a US military presence in Afghanistan is both justified and necessary in order to protect Afghan women and girls. I interviewed Kavita Ramdas, President of the Global Fund for Women, who discussed how the women of Afghanistan are hardly united on the need for the US military in their country, and many make a strong case that the war in Afghanistan and US occupation in fact exacerbates the plight of women.
The crucial question of how best to help Afghan women and girls is once again being raised within the peace movement and the media. The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF)–an invaluable organization dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health, and non-violence– has made the decision to essentially support the Obama administration’s escalation as necessary in order to protect women and girls from the Taliban and enable a “significant redevelopment effort.” (Coincidentally, columnist Tom Friedman, who has opposed escalation, is also rethinking his position based on the idea that our presence will create greater opportunities and protection for women and girls.)
While I admire FMF for much of its work, including its fight against the oppression of Afghan women and girls since 1996–and I acknowledge that these are complex and emotional issues–I disagree with the organization’s position here. I also take issue with an op-ed by FMF president Eleanor Smeal and board member Helen Cho that characterizes those who advocate for a US withdrawal as wanting to “just walk away”, or “abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan.” These criticisms are reminiscent of the “cut and run” accusations against a peace and justice movement that wisely opposed the disastrous occupation of Iraq (and FMF was a part of that movement).
In fact, a planned withdrawal doesn’t at all mean ending a US role in the security and reconstruction of Afghanistan. It means ramping up wiser alternatives that should have been embraced post-9/11 in the fight against terrorist organizations: intelligence cooperation, expert police work, smart diplomacy, targeted aid (including maternal health care, education, and reconstruction funds), and a regional, negotiated settlement that involves Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Iran. It means international-led peacekeeping forces. In no way whatsoever is this approach tantamount to abandoning the Afghan people or just walking away from them.
Those like FMF who argue for the Obama administration’s current counterinsurgency strategy argue themselves into a knot–we can’t have security without development, they say, and we can’t have development without security. The fact is that women’s rights in these areas will best be secured through modernization, and the United States has had little success in advancing modernization through military occupation even if accompanied by enlightened development assistance — partly because the US military presence is so polarizing and, as some experts argue, arouses local opposition. Modernization will best be achieved through strengthening the UN’s hand in delivering both security and development assistance.
Nation Institute fellow and veteran war reporter Chris Hedges writes of counterinsurgency, “… Each generation of warriors thinks it has finally found the magic key to victory.” But time and again, occupation and the killing of innocent civilians leads to increased recruitment for the enemy, the local population turning against the occupying power, and the cost in lives and treasure proving too great to sustain the support of the folks back home–and that’s the case even in places that aren’t “the graveyard of empires” as Afghanistan is.
July is already the deadliest month since the 2001 invasion — “at least 56” NATO troops have died, including 30 US soldiers and 17 British soldiers. (And there are reports that the British public’s support for the war is waning.) The New York Times reports that the main reason for the mounting casualties isn’t the new offensive in Helmand Province but “the increasing power of roadside bombs employed by guerrillas in eastern and southern Afghanistan.” And despite the Pentagon announcing a new strategy of protecting civilians as the top priority, the Afghan people continue to pay the heaviest price. As Hedges puts it, “Combat creates its own rules, and civilians are almost always the losers.”
The administration asserts that we are there to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda. So does that mean we will send troops to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Algiers, etc. –wherever else a decentralized Al Qaeda and terrorist network may roam?
As for the women and girls of Afghanistan, Ramdas reminds that “highly militarized societies in almost every instance lead to bad results for women. The security of women is not improved and in many instances it actually becomes worse.” She points to increased prostitution, trafficking, and rape in Afghanistan since the war began. And Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission and Mariam Rawi (pseudonym) of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, write:
“Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war. The conflict outside their doorsteps endangers their lives and those of their families…. We are told that the US cannot leave Afghanistan because of what will happen to women if they go. Let us be clear: Women are being gang raped, brutalized and killed in Afghanistan. Forced marriages continue, and more women than ever are being forced into prostitution–often to meet the demand of foreign troops…. The level of self-immolation among women was never as high as it is now. When there is no justice for women, they find no other way out but suicide.”
Smeal and Cho write that they would “prefer that all US funding be spent on development aid, [but] cannot in good conscience advocate the immediate military pullout that some are suggesting.” Actually, they can. Because a US withdrawal is not the abandonment of Afghan women and girls that they portray it to be, and US resources currently being spent on weapons and killing would do more to help the people FMF wants to help through the alternative approach the peace movement and many in this country and region are proposing.