What Will Happen When We Leave/Don’t Leave Afghanistan

A new argument for not pulling troops out of Afghanistan arrived in my email inbox just now. The argument is that it would be a nightmare for Afghani women if the Taliban re-took control of most of the country. The email cited a Time magazine story about an Afghani woman whose ears and nose were cut off by the Taliban because she ran away from an abusive husband.

I would point out that this incident happened last year, and the presence of American troops in Afghanistan didn’t stop it. However, the point seems to be that if the troops were completely gone, such incidents would increase many times over.

Another aspect of this story is that the Afghan government is exploring the possibility of negotiating a political accommodation with the Taliban to put an end to the fighting. Afghani women, understandably, view such an accommodation as a betrayal. I question whether any group as irrational and fanatical as the Taliban could be negotiated with, anyway.

The only fix to this problem I can think of is to turn back time to 2002, when the Bush Administration lost its focus (if, indeed, it ever had any focus) in Afghanistan because it was obsessed with Iraq. Which is to say, there are no fixes. This is a terrible situation that should not have been allowed to get this bad, but it was allowed, so there it is. And while the impulse to keep lots of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely to protect women from the Taliban is honorable, it doesn’t seem to me to be possible. How many troops? How long? At what cost? There’s a point at which resources run dry.

If the issue is protecting Afghani women, it seems to me the most practical thing to do is to establish lots of guarded safehouses (I’d be OK with leaving troops in country for that purpose) as well as helping women leave Afghanistan, with their children, and begin new lives elsewhere. Ultimately it’s Afghanistan itself that’s got to find the will and the means to rid itself of the Taliban.

Update: Outstanding response to this issue from Greg Mitchell at The Nation.

22 thoughts on “What Will Happen When We Leave/Don’t Leave Afghanistan

  1. Oh, the Bush Administration was “focused,” ok – on Iraq!

    Changes in cultures don’t happen overnight.
    How people treat their women and children and seniors, vary from culture to culture. You don’t win points by telling people what to do. You can encourage and reward good behaviour. You can get the government of that country to pass laws protecting different groups. But you can’t baby-sit an entire culture. I’m not saying abandon them when/if we pull out. But, in the end, Afghanistani’s have to support that change. And you’re talking about an ancient tribal ‘country.’ They won’t make the change overnight.
    In the end, I’m not sure what to do, other than encourage those that want to leave to go ahead and leave. But where to? And with what support system when they get there? It’s not like that part of the world has a plethora of countries with stellar womens rights backgrounds. Look at the Saudi’s.
    Over here? I don’t think in our current political environment, you can convince conservatives to allow Muslim women to come to the US. Look at the battles back in the day over allowing Vietnamese families to come here. Maybe I’m wrong about the conservatives. I just don’t think so.
    And besides, we have our own issues with women right here in this country.
    We passed the ‘Ledbetter Law” just last year. And that was only 90 years after giving women here the right to vote.
    Options for choice get narrower every year. Hell, you have groups out there who want to limit peoples options for birth control working the state legislatures all over the country right now.
    And you recently had people working in the medical and pharmaceutical fields wanting the option of not selling birth control pills and prophylactics, or telling women of other options.
    We have our own American Taliban that we have to deal with.
    BTW – Please don’t tell me that any members of the American Taliban are arguing to stay in Afghanistan to protect the women there. I couldn’t stand a dose of that level of hypocrisy.

    In the end, though, it’s the law of unintended consequences. Before you do something, you need to think it through thoroughy. Obviously, we didn’t. And no matter what we do, stay or leave fully, or only partially withdraw, it will be, as it always was before, the women and children who suffer.
    You need to think about these things before you unleash the dogs of war, like some people are clammoring for in Iran. Look before you leap. Then look again, and again, and again…
    I would like to hear what other think we can, or should do.

  2. The mistreatment and and violence perpetrated against women in most societies around the world (not merely Afghanistan) is caused primarily by religious, cultural, and authoritarian factors. All of which happen to be self-reinforcing, which is how this becomes such a difficult problem to solve.

    There are still good ways to solve it, if you can accept the process requiring several generations. One way is to greatly expand economic opportunity for women (preferably inside the country, but outside also helps). If you give the vast majority of women the choice of an alternate lifestyle centered on independent action rather than marriage and traditional mores, a lot of them tend to take it. Whether by desire, chance, a sense of adventure or independent spirit, opportunities given tend to become opportunities taken.

    Another method is thorough, cross-gender education from early ages. This a more centralized, more heavy handed approach. Still, it works if employed evenly, with clarity and honesty. Further, if one teaches a wide variety of useful topics, the education process can expand economic opportunity at the same time.

    The most direct approach is to directly attack the existing authoritarian power structure and undermine it in every way possible. This a very difficult way to change society, because it leads to the formation of revolutionary and reactionary groups like the Taliban. Worse, the more resources you put into such a fight, the harder they fight back. An effort to overthrow existing authorities can only create a lasting change if it is lead by local citizens with their own best interests at heart. History demonstrates that trying to accomplish it purely by external means is pointless and fruitless.

  3. I’ve actually thought about this problem of leaving Afghanistan and my conclusion is that we offer every Afghani woman (and any minor children) asylum in the NATO country of choice with full help in getting them situated: housing/food allowance, Medicaid etc. Safe houses are a good middle ground, but how do we get them out of the country without starting a war? Oh yeah, we already started one.

  4. To echo kagerato, pointless and fruitless are the operative words.

    kagerato again: “The most direct approach is to directly attack the existing authoritarian power structure (in our case the control of our political process by big money) and undermine it in every way possible.” We can’t even figure out how to accomplish this feat in our own country, and we’re going to accomplish it in Afghanistan?

    As far as ‘liberating’ women in some other country, American women continue to earn 75 cents for every dollar men earn doing the same job. Remember the ERA amendment, voted down in the early ’70’s – nobody even brings it up anymore. Hell, it took women how many years since the Constitution went into effect to even get to vote in this country? And we’re going to liberate Afghani women tomorrow?

  5. This is so painful, but it all boils down to the fact that the US’s stated military goal never has been– and never will be– the protection of women in any oppressive society. Therefore, the oppression and abuse of women in Afghanistan fails as an excuse for continued military presence.

    Jennifer’s asylum idea is intriguing, and I imagine a fair number of women would accept asylum… but still the majority wouldn’t. Girls under a certain age, 16 say, probably wouldn’t be able to emigrate without the approval of their parents, which sets up an entire new generation to be treated worse than draft animals.

    When we leave Afghanistan, we need to use diplomatic and economic resources to build an international coalition for the defense of women and children everywhere. There are a number of NGOs already doing this, but in societies where they’re not welcome, there’s little hope.

    It’s kind of like combating the crime of rape; rapists by their nature don’t care what women think, so women marching against rape has no positive effect on potential perpetrators. When other men march and speak out against rape, peer pressure is applied and there’s usually some positive effect. If moderate Muslim nations were encouraged to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Muslim nations that oppress women (let’s not forget Saudi Arabia, ahem), positive change might begin. Most national leaders don’t want to be an outcast among peers.

    OK, that’s pretty weak, but it’s all I can think of at the moment.

  6. The film ReThink Afghanistan specifically addresses this issue here (see the embedded video).

    …When the U.S and its allies chose to put the Karzai regime in place, they conveniently overlooked the fact that it is overrun with the same patriarchal attitudes toward women as the Taliban. During my recent trip to Afghanistan, I saw the crushing poverty that Afghans must endure. A few brave women from RAWA and the Afghan Women’s Mission pointed out in a recent article that the military establishment claims that it must win the military victory first and then the U.S. will take care of humanitarian needs. But they have it backward. Improve living conditions and security will improve. Focus on security at the expense of humanitarian goals, and coalition forces will accomplish neither. The first step toward improving people’s lives is a negotiated settlement to end the war.

  7. Moonbat, my thoughts exactly, nothing cures people of being assholes when they’re living in squlaor than having a prospect for a decent life.
    I think the myth of widespread abuse of women is akin to the cold war day myth of all Russian women being grossly overweight, toothless, and dumpy, it made the possibility of ‘nuking them much easier to accept.
    The US is simply NOT going to continue the occupation to protect Afghan women.
    The occupation will continue to clear a path and protect a popeline, and to provide protection for western corporations while exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
    If we were concerned for the safety of Afghan women and children, we would stop using predator drones and aerial bombardments.
    Beyond that, where does it stop? I’m sure women are abused by asshole fundies through North Africa, the Saudi penninsula,India, and throughout Central Asia.It is mission impossible.

    • Abuse of women by the Taliban ain’t no myth; it’s been too well documented, going back many years. It’s a myth like the holocaust was a myth.

      That said, joan16 is right that we don’t exactly practice what we preach. I remember calling out some rightie bloggers for defending Warren Jeff’s sexual abuse of girls (“marrying” them at 12) while teaching boys to sexually abuse girls. But of course when Muslims marry child brides they get all outraged about it. (Just last week one of Jeff’s convictions, involving the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to one of his cousins, was overturned; he’s getting a new trial.) Wingnut attitudes toward women really aren’t that different from the Taliban’s sometimes. Our misogynists don’t cut off women’s noses for daring to be independent, but that’s mostly because they know they’d be convicted for it.

  8. Guys, we need to be careful not to call the past, present or future abuse of women in Afghanistan a “myth.” Life for women and girls under the Taliban was a well-documented horror.

    Of course now, in many parts of Afghanistan, life is an ongoing horror for everyone. But it’s one thing to say, “For so many reasons, the occupation is not the answer” and another to say, “There’s no problem here.”

    But this point is taken: asshole fundies in this country, like Warren Jeffs, are abusing women and children and getting away with it. We aren’t even taking a proper stand at home. To me that’s a sign of the pervasiveness of the problem, which in a nutshell is using “God” as a cover for crime.

  9. The US would have to take over EVERY Muslim country starting with Saudi Arabia if you really want to safeguard women. And it would be a tad hypocritical for us to take that up. Though women have the vote and driver’s licenses in the US, we are hardly up to speed with most of Europe. Look at the enduring hysteria here over allowing women control over their bodies (abortion).

    Having said that, the overwhelming majority of Afghans WANT us there, to protect them against the Afghani mafia, the Taliban. Unlike Iraq, which is a hopeless quagmire. I feel that since we probably CAN stabilize Afghanistan, we probably should keep trying for the time being.

    • Having said that, the overwhelming majority of Afghans WANT us there, to protect them against the Afghani mafia, the Taliban. Unlike Iraq, which is a hopeless quagmire. I feel that since we probably CAN stabilize Afghanistan, we probably should keep trying for the time being.

      Can you document that anything in the quotation above is actually true?

  10. If we do get a Christianist state, who’s to say some of our laws won’t be changed and modeled on the way the Afghans treat their women? An American version of the Sharia Law they say they want to outlaw everywhere in the US (projection, anyone?).
    Besides, for the male, cutting off the nose to spite the face doesn’t really hurt you much if it’s HER nose on HER face. I know you have to suffer too, poor dear. After all, it ‘hurts’ you to look at her.

    Does anyone really think some of our own American Taliban are that much more evolved than the men in some of these countries? If so, you’re a lot more optimistic than I am. It’s only the fact that there are less of them, and hence unlawful, that we don’t have something like this here.
    Let’s hope they never get into power here. Elections do matter…

  11. I don’t know. I just don’t know. There have been some improvements to women’s lives in Afghanistan since the invasion, but most have been purely cosmetic.

    I too have thought that the only “solution” would be to give asylum to any Afghan woman arriving in a foreign country. But for every one that succeeds in getting out, there are thousands trapped in the gulag for women they call Afghanistan. And of course, there’s the gilded gulag, Saudi Arabia.

    Just as an aside, if you need to read yet more on the Internet, I suggest looking at an interesting, yet ultimately frustrating take on women’s lives in SA: susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com. Susie is an American living in SA with her son and Saudi husband. It’s a fascinating blog, although I usually want to throttle her for actually agreeing to live in such a wildly misogynistic country…

    Back to Afghanistan…yes, if we (the West) are willing to invest in building schools and providing round the clock protection for students, teachers and their respective families, I’d be all in favour.

    In the final analysis, there don’t seem to be any meaningful options for improving the lot of women in Afghanistan. The presence of Western troops doesn’t seem to be successful by any stretch of the imagination.

  12. Canadian Reader – On the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan (or Iraq for that matter) it is a tad difficult to ‘sell’ liberation, democracy, human rights to a population, female or male, from behind the barrel of a gun – even more difficult when your neighbor and her entire family down the street was just last week killed by a drone bomb delivered by some Western nation who purports to only have your interests at heart.

  13. Oh yes, Felicity. I totally agree. I’m just really upset with what’s happening to the women (before and since the invasion). In many ways, the women are the ones who are, and always have, suffered the most.

  14. What level of atrocity sets the limit at which we may decide to use our own particular forms of violence and war-atrocity?

    • What level of atrocity sets the limit at which we may decide to use our own particular forms of violence and war-atrocity?

      At the level that poses an existential threat to the United States.

  15. For starters, given that the tactical/strategical purpose of bombing is to create civil strife, leaving Afghanistan may just result in a reduction of civil strife. Since I can’t think anything positive can result from ‘civil strife,’ leaving the country just might be a benefit to the country?

  16. …”the overwhelming majority of Afghans WANT us there, to protect them against the Afghani mafia, the Taliban.”

    “Can you document that anything in the quotation above is actually true?”

    No data, but I’d say Karzai is a whole lot more competent than Mullah Omar.

    • I’d say Karzai is a whole lot more competent than Mullah Omar.

      Just barely. Karzai is unpopular in Afghanistan, and there is an appearance the 2009 election was not entirely honest. He is often at odds with his parliament. The government generally is weak, and big chunks of the country are in the hands of tribal leaders and the Taliban. Karzai is the one wanting to negotiate with the Taliban.

      I honestly don’t know what Afghanis think of us these days, but the “coalition” has been increasingly ineffectual at protecting anybody from anything in Afghanistan.

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