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For Better or Worse?

The Afghan Escalation and Women’s Rights

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

One of the main arguments made by self-proclaimed "liberal humanitarian interventionists" in support of President Obama’s escalation of the Afghan War is that a return of the Taliban to power will condemn women to conditions approaching slavery. It is true that women’s rights in Afghanistan are almost medieval in character, but the central question of humanitarian intervention is fundamentally one of whether the US escalation will improve things or make matters worse.

The United States has a sorry track record in this regard, and we bear a heavy moral burden for the current state of affairs, including the dismal state of woman’s rights.

During the last two years of the Carter Administration, led by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, together with the support Pakistani Government, the Saudis, and (probably) MI6, the US deliberately inflamed Islamic crazies in Afghanistan in the hope that it would increase the probability of a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Zbig reasoned that such an invasion would be motivated out of fear that Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan would spill over and destabilize its Central Asian Republics. The US aim was to bog down the Soviets in their own Vietnam — a policy that equated Afghanistan to being a mere pawn that could be sacrificed on the Cold War chessboard. Brzezinski’s plan worked like a charm when the Soviets invaded in late 1979. His plan also had the short-term grand strategic benefit of making it easy to portray the Soviet invasion as an offensive war of aggression, even though we had encouraged it by fanning the defensive obsessions of the Soviet government.

Like the Americans in 2001, the Soviets established a puppet regime and tried to institute civil and economic reforms, including equal rights for women. But the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan were dominated by warlords, conservative tribesmen, and Islamic fundamentalists who either cared less about women’s rights or fervently believed that women should be maintained in a state equivalent to chattel. And the US, being rabidly anti-Soviet, in effect, adopted a policy consistent with and thereby approving of the Muj’s primitive view of women’s rights.

The Soviets left Afghanistan in defeat in 1989, and the US, its anti-Soviet job done, abandoned and quickly forgot about Afghanistan. Murderous and rapacious warlords of the Northern Alliance took over and instituted what amounted to a reign of terror in Kabul and elsewhere, raping and murdering women and young boys, among other things. We did nothing to stop the descent into murderous chaos, in effect writing off any sense of moral responsibility for this state of affairs. The excesses of the Northern Alliance gave rise to the Taliban, a nationalist movement that aimed to restore a semblance of order under a government that aimed to establish a oppressive version of a 7th Century Islamic theocracy. Women had no rights in the Taliban’s world view, but they were safer, as long as they conformed to the onerous standards of the Taliban theocracy, like being covered up in burkas, not trying to go to school, not getting raped (for which under the islamic law of the Taliban, they could be punished), not being disobedient to their husbands, and a general passive acceptance of the their chattel-like lot in life. But as one Afghan women activist who hated the Taliban told me in 2002, they were safer as long as they toed the line.

With the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 and the US imposition of the Karzai government, many of the warlords displaced by the Taliban returned to power. And a new cycle of corruption and violence began, while we again abdicated any sense of moral responsibility by diverting our attention to a trumped war of aggression in Iraq. Despite rhetoric about improving women’s rights, the situation is now dire, with the Karzai government backsliding big time.

With this background in mind, consider please the argument made by Anne Friedman and ask yourself if too much water has now gone over the dam for us to correct the wrongs we have inflicted on the Afghan people, including, indirectly, afghan the women.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com