Listening to Afghanistan

In the spring of 2008 I wrote a column, "Listening to Iraq," in which I lamented the lack of access that most Americans had to the voices and opinions of the people most affected by the ongoing war. This made it difficult, I wrote, "for even the best-intentioned anti-war American to see Iraqis as partners, rather than as a political project."

I was reminded of that column after Obama's speech announcing his Afghanistan strategy, In it, he declared, "For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people -- especially women and girls." But he made very clear that he does not see our involvement in Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission. As the American left debates, I'm struck by a desire to know what Afghan women, who have been living under the U.S. occupation for roughly eight years now, think would be best for their country.

The Afghan politician and activist Malalai Joya has warned that "Obama's military buildup will only bring more suffering and death to innocent civilians." Another woman, who goes by the pseudonym Zoya, has appeared in various U.S. media calling for "withdrawal of the troops immediately." She is a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a Kabul-based political group that has fought for human rights and social justice since 1977. And Sakena Yacoobi, who founded a network of underground schools for Afghan women and girls, says "most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process." At least Obama and Yacoobi are in agreement: This mission is not about human rights and democracy. It's about defeating an enemy.

Admittedly, three women do not make for a comprehensive survey of Afghan civilians' attitudes. Still, I can't help but notice how the opinions of these activists, who are all based in Afghanistan, diverge from those of U.S.?based advocates who are clamoring for continued military involvement on behalf of Afghan women. Rather than focusing on Obama's own words on the subject or examining the lessons learned during the past eight years of occupation (namely that women's rights are not a priority for the U.S. military or the Afghan government it supports), they seem to believe activists can convince the president to make this war about human rights.

"When I think of why the U.S. and the world have a moral obligation to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, women are the central issue," Sunita Viswanath, who founded Women for Afghan Women in New York in 2001, recently told my former colleague Dana Goldstein at The Daily Beast. Other non-Afghan leaders, such as Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal, also support continued U.S. involvement.

This debate among people committed to women's rights is as old as the war. Two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, first lady Laura Bush used the president's weekly radio address to cite the rights of Afghan women as a primary reason for invasion. While this was roundly derided as rank hypocrisy from an administration that only paid lip service to women's rights when there was a war to sell, many feminists were happy to see light shed on the plight of women living under the Taliban. Some remained staunchly anti-war, where others went so far as to cheer the invasion.

Eight years later, the consensus is that the current regime has not been markedly better for women than the former Taliban rulers were -- especially outside of Kabul. President Hamid Karzai signed a law this summer that legalized marital rape and required women to get permission from their husbands to work. In November UNICEF declared Afghanistan the worst country in the world in which to be born. Women and girls still face daily oppression and epidemic levels of violence.

The difference between the pro-intervention feminists like Viswanath and Smeal and the pro-withdrawal Afghan women like Joya, Zoya, and Yacoobi is not their level of commitment to women's rights. It's their faith in military intervention as a means of securing them. As Prospect senior correspondent Michelle Goldberg put it recently, one's view of whether a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan will improve the situation for women "depends on whether one believes that the American military can be a force for humanitarianism."

To me, the answer is tragically apparent: It doesn't matter whether U.S. military intervention can be a force for humanitarianism because, in Afghanistan, it never has been and won't become one.

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