A Feminist Case for War?

Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a nongovernmental organization  that runs women's shelters, schools, and counseling centers in three cities in Afghanistan, has watched with alarm as American opinion has turned against the occupation. An American withdrawal, its board members say, would be catastrophic for the women they work with. "Every woman who we have talked to in Afghanistan, all the Afghan women in the NGOs, in the government, say the United States and the peacekeeping troops and NATO must stay, they must not leave until the Afghan army is able to take over," says Esther Hyneman, a WAW board member who recently returned from six months in Kabul.

In fact WAW, which has over 100 staffers in Afghanistan and four in New York, is, with some reluctance, calling for a troop increase. "Women for Afghan Women deeply regrets having a position in favor of maintaining, even increasing troops," it said in a recent statement. "We are not advocates for war, and conditions did not have to reach this dire point, but we believe that withdrawing troops means abandoning 15 million women and children to madmen who will sacrifice them to their lust for power."

There is a growing consensus among both progressives and a few realist-minded conservatives that the Afghan war is futile. Today's Washington Post reports on Matthew Hoh, a State Department official who, after serving in Afghanistan, resigned to protest the continuation of the war. "I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote in a letter to the department's head of personnel. With such sentiments spreading, one of the few remaining rationales for maintaining the occupation is that it's the only way to protect Afghan women against the return of the Taliban. But does it make sense to perpetuate America's presence in Afghanistan on feminist grounds?

From the United States, it's difficult to figure out who speaks for Afghan women, or even Afghan feminists. Malalai Joya, a heroic 31-year-old Afghani activist and politician, calls for an end to the occupation in her new book, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. "I know that Obama's election has brought great hopes to peace-loving people in the United States," she writes. "But for Afghans, Obama's military buildup will only bring more suffering and death to innocent civilians, while it may not even weaken the Taliban and al-Qaeda."

Joya, who spent much of her childhood in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, ran an underground girls' school during Taliban rule. Yet as much as she hates the former regime, she loathes her country's current rulers just as much. In 2005, Joya was the youngest person to win a seat in her country's legislature. She was a tireless opponent of the warlords who filled Karzai's government -- so much so that in 2007 her political opponents voted to suspend her from Parliament on the grounds that she had insulted the institution. Six female Nobel Peace Prize laureates have called for her reinstatement, comparing her to Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi as "a model for women everywhere seeking to make the world more just."

Joya insists that contrary to mainstream American opinion, the war in Afghanistan has done little to liberate women. "As I write these words, the situation in Afghanistan is getting progressively worse," she says. "And not just for women, but for all Afghans. We are caught between two enemies -- the Taliban on one side and the U.S./NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other. And the dark-minded forces in our country are gaining power with every allied airstrike that kills civilians, with every corrupt government official who grows fat on bribes and thievery, and with every criminal who escapes justice."

Joya is not the only Afghan feminist making this argument. A member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, has been touring the United States calling for an end to the occupation. Going only by the pseudonym Zoya, she echoed Joya's argument that U.S. troops are only compounding Afghanistan's anguish. "Even if they throw [in] thousands and millions of other troops, the situation will be the same, because we need a change, a radical change, in the system, which is so corrupted," she said. "And it cannot be healed by throwing [in] more troops. So we are in favor of withdrawal of the troops immediately."

Listening to Joya and Zoya makes everything seem simple. If these astonishingly brave Afghan women want American troops out of their country, then it would seem that feminists could, with clear consciences, join their fellow progressives in calling for an end to the war.

But there are also many seconding the message of Women for Afghan Women. "As an Afghan woman who for many years lived a life deprived of the most basic human rights, I find unbearable the thought of what will happen to the women of my country if it once again falls under the control of the insurgents and militants who now threaten it," the Afghan human-rights activist Wazhma Frogh wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

Earlier this month, The Christian Science Monitor ran a story about a visit that the radical anti-war group Code Pink made to Afghanistan, where they met with local women's rights activists adamantly against a pullout. "Code Pink … is one of the more high-profile women's anti-war groups being forced to rethink its position as Afghan women explain theirs: Without international troops, they say, armed groups could return with a vengeance -- and that would leave women most vulnerable," the Monitor reported.

"I know Malalai Joya personally, I've always agreed with her positions," says Hyneman. "She's extremely brave and courageous, but this is one time when I totally disagree with her."

Hyneman doesn't dispute that the last eight years have been largely disastrous for Afghanistan. "There's no question, we, meaning the United States, have done a terrible job there," Hyneman says. "We've promoted the warlords, financed the warlords. We should have demanded that the warlords be bought before a court, a trial, a reconciliation process. The Afghan people want that. America under the previous administration made a chaos, a mess of Afghanistan. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

But unlike Joya, Hyneman believes that the United States can be part of the solution to the problems it has helped create. "Because we have botched up things there, that doesn't mean we should leave; it means we should stay and try to fix it," she says. "It seems rather obvious. We've made a mess, we've got the warlords in power, we've done everything wrong, killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. So we just abandon them?"

To a large degree, the answer depends on whether one believes that the American military can be a force for humanitarianism. After the last eight years, that's a hard faith to sustain. Staying in Afghanistan seems indefensible. The trouble is, so does leaving.