In The New York Times today, Nader Nadery and Haseeb Humayoon take the United States to task for sidelining the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Humayoon, who has consulted for NGOs working in Afghanistan, cite the brave girls who returned to school after being disfigured in acid attacks in Kandahar and the similarly valiant women who protested restrictive new legislation in Kabul this week. “They don’t fear much — except that the world might abandon them,” they write.

That is why President Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy speech last month and his administration’s related white paper are worrisome: both avoided any reference to democracy in Afghanistan, while pointedly pushing democratic reforms in Pakistan. The new policy represents critical shifts — such as a new emphasis on civilian work, and recognizing the regional nature of the problem and the inadequacy and abuse of resources. But a faltering commitment to the democratization of Afghanistan and ambiguous statements from Washington on an exit strategy have left us Afghans scratching our heads.

Nadery and Humayoon point to a tricky internal tension in Obama’s foreign policy. After the bloated, grandiose moralism of the Bush years, modest, clear-eyed realism is back, and realists are generally reluctant to meddle in other cultures and skeptical about the power of outsiders to force lasting change. At the same time, Hillary Clinton has promised to make women’s rights a centerpiece of American foreign policy, which, if taken seriously, will sometimes involving pushing for serious transformations within other societies.

So far, the administration’s realism has overshadowed its idealism, especially in Afghanistan, where the United States is reaching out to “moderate” elements of the Taliban. Lots of observers seem relieved by this scaling back of American ambitions. By cynically cloaking its own aggression in the language of human rights, the Bush team did much to discredit the latter. But as Nadery and Humayoon remind us, there are real moral costs to realist compromises. Hamid Karzai, like most leaders, is perfectly willing to sell out Afghanistan’s women when it’s politically convenient. Are we?

--Michelle Goldberg