The problem with Afghanistan is that it isn’t like any war we’ve fought before, not even counter-insurgencies. It’s fundamentally an attempt to deny a haven for Islamic violent extremists (IVEs) to create a model society – “Sharialand”, for want of a better term.
Shariahland is a construct of ideology, precisely the way that the Soviet Union used to be, or North Korea is today – a Utopian vision of how Things Should Be which runs according to ideological concerns alone and eschews pragmatism or humanism as “corrupting” influences. This purist obsession is common to human societies – look at the cult of Ayn Rand or the “tea party” movement today, both of which sneer at mainstream libertarians or Republicans. When these ideologues’ grand schemes collapse – always with a painful toll in human misery, either on a national scale (starvations, genocides) or a local one (child poverty, lack of health care) – the blame is always laid at the feet of “traitors” or “fifth columns” instead of recognized as any flaw in the underlying fantasy. This is the fundamental delusion behind the old socialist/marxist complaint that Socialism/Marxism has never really been tried.
What makes sharialand different is the modern era of pervasive media and internet-based communication. A state like the USSR – which unlike the Taliban was indeed an existential threat to the West due to sheer force of arms – could not export its ideology freely. Relative to communism, Sharialand represents a far greater memetic threat (a virus of ideas), which can exploit the modern communication network to seed itself. And it has done so, inflicting immense damage to Somalia and Yemen, for example. But bad as things are, it could be a lot worse. The shooting at Fort Hood shows how even a small contagion can have disastrous consequences, which may be on a smaller scale but no less tragic.
We know precisely what Afghanistan would be like without any US troops there at all – simply recall the late 1990s-era Taliban regime, which was a regime of horrors, especially upon women. Unlike other Islamist-nationalist movements like Hezbollah or Hamas, the Taliban had no interest in social programs or populist agenda. They were simply about brue force thuggery and control. While Saudi Arabia is rightly critiqued for its brutal punishments for criminals and its misogynistic laws, in Taliban-era Afghanistan there weren’t even laws. Just pure undiluted hatred and misogyny, utterly incomprehensible by any rational mind.
Those who advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan (which is the developing concensus on the American left, and in the muslim-American community) argue that we are doing harm and are part of the problem. One of the voices calling for American withdrawal is RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, a noted and courageous womens’ rights group. From their editorial titled “A Call to Clarity”, they argue:
One of the original justifications for the war in 2001 that seemed to resonate most with liberal Americans was the liberation of Afghan women from a misogynist regime. This is now being resurrected as the following: If the U.S. forces withdraw, any gains made by Afghan women will be reversed and they’ll be at the mercy of fundamentalist forces. In fact, the fear of abandoning Afghan women seems to have caused the greatest confusion and paralysis in the antiwar movement.
What this logic misses is that the United States chose right from the start to sell out Afghan women to its misogynist fundamentalist allies on the ground. The U.S. armed the Mujahadeen leaders in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, opening the door to successive fundamentalist governments including the Taliban. In 2001, the United States then armed the same men, now called the Northern Alliance, to fight the Taliban and then welcomed them into the newly formed government as a reward. The American puppet president Hamid Karzai, in concert with a cabinet and parliament of thugs and criminals, passed one misogynist law after another, appointed one fundamentalist zealot after another to the judiciary, and literally enabled the downfall of Afghan women’s rights over eight long years.
Any token gains have been countered by setbacks. For example, while women are considered equal to men in Afghanistan’s constitution, there have been vicious and deadly attacks against women’s rights activists, the legalization of rape within marriage in the Shia community, and a shockingly high rate of women’s imprisonment for so-called honor crimes – all under the watch of the U.S. occupation and the government we are protecting against the Taliban. Add to this the unacceptably high number of innocent women and children killed in U.S. bombing raids, which has also increased the Taliban’s numbers and clout, and it makes the case that for eight years the United States has enabled the oppression of Afghan women and only added to their miseries.
This is why grassroots political and feminist activists have called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from their country. After eight years of American-enabled oppression, they would rather fight for their liberation without our help. The anti-fundamentalist progressive organization, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), has called for an immediate end to the war. Echoing their call is independent dissident member of Parliament Malalai Joya, who tells her story in her new political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords.
It’s a compelling argument – but again, subject to the same purist obsessions. The problem is the phrase, “the downfall of women’s rights over the past eght years”, which implies that things were better under the Taliban than they are now. A single and critical statsitic serves as a counterargument: the number of girls going to school. Under the Taliban: zero. Today: tens of thousands. Yes, these girls’ schools are still attacked and these girls themselves assaulted with acid. And yes despite this continual threat, the girls still go to school. These girls have courage beyond our comprehension, and deserve our support because it s they who will built the Afghanistan of tomorrow. They do not falter and they do not give up. Shall we abandon them?
RAWA says they would rather fight for women’s rights and liberation without our help. How well was that going for them until 2001, one might reasonably ask? RAWA might want to look at its own website for some clues.
In fact, women’s groups and leaders on the ground in Afghanistan itself don’t share RAWA’s perspective, and are near-unanimous in their recognition that the NATO mission is critical to human rights and women’s rights:
“We want the troops here,” said Huma Safi, a program manager with Women for Afghan Women, which runs women’s shelters and family counseling centers in three provinces of Afghanistan. “Women are in danger already; if the troops go, the people who will be most affected will be women and children.”
Aziza, the soccer-ball entrepreneur, echoes this concern.
“We could not be here if the troops were not here,” she said, referring to the growing number of Afghan businesswomen, educators, and activists who have taken on more visible roles in support of their communities since 2001. “We need troops here until we can sustain our own military.”
And that, say many Afghan women, is the key: International troops won’t be needed forever, just long enough to help Afghanistan’s army and its police forces stand on their own. While development is absolutely critical to their country’s future, they say, it cannot happen amid the rising threat of attack from an increasingly emboldened-and innovative-insurgency.
“Development and security go in parallel,” said Pashtoon Azfar, head of the Afghan Midwives Association, which now runs accredited midwifery programs in more than 32 provinces. “If you don’t have security, how can development be done?”
Women for Afghan Women’s Huma Safi agrees and cites as an example the case of now-empty new classrooms in the northeastern province of Kapisa, where violence has surged in recent months.
“You can build schools and hold an opening ceremony, and then tomorrow they will come and burn it,” she said, referring to the Taliban. “If there is no security, no one will send their girls to school.”
All that said, the critics are actually right that the only reason the Taliban are fighting us is because we are there, a tautology. Of course that’s true. But what would the Talban be doing if we were not there? That’s the key question that should be driving our policy. The critics are right that it would take ten or a hundred times more troops than we have now to truly stabilize Afghanistan, an impossible task at which no previous world power has ever been able to succeed. It’s important for those who advocate President Obama sending the maximum requested troops (or significant fraction thereof) to Affghanistan to understand that no amount of US troops will ever “make” Afghanistan stable. Ever. Stability is only achieved after civil society and internal rule of law has had sufficient breathing space to develop, mature, and gain strength enough that it can exist without outside assistance. I see our troops as helping keep that breathing space open.
Contrary to the persistent assertions by the progressive camp, we are NOT “imposing democracy/women’s rights from above” – we are creating space for it to grow in a true grassroots, bottom-up manner – the only way it can ever be viable in the long term. If these freedoms are tender shoots of grass growing in native soil, then we are the simply the fence around it. There are cows – and bulldozers – beyond that fence. We arent providing much of the water and probably none of the sunlight to make the grass grow. All we are is a fence. Someday that patch will be a lawn, and we can enlarge the fence… and dream of a time where this place will be a field.
Victory isn’t a “stable democracy” in Afghanistan, it’s going to be the maintenance of the modern-day status quo for long enough that something new might grow. And grow it will. The rate at which it grows is a function of our troops and investment there – fewer troops will mean more time, more will mean less. But even in the best case this is still a matter of decades. So in that case, it may hardl matters in short-term political considerations whether we send 30,000 more, or 15,000 more, or no more at all (note that Obama has already sent about 20,000 above what the previous Administration had committed). What matters is that we are there, and providing a lightning rod for the Taliban to expend themselves against so that the population of Afghanistan is spared.
The critics of our commitment to Afghanistan are the first to point out that in essence, we are sending American blood and treasure to defend the Karzai regime, which is rife with corruption and making alliances with the very same warlords whose own anarchic reign created the conditions for the Taliban’s rise. However, Karzai is now uniquely suspectible to our influence – without NATO support, his regime would likely fall within weeks. This gives us leverage which we can use to influence and push reforms within Afghan civil society. Foremost of our levers of influence are indeed the troop levels we maintain; by refusing to send more troops initially, and instead parceling out additional troops to Afghanistan as a function of reform and Karzai’s performance, we can make a great deal of short-term progress. This comes at expense of the military strategy, but the political strategy is no less important and there must be balance. Sending too many troops to Afghanistan now would only reduce the likelihood that Karzai can be tamed and reformed.
Fundamentally, then, our goal is to deny Sharialand a chance to grow – and to mold its replacement, Afghanistan 2.0. This is why we cannot withdraw, and why mroe troops are needed – but not just yet. The great game, indeed.
Related – a fairly intense discussion about withdrawal and women’s rights in Afghanistan at Talk Islam.