Moving The Goalposts In Afghanistan

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It's hard not to cringe at the face of 18 year old Bibi Aisha, whose nose and ears were sliced off under the orders of a Taliban commander for running away from her husband's home. It was a barbaric act, for which there is no defense or excuse.

And I'm sure that Aisha is not alone. The treatment of women in Afghanistan has been notoriously horrendous for centuries, even by Middle Eastern standards. Women have no rights to speak of: they cannot be educated, they must obey their father and then their husband, they have no rights to their children or self. They are secondary citizens.

There is no credible argument to be made that this is fair to Afghan women and that there shouldn't be some effort made to raise awareness of plight of women and work to overturn those attitudes.

But at the same time, it's also incredibly revisionist for Time Magazine to exploit Aisha's tragedy (although she is now living with a host family here in the US and about to undergo reconstructive surgery) and claim that the same fate awaits others if we leave Afghanistan.

Let's be absolutely clear: what happened to Aisha occurred while we were IN Afghanistan. Our presence did absolutely nothing to prevent it. So to claim that more women will meet Aisha's fate if we leave ignores the fact that we could do nothing to save Aisha and any other women who suffered similar abuses already. Rafia Zakaria writes in Ms. Magazine that we nevertheless have an obligation to these women:

The Left’s framing is clear: Rescuing Afghan women was a pretext crafted handily by the Bush Administration so it could barge its way into Afghanistan and stay there. And that’s certainly true. Also true, as Crowe points out, is that Afghan women have continued to suffer during the American occupation, enduring both traditional patriarchal practices and newly-minted discriminatory laws. Indeed, assessing the performance of the 10-year occupation in the mutilated-yet-expectant features of a young woman serves as an appropriately graphic visual depiction of our failures in Afghanistan.

The problem with these arguments, however, is that they translate our inability to improve things thus far into a prescription for sudden abandonment of the very projects that women just like Aisha made the mistake of believing in: literacy and entrepreneurship initiatives for women, civil society seminars designed to encourage women’s participation and midwifery training projects to reduce Afghanistan’s sky-rocketing rates of maternal mortality. War is horrific, its misery recorded in lurid detail in the tragedy of Aisha’s mutilation. But withdrawing without a plan for safeguarding the women who chose to believe the American promises of empowerment, however deceitfully those promises may have been made, is to live in denial of a tragedy in which we are roundly imputed.

It's also changing the goalposts. Our mission in Afghanistan was never been to help oppressed women there. That was one of the myriad of after-the-fact justifications the Bush administration came up with (remember the disastrous Karen Hughes tour of the Middle East to "support women"?). What Zakaria can't admit is that it's a convenient (and horrifyingly visual) campaign in the face of flagging support for a ten year occupation with no clear mission or end game in sight.

And as Siun suggests, part of Time Magazine's motivation might also be a little dig at upstart Wikileaks:

First, it’s worthwhile noting that contrary to what TIME’s editor claimed, the New York Times reports that the woman in the photo, Bibi Aisha, “had never heard of Time magazine until a visitor brought her a copy of this week’s issue, the one with the cover picture of her face, the face with no nose.”

Her response when told of the uproar her photo has generated:

“I don’t know if it will help other women or not,” she said, her hand going instinctively to cover the hole in the middle of her face, as it does whenever strangers look directly at her. “I just want to get my nose back.”

TIME’s editorial piece attempted to also undercut the value of the Wikileaks release, saying of their cover:

What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.

An interesting argument given that France 24 reports that:

A less publicised leak by the same website in March 2010 exposed a confidential CIA document urging the use of abused Afghan women to shore up support for the war.

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanising the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears for a Taliban victory,” read the memo. . . .

The Wikileaks release of that CIA file is available here.

At best, it's cheap and cynical to exploit Aisha in this way. While I grieve for what pain she has had to go through (and is spending more than half your life in a war zone only a little traumatic?), I cannot imagine how you bring about a paradigm shift in a cultural attitude towards women at the end of a gun. Yes, we should all care about the plight of these women (and in other areas as well) who suffer as an oppressed group. We should seek to educate and raise the consciousnesses of the men who brutally oppress the women of their society. We should attempt to encourage lawmakers to change their laws to be more equitable towards women. And we should work with other nations to bring economic and educational opportunities for women.

But nowhere in that can you find a justification for a continued occupation of Afghanistan.

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