Pressing Reset on the Afghanistan Debate: Toward Ending the War and Upholding Women's Rights
Posted on: Friday, February 18, 2011
This week, policy circles have been buzzing with the news of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appointment of Marc Grossman, a career diplomat and former US Ambassador to Turkey, as the new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coupled with speculation of General Petraeus’ impending departure, you might think that this leadership re-shuffling creates the opening to re-evaluate the course of US policy on Afghanistan.
But progressives may not be able to seize this opportunity.
Of all of George Bush’s discredited utterances, there is one that continues to constrain progressive debate on Afghanistan today. “You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” Bush told the world on September 11, 2001. That November, as the US was making final preparations to bomb Afghanistan, Laura Bush was dispatched to assure us that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Nine years later, as the human rights crisis of Afghan women rages on, most progressives seem to have accepted the Bushes’ claim that there are only two viable positions on the war: either you care about the women of Afghanistan and support the war as a “humanitarian intervention,” or you oppose the war and are willing to “abandon” Afghan women.
This either/or debate has provided rich justification for US policies in the “war on terror.” It has also driven a wedge among progressives grappling in good faith to promote women’s rights and kept us from organizing to take advantage of opportunities, like this shifting leadership, to advance our goals with US policy-makers.
Below are six reasons to reset the terms of progressive debate on Afghanistan.
1. The US has not prevented massive human rights violations against Afghan women
- Deposing the Taliban in 2001 did open new spaces for women’s freedom, mainly in the capital city of Kabul. But securing women’s rights was never the primary objective.
- This became clear when women began exercising limited, new-found freedoms to work, travel, study and participate in public life.
- They quickly became the targets of deadly attacks by the Taliban and other ultra-conservatives. For all their bravery, Afghan women found little support from the US or the Karzai government it installed. In fact, the Afghan government is packed with warlords whose track record on women’s rights is hardly better than the Taliban’s.
- Years after the US invasion, the United Nations continues to characterize Afghanistan as “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”
- Women in Afghanistan are regularly killed, injured, traumatized, bereaved and displaced by the war. And women suffer disproportionately as those who are responsible for taking care of society’s most vulnerable members in a time of war. Last year was the most violent in Afghanistan since 2001, and the United Nations recently released a report warning that the humanitarian situation is likely to worsen in 2011. Estimates show that some 7000 people have been killed just since 2006.
- Moreover, because US troops are viewed by many Afghans as foreign occupiers, their presence allows the Taliban to claim legitimacy as they fight the invader. Paradoxically, the war is fueling the very ultra-conservatives whose vision for Afghanistan rests of denying women basic rights.
- The Obama Administration is using allegiance to the 2003 Afghan Constitution as a litmus test for Taliban participation in future peace talks. It’s an easy test to pass since the constitution—brokered by the US—has no meaningful guarantees of women’s rights or any enforceable prohibition on gender discrimination.
- You’ve probably heard Hillary Clinton and other US officials praising the constitution for its provision that women and men are equal before Afghan law. But like any law, the constitution is only as good as its interpretation.
- Here is how the Chief Justice of the Afghan Supreme Court interprets women’s equality: “Women have two equal rights under the constitution, number one every woman has the right to obey her husband and two, every woman has the right to pray, though not in the mosque, which is reserved to men.”
- Unlike the Taliban, Hamid Karzai and his US sponsors are not hell-bent on denying women’s human rights: they just don’t care much either way. For them, the main value of women’s rights is that they can be traded in exchange for allegiance from fundamentalist leaders whose social vision does depend on the subjugation of women.
- That kind of horse-trading brought about the 2009 Afghan law that allows a husband to deny his wife food and shelter if she refuses sex. Karzai signed the law in exchange for political support from fundamentalist politicians in the August 2009 elections.
- The soon-to-be special envoy, Marc Grossman, has been commended for being a “discreet and reliable” diplomat, known as a “low-key backroom dealer.” We already know that, in the circles he will be negotiating, these “backroom deals” often spell danger for women’s rights.
- To the extent that promoting women’s rights is cost-free, a lucky side effect of other priorities, the US is happy to take credit. But just as easily, women’s rights become an inconvenience, brushed aside to smooth the way for the next warlord’s election.
- While progressives continue to argue about whether the US is upholding women’s rights in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration itself has dropped Bush’s neo-conservative rhetoric of “saving” Afghan women.
- As President Obama has said, “while improving conditions in Afghanistan is a commendable goal, people need to remember that the primary reason that US troops are fighting there is to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.”
- Progressives can continue to argue about whether the Taliban, with their misogynist ideology, should be allowed to participate in peace talks. And we can debate whether US troops should remain in Afghanistan as a bulwark against a new Taliban government. But without a powerful peace movement, we have little influence either way.
- Meanwhile, NATO and the US military are holding closed-door sessions on enticing “moderate Taliban” into negotiations. The oxymoron demonstrates that the biggest difference between US allies and enemies is not their position on women’s rights, but their willingness to cooperate with the US.
- The planned “phased withdrawal” from Afghanistan also inspires little confidence that the demands of the peace movement for an end to the war have been heard.
For all of these reasons, it’s time to transcend the false debate that divides progressives between those who are “pro-war and pro-women” and those who are “anti-war and anti-women.” Instead, we need a new progressive position on Afghanistan: one that is pro-peace and pro-women’s rights.
That position embodies rather than contradicts our progressive vision. There are no easy answers for how to realize this vision of an Afghanistan where all women and men have full human rights. But that doesn’t change our vision. Rather it means that now is the time to draw on our shared progressive commitment to peace and women’s rights and use those principles to fuel a longer-term discussion about US policy on Afghanistan.
We need to engage in that discussion with one another and with those in Afghanistan who believe in the imperatives of peace and women’s rights. The more vibrant that discussion becomes, the more we build the movement to influence US policy and generate proposals that can move us toward our vision. In the meantime, we should work through MADRE and other organizations to support Afghan women who are risking their lives to stand up for their rights. And we must continue to hold the US and NATO accountable for their actions in Afghanistan and the region.
Instead of allowing ourselves to be herded into opposing camps based on false premises, we need to change the terms of progressive debate on Afghanistan and begin to develop proposals that can end the war and uphold women’s human rights.
By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Executive Director
Archives"Press Room" Home July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008 November 2008 October 2008 September 2008 August 2008 July 2008 June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 July 2006 June 2006 April 2006 March 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 April 2005 March 2005 November 2004 October 2004 April 2004 March 2004 January 2004 December 2003 October 2003 September 2003 June 2003 April 2003 January 2003 September 2002 June 2002 January 2002 November 2001 October 2001 September 2001 August 2001 January 2001
MADRE & Our Partners Make News
Haitian woman faces death threats for speaking out about violence against women (WBEZ Worldview, July 16, 2014)
Media Spotlight Turns Away from Iraq, as Concerns Mount Over Human Rights and Political Stalemate (Uprising Radio, July 11, 2014)
Iraq: The women left behind (Aljazeera, July 3, 2014)
Under Isis, Iraqi women again face an old nightmare: violence and repression (The Guardian, July 3, 2014)
How Can We Protect Women From A Sexual Jihad? (HuffPost Live, June 26, 2014)