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Pressing Reset on the Afghanistan Debate: Toward Ending the War and Upholding Women's Rights

Posted on: Friday, February 18, 2011

Keywords: Afghanistan, Asia, Combatting Violence Against Women

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.”
2. The US military presence threatens Afghan women and their families 
  • 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.
3. The US has set the bar low on women’s 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.”
4. The US has traded women’s rights in the search for “stability” in Afghanistan
  • 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. 
5. The US has stopped talking about Afghanistan as a “humanitarian war”
6. The US is advancing policies based on military and political priorities, not human rights
  • 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


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