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As the US Leaves Afghanistan, Anti-War Feminists Push a New Approach to Foreign Policy

By Shreya Chattopadhyay


Three young Afghani girls walk together facing away from the camera. One young girl looks back at the camera and smiles.

Although the US war in Afghanistan is now widely seen as a waste of lives, money, and time, in the fall of 2001 it was defended by the Bush administration and heralded by a number of prominent American feminists as a crusade for women’s rights. “The Taliban must go. The terrorists must go. The rights of women must be restored,” Feminist Majority Foundation founder Eleanor Smeal said that September. Two months later, on the radio, Laura Bush celebrated: “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.”

But even in the early days, rife with post-9/11 nationalistic fervor, other voices urged caution. Three weeks after the United States dropped its first bomb in the region, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who referred to herself pseudonymously as Tahmeena Faryal for protection, testified before the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. “The political situation is made ever more precarious by what many Afghans perceive to be U.S. aggression against our country and our civilians, even as we cheer the possibility of the Taliban’s demise,” she said. “And, continued and increasing foreign assistance to the reviled Northern Alliance [a military coalition assembled by leaders of the pre-Taliban Islamic government] has plunged our people into a horrific anxiety and fear.” MADRE, a US-based, internationalist women’s rights organization founded in 1983 in response to the US-sponsored Contra war, condemned the invasion as a war crime.

“We saw the invasion and occupation as actually strengthening the hand of the ultraconservatives of Afghanistan, because they had this really powerful rallying cry of defending the country from foreign invaders, which the US created by being a foreign invader,” Yifat Susskind, MADRE’s executive director, told The Nation. “In dialogue with Afghan women, [we] felt like the decades and decades of war had created conditions that actually were inimical to the success of the Afghan women’s movement.”

As President Joe Biden completes the full withdrawal of troops almost 20 years after the invasion, it’s clear that for the American state, the war was never about women. In 1995, when the Taliban first took the historically liberal western city of Herat, US officials, eyes set on oil prospects, said nothing. The Taliban lost control of the city in 2001 to Northern Alliance member Ismail Khan, who took a similar approach to women’s rights. In 2002, women in Herat told Human Rights Watch that while they had more access to education, “virtually every aspect of their lives is still policed in Herat…. every decision of every day presents dangers or challenges from Ismail Khan’s government: where they can go, how they can get there, whom they can go with, and how they can dress.”

For years, leaders like Khan fought each other and did little for women, who accounted for 80 percent of suicides, suffered worsening maternal mortality rates—which had already been some of the highest in the world—and were systematically refused legal protections. It was in this context that pro-war Americans could claim that intervention had feminist aims. But despite the rhetorical centrality of those arguments, only a small percentage of US expenditures have been aimed at aiding women. As of late 2019, the United States had spent $778 billion on its own military expenditures in Afghanistan—almost 1,000 times more than it has spent to aid women’s rights there. “It demonstrates where the priorities lie,” Susskind says.

Even in education, Susskind notes, the few protections engendered by the US presence “are not widespread,” limited to the comparative elite living in large cities. Two-thirds of girls in the country are not in school. (According to Human Rights Watch, the most optimistic evaluators estimate that the peak post-US intervention women’s education level was just over 50 percent, but that gains had leveled off since 2011, and have sharply decreased recently.)

The United States failed to heed Faryal’s warning. The Northern Alliance, which RAWA describes as having “no ideological difference with the Taliban” when it comes to women, received US support and a seat at the UN table. Even after its official dissolution, many of its leaders maintained a large role in the transitional and Afghan national governments. (Khan was secretary of energy until 2013.) And the deep human toll levied by the war—241,000 dead, poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation—made it easy for the Taliban to recruit people to fight the occupiers. The movement has been on the rise since 2006, and as of the end of June contests or controls over 80 percent of the districts in the country.

As is often the case in war, women bear the brunt of the brutality. By 2018, Afghanistan had at least half a million widowed women, long known as one of the most vulnerable populations in the country. Early this May, bombings deliberately targeting girls at a school in Kabul killed over 85.

On March 8 of this year, RAWA released a statement accusing the United States of preventing “the establishment of democracy, women’s rights and the independence and progress of our homeland.” It insisted that Afghan women can rely on no foreign occupier. “This betrayal of the US government,” it declared, “although costly for the people of Afghanistan, has had a positive aspect as well: our people have realized that the US’ claims of democracy, women’s rights and progress in any country, including Afghanistan, is a blatant lie.”

In the United States, longtime anti-imperialist feminists like Susskind are cautiously optimistic about the end of America’s role as an occupying power in Afghanistan. Credit for the withdrawal, Susskind says, belongs to “a generation” of peace and human rights organizing. “Biden is saying now what we said 20 years ago, which is that there is no military solution to the problem of the Taliban or to the problem of what gets labeled as terrorism,” she said.

Sunyoung Yang works for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), a coalition of over 60 grassroots working-class groups pushing for, among other things, an end to war and a just transition to a feminist economy. Even a full withdrawal, according to Yang, is only the start of Washington’s obligation to the country it occupied for two decades. “Ending wars and getting the US out is important.” And, she said, there’s also the question: “What is the reparation plan for Afghanistan?” For Susskind, the only acceptable plan is for the administration to reinvest the entirety of the funding formerly used for war making into peace building by supporting Afghan civil society and the human rights demands of Afghan women

Biden has requested $300 million in additional civilian aid for Afghanistan in 2021—a good sign, but short of the reckoning Yang and Susskind feel is necessary. And the extent of the withdrawal remains unclear. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that US military commanders are looking for other locations in the Middle East and Central Asia “for troops, drones, bombers and artillery to shore up the Afghan Government.”

“We know that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan doesn’t mean militarism will end in the region,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), a GGJ member group, told The Nation. “Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan doesn’t stop the US backed wars in Yemen, its interventions in Syria or its backing of apartheid Israel, or its the interventions in central America and its backing of authoritarian regimes globally.” At the same time, Kiswani notes that US withdrawal is significant in that it is “mirroring the demands and calls of people on the ground.” That provides an opportunity to push Washington further, toward an agenda rooted in “feminist democracy.” Such a democracy, according to Kiswani, “is essentially about self-determination. It’s about understanding intersectionality and the need for there to be a redistribution of political and economic power and priorities, which we believe will bring about a very different way of being with one another and also a very different way of people having autonomy over their own resources and futures and potentials.”

Last February, MADRE, GGJ, and Women Cross DMZ—an organization working toward demilitarization and peace in Korea—came together in cross-movement dialogue on US militarism. The 2020 Democratic primaries were in full swing, and the groups were hoping to be ready to greet the new administration with an already-developed “new ‘leftist agenda’ [that] also incorporate[d] an anti-war agenda,” Kiswani told me. The “onslaught of attacks that the [Trump] administration had waged against people here in the United States” had meant that anti-war and anti-imperialist organizing had taken a back seat, she said. That February, the dialogue hinged on three main themes: “the need to advance diplomacy and collective approaches over militarism and coercive intervention”; the need for an “intersectional, transnational, and movement-driven feminist approach to foreign and domestic policies”; and the need to build “wider constituencies to support feminist foreign policy frameworks.”

Then, in May, George Floyd was murdered. The uprising for Black lives broke out across the country, in what may have been the largest protests in US history. Calls to defund the police entered the mainstream. Amid the “movement moment,” as Yang called it, the task for those working in the international space became clear. “How [do] we take the energy of some of the most successful social movements of our time and possibly in US history that are alive and well right now for example in the movement for Black lives,” asked Susskind, “and thread the needle so that foreign policy concerns are in the center of the frame?”

In October, the groups released its “Vision for a Feminist Peace,” advocating a fundamental reorientation of US foreign policy, one that is opposed to US military intervention in all its forms. But, unlike most foreign policy proposals, it doesn’t address the state as the primary or sole actor on a global scale; it’s not directed at the US government. Instead, Yang, Susskind, Kiswani, and the other signatories of the vision are “calling on social movements to break out of their silos and align in action to call out the linkages between US foreign policy and domestic conditions.” The hope, Yang told me, is that a feminist foreign policy approach “can bridge the war abroad and the war at home.”

There are signs that the Biden administration may be ready to listen, if not embrace a full paradigm shift. Christine Ahn is the head of Women Cross DMZ. When Women Cross DMZ briefed the Biden transition team earlier this year, the official they talked to acknowledged that the Obama administration “did not do so well on listening to constituencies on US foreign policy” compared to domestic issues. Ahn’s aim is to democratize the process of “foreign policy” itself, which she says is too impenetrable to even be called an ivory tower, composed of a few ultra-elites shaping how the United States operates around the world.

That’s a focus for MADRE, too. Part of its work, according to Susskind, is bringing the international activists they work with—whom she calls “some of the best policy advisers governments could have”—in conversation with policy-makers in the United States through official and informal channels. “These are activists who have done what the international community, what US foreign policy, has totally failed to do. They have brokered ceasefires, they have set up prisoner exchanges, they have created humanitarian aid corridors, all of this work that because foreign policy is so militarized, the US [has] failed at completely,” Susskind said. “We’re really thinking about who are the people who are actually building peace, and how do we get their perspective into policy-making.”

In April, the initiative as a collective put out a “Statement for a Feminist Foreign Policy to Confront the Coronavirus Pandemic.” The coalition called for five immediate actions in both the domestic and international sphere: reallocating Pentagon spending to domestic priorities such as health care and eviction relief; ending active military operations and “permanently chang[ing] course away from endless wars toward peace building, diplomacy and development”; lifting economic sanctions on Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and 27 other countries; stopping economic, political, and military support to authoritarian governments like Israel and India; and reducing the domestic incarcerated population through immediate release from prisons and jails.

They’re big asks, but this is a hopeful time. Ahn and Yang told me that the foreign policy decision-makers, both in and out of government, seem more open to new ideas than in the past. Change is far from assured, but even more mainstream foreign policy groups and NGOs are talking about what a feminist foreign policy looks like. Last May, the International Center for Research for Women (ICRW) in collaboration with large NGOs such as Oxfam America and the Center for Global Development, put out their own feminist foreign policy initiative. That policy initiative, whose first author Lyric Thompson told me is endorsed by over 80 groups, is guided by the values of “bodily autonomy, peace and environmental integrity.”

According to Thompson, the group started working on the initiative after a few countries, including Sweden, Mexico, and Canada, had released their own feminist foreign policy initiatives, and it gained traction after the pandemic “laid bare” the deep inequities in society. The goal of the initiative, directed at governments and policy thinkers, “is to provide the tools for a feminist analysis that would be utilized across the board in every foreign policy decision making process.” That report had an impact: Thompson notes that some of the initiative’s policy and staffing recommendations have been taken up by the Biden administration, exemplified by, among other things, Biden’s March 8 executive order establishing a Gender Policy Council. And according to Yang, that report was part of what led the Democratic Women’s Caucus to introduce House Resolution 1147, advocating for a “power-based analysis” and “intersectional approach” to foreign policy last September.

But Ahn argues that, for all the value the report brings, it fails to confront the core changes needed in the foreign policy paradigm. Whereas the ICRW report notes that “peace should be the ultimate aim of defense,” Women Cross DMZ and its partners hold that militarized defense is incompatible with peace; their vision includes defunding the military and eventually making war obsolete. The ICRW gave Biden’s foreign policy in his first 100 days an A rating, evaluating it on process-based categories like policy articulation, funding, and accountability, rather than particular foreign policy interventions. This ensured that the evaluation was consistent with the language in the ICRW report, Thompson tells me. But it also means that the group fails to unambiguously condemn American support in particular countries; when I asked her about how the values put forward in their recommendations apply to US military aid to Israel, she said that they would “lead to different outcomes,” but declined to comment on the particular relationship.

“On the one hand, a lot of the things and the values that they’re espousing and advocating for are aligned with us,” Ahn said. “But when you’re dealing with foreign policy, which is the tool of the US government and how it engages with the rest of the world, you have to have an anti-imperialist and anti-militarist critique, you know?”

But it’s still a “far game change from what was being advocated 10 years ago,” in Yang’s words. It reflects shifts not only in the world of NGOs but in government too. Ahn told me about a congressional briefing she organized in 2010, during which a panel of multigenerational Korean Americans talked about the impact of the Korean War. Only two members of Congress, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich, came. Nine years later, Ro Khanna introduced HRes 152, which calls for a formal end to the Korean War, “and we got 52 members to also cosponsor that bill,” Ahn said. Kiswani is excited to push for Betty McCollum’s new bill, HR 2590, which would ban the use of US funds for apartheid Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Things are looking up on the movement end, too, which Kiswani attributes largely to the Movement for Black Lives. “You cannot pay attention to what’s happening here in the United States in terms of militarization of our communities from policing, the borders to ICE, you know, and not also see that at as directly related to what we’re seeing in Palestine,” she said. “There have been gains in terms of not just a shift in narrative, but also people shifting their agendas as organizations and movements.” Yang sees major shifts in mainstream feminist groups as well. “Maybe [it] was the rise of Trumpism, [but] I think there was kind of a wake-up moment for a lot of white, liberal feminist organizations…. in terms of the feminist space, it’s actually going really well.”

These organizations see mobilizing the people affected by US foreign policy decisions as central to their work. AROC, which is based in San Francisco, provides direct services to poor and working-class Arab and Muslim migrants, such as immigration case management, legal services, and help with language access. “But we don’t just provide those direct services,” Kiswani, who is Palestinian-American, said. “We organize our communities to fight back against the conditions that cause forced migration that forced them to need those services in the first place. We take on campaigns against militarism and we build power in the communities and led by the communities.”

In light of recent Israeli aggression in Palestine—forced evictions and demolitions in Jerusalem, tear gas in the Al Aqsa Mosque, a deadly war with Gaza—and the Biden administration’s status quo approach to the ongoing occupation, AROC mobilized protests throughout the Bay Area. It then used that power to bolster the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement: Since May 26, AROC has been staging a #BlocktheBoat action, bringing people to the docks in Oakland to prevent a ship from the Israeli shipping line Zim from unloading. With solidarity from dock workers, who did not unload the ship during the pickets, the action was successful: On June 4, the ship left the dock without unloading. #BlocktheBoat has spread up and down the coast to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver; across the country to New York and Philadelphia—even transatlantic to South Africa. “That’s what it’s going to take to really develop and build out organizations and movements that are connected to other communities and movements across the world,” Kiswani said.

Ahn has spent the past few months connecting the violence experienced by Korean women under US military occupation with anti-Asian violence against sex workers in the United States. “Korea evolved these military camp towns in which a million south Korean women serviced US troops,” she told me. “So when we connect it to what happened in Atlanta, there is this long line.” Women Cross DMZ, though only formed in 2014, has organized a grassroots network of people in the US who “know the impact of the unresolved conflict” in Korea. (Ahn pointed out to me that the media is wrong to credit Biden with ending America’s longest war by pulling out of Afghanistan—the Korean War has never officially ended.) This network includes multigenerational Koreans, faith community members, humanitarian aid workers, and veterans. It has regional chapters around the country.

As the United States completes its full troop withdrawal, and fighting in the region continues, Afghan women are left by their occupiers in a precarious position. Less than a week after the Kabul girl’s school bombing that killed over 85, militant forces killed 12 in a Kabul mosque during a Taliban cease-fire for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Afghanistan’s education minister, Rangina Hamidi, is a woman, but her ministry recently banned girls over the age of 12 from singing at public events. Opinions vary on the best way forward; RAWA has called for a “nationwide uprising.”

To be in solidarity, Yang believes American feminists should focus first and foremost on “staying the hand of the United States.” Kiswani agrees—American feminists should follow, not lead, because “historically, it’s been the women of Afghanistan who have made structural gains in the country. It will be incumbent on us as feminists and as internationalists to support and be in partnership with them.”

But Kiswani is hopeful about the possibilities for such an international solidarity. “Movements in the United States have proven that we can move things,” she said. With an organizing strategy in hand, Ahn believes, this is only the beginning. “Where will we be in five years, in 10 years? Where do we want to be in 2050? And how are we going to get there?”

August 11, 2021