Archive for August, 2010

So, Glenn Beck says:

“Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness.”

I don’t understand this. There’s very little content to this statement. Will we be scrapping our nuclear arsenal anytime soon? The content of the “turning back” is important. Ten thousand people getting together to “turn back to God” can be a great thing or a terrifying thing, depending on what the ethical content of the god’s tenets are. For example, both of these mass gatherings were claiming the imprimatur of God:

Gandhi talking satyagraha

Gandhi talking satyagraha

Hitler addresses a bunch of Nazis

Hitler addresses a bunch of Nazis

Spouting this kind of “turning back to God” rhetoric doesn’t tell us much. What matters are the ethical admonitions inherent in the turning. Is Glenn Beck asserting the United States is suddenly becoming comfortable with turning the other cheek, with taking up the cross (literally being willing to face the death penalty rather than use violence when opposing the injustice of the powerful), etc.?

I feel that I’m either missing a trend, or making an assumption that he’s referring to the same god I’m thinking of.


The thing I remember most is the smell. I had nightmares about it.

I woke up our second night in New Orleans under a pool table, pulling myself out of a nightmare with one component: the horrible smell of a basement apartment that had been submerged, food and cats and all, in the flood and left in the dark for at least 8 weeks. When we opened it up two days prior to begin the cleanup, it set off fight-or-flight responses in us. It was a smell your DNA knew to run away from. It was the smell of death. You had to force yourself to step over the threshold into the pitch-black room.

The next things I remember most clearly are the bugs. It’s true: when the world ends, only the cockroaches survive. The world ended in New Orleans in August, and by the time we made our first trip down to help with the cleanup in November, the roaches had conquered their new kingdom. They scurried everywhere anytime you moved the wreck of a piece of furniture (or the glob that particle-board becomes after staying wet for several weeks). First they were terrifying. Then they were disgusting. Then you learned to live with the occasional flight of a couple of them across your hands, feet, and arms while you carried something out into the light. Then you hardly noticed.

We drove all night from Washington, D.C. with a cleanup team pulled from the membership of the regional Episcopal Church and arrived in New Orleans in the morning. The city was dead. There was no other way to describe it. A major city with almost zero traffic in sight. Silence in the air. Packs of dogs, long given up on finding their owners, roamed some of the neighborhoods. Where people used to stand waiting for buses or trolleys, now crowds of bulging refrigerators stood, duct-tape straining to contain the decaying food matter and maggots, failing to contain the stench. You half expected these techno-organic zombies to chase you down the street.

We expected to run into crowds of volunteers and to hear the hopeful sounds of construction work. We were disappointed. We had no contact with any other team the entire time we were in the city. We heard not one beep or crunch or hiss to betray the presence of an unseen Bobcat or other machine working to move or build.

I remember the rage at the incompetence, and sometimes viciousness, of the federal and local responses. The local Episcopal Relief and Development coordinator told us that so little was being done with the material sent by the dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security and FEMA that ERD staff would just walk into their warehouses and take the blue roof tarpaulin to put it to use, and when FEMA staff protested, they said, “Either use it yourself, or try and stop us from taking it.” They didn’t try and stop them, but I don’t know if they used it themselves.

I remember the Barlows and the Evanses, the two families whose homes we worked on during our first trip. I remember Miss Bertha from across the street of the local Episcopal church, a 90-something-year-old Creole woman, the last of more than a dozen siblings, who would rather I sit and listen to her than work on her property. I remember the vivid stories we were told by survivors who described the wailing in the night as people clung to their roofs and yelled out for help in the dark to a nation that watched the city drown. People needed help with their homes, but periodically during the work you’d have to stop, because finally the person would realize that here was someone who hadn’t also lost everything, someone with whom they could talk that could listen without having to also tell their stories. Everyone in town that survived need you to listen. It slowed the work, but not The Work. They needed more than just volunteer labor and donations. They needed your love.

Our first trip damaged my wife and me in various ways. When we drove back into Arlington, VA, we couldn’t stop looking for the arcane spray-painted Xs on the front of buildings, the ones that denoted who searched it, when, how many pets and people were found dead inside. I remember we cried off and on for weeks. I still cry, sometimes. I’m crying now. I don’t regret going on the first trip, or the subsequent trips. But you don’t come back the same.

Of course, we weren’t alone in New Orleans. The breadth and depth of the need just swallowed and obscured for some time the visibility of the volunteers that trickled in in the first few months. But there was one moment I remember more than any other. I remember standing in the middle of a street under a dark streetlight, watching the silouettes of now-wild dogs further up the street, hearing no sound but that made by fellow volunteers packing up our gear for the night. I remember standing there and feeling terribly inadequate to the task in front of us, and seeing the hundreds of homes up that street that we’d not have time to work on. But I remember a thought came to me, strong and deep and calming, that this is what love is. Love means showing up. Love means showing up even if only to fight the long defeat.

New Orleans, I love you. We all still love you. We want you back.

With General Petraeus’ stop on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric now halfway over, it’s worth taking a moment to unpack the unchallenged, false assertions and implications he’s piled up thus far on his media tour. We decided to look into the claims he made about “oil spots” of “progress” during his interview with NBC’s David Gregory. Both claims were absolute fantasies, and the remaining journalists on Petraeus’ tour owe their viewers more rigorous skepticism than what we saw on Meet the Press.

Despite Petraeus’ use of the term more than a dozen times in his MTP interview, virtually no data that shows strategically significant security “progress” in Afghanistan since the start of the latest escalation. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), emphasis mine:

…[T]he number of provinces having more than three attacks per day has grown from 1 to 4 while the number of provinces seeing the lowest rate (<1 per 2 days) has dropped from 22 to 19. Overall ANSO assess that, in terms of daily attack rates, 23 provinces have remained stable, 1 has improved and nine provinces have deteriorated being Nangahar, Paktya, Kandahar, Paktika, Uruzgan, Helmand, Ghazni, Farah, Kunduz.

AOG are presenting a formidable geographic presence and are escalating attacks, in areas well outside of IMF main focus, at their own direction and tempo.

Needless to say, if insurgents are initiating many more attacks “at their own direction and tempo,” International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not “regained the initiative.”

But let’s talk specifically about General Petraeus’ “oil spots.”

GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, the oil, the oil spot, if you will, is a, is a term in counterinsurgency literature that connotes a peaceful area, secure area. So what you’re trying to do is to always extend that, to push that out. …[D]own in Helmand Province what we sought to do was to build an oil spot that would encompass the six central districts of Helmand Province, including Marjah and then others, and then to just keep pushing that out, ultimately to connect it over with the oil spot that is being developed around Kandahar City…

The general’s visit to Wardak Province today was in part to underline the …importance of that security bubble being extended from outside Kabul to the southwest here to Wardak Province.

The general, quite frankly, is out of his mind if he wants us to apply a term that means “a peaceful area, secure area” to Helmand (which includes Marjah), Kandahar, or Wardak. None of those provinces are secure. None. In fact, compared to this time last year, they are less peaceful and less secure.

Helmand/Kandahar Region

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), southern Afghanistan is in the grip of an ever-escalating insurgent assassination campaign. UNAMA’s latest report conveys the local Afghans’ perception that the insurgents can strike anywhere, anytime, and that U.S. and allied forces can’t protect them. From the report:

The Taliban’s use of assassinations increased from an average 3.6 per week and 15.6 per month in the first part of 2009 to on average 7.0 per week and 30.5 per month in the first four months 2010. In May and June, the number of assassinations skyrocketed to on average 18.0 per week according to the UN Department of Safety and Security- Afghanistan.

Helmand (including Marjah)

According to ANSO, the number of insurgent attacks in Helmand province during the second quarter of 2010 spiked to 820, compared to 257 attacks during the same period last year. According to UNAMA, the has effectively prevented provincial authorities from delivering the promised “government in a box” in Marjah, while Operation Moshtarak “has not resulted in increased protection for the civilian population.”

UNAMA also slapped ISAF for decreasing civilian security by locating their bases in or near residential areas. ISAF justifies this placement by appealing to counterinsurgency admonitions to “live in and among the population,” but UNAMA’s report retorts that, because of the locations of the bases,

Afghan civilians face not only the risk of often disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks by AGEs, but also death and injury from mortar and rocket attacks fired by IM Forces that mistakenly fall short of their target and hit residential compounds.

The failure of ISAF to establish security for the residents of Helmand and the ever-growing insurgent assasination campaign combine to make Helmand “the most violent province in the country,” according to ANSO.


When Karzai, McChrystal and other representatives of ISAF and the Afghan government held their shuras in Kandahar to win local support, they were told in no uncertain terms that the locals didn’t want a military operation brought to their home because they feared it would just drag violence into their neighborhoods. They complained bitterly about ISAF’s dismissal of their concerns to UNAMA:

Elders also reported that…these meetings were “photo opportunities” at which the elders’ concerns and suggestions were not taken seriously. As one elder from Panjwayi district told UNAMA HR, “.. there are far too many ‘meetings in name.’ ISAF and the Government ignore what we say, because we are from the districts..[T]his is not true, and it is insulting…[t]here are too often photographers and television cameras at these meetings. In Pakistan, of course, the Taliban can watch television, see me sitting with the governor and decide to kill me. So, when there is a ‘meeting in name,’ first I risk my life, and then I am insulted.”

As ISAF’s so-called “rising tide of security” began to materialize, the elders’ contended to UNAMA that “ISAF‘s publication of its plans to launch the military operation caused the Taliban to plant more IEDs and intensify their campaign of intimidation against pro- Government figures.” ANSO and UNAMA figures bear out their assertion: Armed opposition groups initiated 559 attacks in the second quarter of 2010, up from 399 during the same period last year, with “more civilians were killed in the region in the first six months of 2010 than in any other region.”


As for Wardak, ANSO’s figures show that, again, attacks were up in the second quarter of 2010 (183 attacks) compared to the same period in 2009 (139). The province is a hotbed for abductions, particularly along Highway 1. In fact, according to UNAMA, “On 15 June, the acting District Governor of Sayadabad district in Wardak province was abducted reportedly by AGEs and later beheaded.” Also according to UNAMA:

“[E]lders in Logar and Wardak provinces…said their priority was to end the culture of impunity for civilian deaths and injury from military operations and for those who committed abuses to be held accountable.”

And, for the bonus round, rocket fire interrupted Petraeus’ shura while Gregory accompanied him for his puff-piece interview. Sounds like a place safe enough for a middle-school field trip, doesn’t it?

You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me

All this brings us back to Petreaus’ definition of an “oil spot.”

“Well, the oil, the oil spot, if you will, is a, is a term in counterinsurgency literature that connotes a peaceful area, secure area.”

Nobody in their right mind or wearing pants that aren’t on fire can honestly look at the information above and derive from that anything remotely approaching an “oil spot,” as Petraeus defines it. Helmand, Kandahar, and Wardak aren’t examples of peace or security. I honestly have no idea why Petraeus would hold any of these places up as his “progress” examples. Wardak is certainly not stabilized, and Helmand and Kandahar are glaring examples of the failure of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

So here’s a takeaway for all you reporters out there rounding out Petraeus’ media tour: General Petraeus’ job is not to tell you the truth. Petraeus’ job is to win the war handed him by President Obama. He sees public opposition crystallizing, while at the same time coming to the realization that his mission will not be accomplished by the deadline to start withdrawals. Rather than questioning the basic assumption that COIN was the right strategy to pursue in Afghanistan (it wasn’t), he wants what generals always want: more troops, more time. Thus, he sees it as his job to sell the messages that need to be sold to get the things he think will help him accomplish his mission.

His job isn’t to tell you the truth. It’s to sell you his war. Buyer beware.

Sign our petition to tell the next journalists on Petraeus’ media tour to ask tough questions and expose his effort to extend the Afghanistan War.

General Petraeus is on a media tour to sell the idea that the U.S. military is “making progress” in Afghanistan, a well-worn message aimed at convincing elites to extend this brutal, futile war. So far, it looks like the mainstream media is buying it, hook, line, and sinker.

Petraeus kicked off his spin campaign this morning with an hour-long special on Meet the Press with David Gregory. The piece opened with a montage of Petraeus doing sit-ups, and later showed him jogging, with Gregory opining about him wearing out troops half his age. Gregory went out of his way to set up a "Petraeus saves the day" narrative, asking the general if the situation in Afghanistan reminds him of the "dark days" in Iraq just before Petraeus "succeeded" with the surge. Petraeus hammered home his one-word message relentlessly: progress. Gregory feigned tough skepticism, but betrayed his hero-worship with setups like, "Watch how savvy Petraeus is when he answers my tough question." Throughout, Gregory’s sheepish grin conveyed the sense that he wanted to hug Petraeus instead of critically probe his assertions.

As Petraeus battered viewers again and again with his "making progress" theme, Gregory failed to ask probing, skeptical questions. When Petraeus mentioned "oil spots," as if the stain spreading across Afghanistan were one of security, Gregory failed to press him on the huge increase in civilian deaths, the 87-percent spike in violence and the incredible explosion of IED attacks over the last several months. When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When Petraeus denounced the Taliban’s recent killing of a pregnant woman, Gregory failed to press Petraeus on ISAF’s own killing of pregnant women earlier this year in which bullets were reportedly dug out of a screaming woman by special forces troops before she bled to death. Gregory didn’t do journalism today. He provided a platform for military spin.

Petraeus and Gregory jovially closed the interview by quoting Generals Grant and Sherman, with Petraeus saying he’s no politician. Don’t believe that for a second. The military wants to extend this war, and it sees American public opinion as an obstacle in getting what it wants. Petraeus admitted as much when he told Gregory that the point of his upcoming media appearances were scheduled in the hopes of showing "people in Washington" and the public that we’re making progress (Finish your drink!) and to shore up support for the failing war effort. This media blitz is about Petraeus shaping public opinion to affect the political environment for a future push to extend the war far beyond the bounds implied by Obama’s December 2009 West Point speech. In short, the military is turning its several-billion-dollar public relations apparatus on the American people, and the mainstream media is so far complicit. To quote one of my favorite bands, "There is a war going on for your mind."

If the media fail to ask hard questions, there’s a chance Petraeus could get what he wants: the freedom to extend an extremely unpopular war that’s not making us safer. We’ve got to push back, and we’ve got to do it now.

CBS’ Katie Couric is next in line to talk to Petraeus during his high-profile spin campaign, so we’re starting with her. Sign our petition to Couric and push her to ask tough questions about Petraeus’ claims of “progress” and his attempt to extend the Afghanistan War. If you’re not a Twitter user, don’t worry–there are instructions on how you can participate without it.

General Petraeus’ media blitz is just getting started. We’ve got to push our media–hard–to ask real questions and prevent easily disproved spin from polluting the debate. Petraeus wants to change public opinion, and he’s spending your money to sell you a brutal, futile war that’s not making us safer. If you’re tired of this kind of manipulation, join the tens of thousands of other people working to end this war with Rethink Afghanistan.

Plug into the Movement to End the War

Today, President Obama came to my town to give an invite-only speech at the University of Texas. Lacking an invite, I wondered what people with invites had to say about the Afghanistan War. Here’s what I found:

All the people who had tickets to the event who consented to be interviewed and who gave an opinion for or against are in this video, and their views are fairly represented. Of course, that’s not a surprise, given the levels of public disgust with this war, the higher levels of opposition among Democrats and the likely makeup of the invitee crowd.

Most Americans — 54 percent — think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Forty-one percent disagree.

There is a partisan divide on the issue: 73 percent of Democrats think the U.S. should set a timetable, while only 32 percent of Republicans say the U.S. should do so. Fifty-four percent of independents want a timetable.

What is surprising, though, is the “heads down, follow through” attitude on the part of our elected leaders.

Poll: Afghanistan War Hurting Obama’s Support at Home

Poll: Afghanistan War Deeply Unpopular, Dragging Down Presidential Approval

Afghan War Looms As Electoral Problem

Ever heard of a thing called an election?

Exclusive, on-the-ground interviews obtained by Brave New Foundation’s Rethink Afghanistan project confirm what NATO forces repeatedly denied: U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan killed dozens of people in the Sangin District of Helmand Province on July 23.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office first acknowledged the incident when they condemned the killings on July 26. At that time, the Afghan National Directorate of Security claimed that the American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) killed “52 civilians…including women and children” in a “rocket attack.” (The Kabul government later revised that tally to 39.) By Sunday, August 1, there were protests in the streets of Kabul.

ISAF immediately attacked the credibility of the Afghan government’s report, complaining bitterly of Karzai’s decision to condemn the incident without conferring with U.S. and allied forces.

Working with our team in Afghanistan led by Anita Sreedhar, Brave New Foundation‘s Rethink Afghanistan campaign sent an intrepid local blogger into Sangin–one of Afghanistan’s most volatile areas–to get the truth. The video interviews he obtained are incredible and horrifying. We made the full interview transcripts available online at, and we encourage you to read them. Here’s the short version: Every survivor our interviewer talked to confirmed that a massive civilian casualty event occurred, and that NATO was responsible.

NATO vs. the Kabul Government

ISAF began their push-back against press accounts of the Sangin incident with a simple press release on July 24: “We have no operational reporting that correlates to this alleged incident.” No further press release available on the ISAF website expands or updates this statement. However, ISAF personnel soon ratcheted up their attacks on the Afghan government’s narrative and, in the process, circulated alternative (and often contradictory) official responses, tallies and accounts of the event.

Quoted in a July 27 New York Times article, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith (whom you might remember from that embarrassing and horrific event in Gardez earlier this year) escalated ISAF’s push-back by claiming Karzai’s office’s account was premature and speculative.

“Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded…We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known.”

On August 5, ISAF spokespeople still claimed to lack information on the outcome of this promised “joint investigation.” However, that didn’t stop other ISAF officials from offering “speculations” of their own. Brigadier General Josef Blotz, for example, claimed that Afghan and coalition forces examined images of the scene and interviewed witnesses but found “no substance in terms of proof or evidence” to support Karzai’s claim. He did, however, concede that "one to three civilians may have been inadvertently killed.”

Later, again on August 5, while ISAF provided quotes from named sources for attribution that denied knowledge of the outcome of the investigation, an unnamed “senior intelligence official” told The New York Times that six civilians died with eight Taliban fighters when a troop fired a Javelin rocket into a structure from which U.S. Marines took fire.

When asked to explain the discrepancy between his tally and that of the Afghan government, the unnamed official cited “political challenges,” as if “political challenges” account for a 33-person difference in the death tallies. This explanation reminds one of the Gardez massacre earlier this year, when ISAF tried to pass off its blatant lie about an American special forces team finding women “bound, gagged and executed” as a “cultural misunderstanding,” when in fact they’d killed the women themselves and tried to dig the bullets out while one of them was still alive, screaming in pain. In effect, this unnamed source accused Afghan locals and officials of lying about civilian deaths because of hard feelings between them and the coalition.

What is going on here? One explanation might be that ISAF engaged in the same type of damage control campaign utilized in other horrifying incidents like the Farah airstrike and the Gardez massacre. In both cases, ISAF initially denied wrongdoing, aggressively attacked the credibility of alternative accounts that disputed the official story, and claimed that the evidence was either neutral or exculpatory. Only when new information made it impossible to deny responsibility did ISAF admit its guilt in both cases. Perhaps we’re seeing a repeat of that behavior here.

Regardless of the source and possible motivation for all this contradicting information and blatant disinformation, what is clear, based on interviews obtained by our team on the ground in Sangin, is that ISAF troops killed dozens of civilians on July 23.

What We Found

52 people were killed! We don’t know how many children or women! …The rest of my family is scattered and lost I don’t know where they are. …My mind doesn’t work okay. … My daughter’s in laws were sitting in our house with their other children when the bombing started I saw them get killed with my own eyes!

–Mahmoud Jan Kaka

I saw a child on the floor was injured. I thought he was the only injured one so I took him to the clinic. When I came back my nephew told me that there were more injured people. I tried to pull my daughter from the rubble but I couldn’t. I heard her calling for help but I couldn’t reach her.

–Abdul Zahar

In all of my experiences not the Russians or the Taliban ever did what they (N.A.T.O.) did. …I wanted to go to the government post and tell them to kill the rest of us too as we have nothing to live for anymore!

…In the morning we see bodies with heads, blood and guts everywhere, arms here and legs there. All of my loved ones who were still alive were soaked in blood. We tried to go and identify the bodies; everyone was looking for there missing relatives. There was so much sorrow and pain from those people who were lost in shock.

–Unnamed Sangin Resident 1

See the full transcripts.

The most important takeaway from these interviews, aside from the universal attribution of blame to NATO, is that there is absolutely no way that the civilian death toll is in the single digits. One person described losing eight family members; another said he lost nine loved ones; still another lost 11. One of the men, Abdul Barg, insisted that, “the number of martyred were no less than 35 up to 50.” He also related that “every family in the village was placing at least a couple of their loved ones in a bag.”

These video interviews prove what NATO wants to deny. As you watch the footage of these Afghan men and hear their voices crack, it becomes sickeningly clear. U.S. and allied forces killed dozens of Afghan civilians in Sangin.

This incident is more than a moral outrage: it shows why the Afghanistan War undermines our safety. Thanks to the work of the National Bureau of Economic Research, we know that, statistically speaking, every time an incident like this happens, we can expect an additional six attacks on coalition forces. But we don’t have to generalize from this incident to see the threat when the specifics spell it out so clearly:

More than 200 people demonstrated over the July 23 incident in the Sangin district of Helmand province… The protesters shouted "Death to America" and carried banners calling for justice and pictures of children they say were killed in the strike…

This is what our elected officials need to understand: when we debate the war in Afghanistan, it’s not an academic exercise. It’s a string of specific incidents like Sangin, concrete moral outrages that pay us back with increased strategic risk.

Our reaction to Sangin and the other similar catastrophes defines us. That’s why when I go into a voting booth this November, or I get a solicitation for a political donation or a request to volunteer for a federal candidate, I’m going ask, “How did this person respond when he or she heard that we slaughtered the heart of a village? Did this person explain it away? Did they continue to support a policy that ensured more Sangins all across Afghanistan? Or did they finally catch themselves, finally realize that this war ensures the slow death of more children under rubble while parents claw at the pile?” These are the questions I’ll ask myself before I punch the touch-screen at the local library, and if the opinion polls are any indication, I’ll be far, far from alone.

I encourage all of you to visit to send a note to your elected officials and let them know you’ll be watching what they do in response to this disaster, and that you’ll remember it when you vote in November.

Over on Ms. Magazine‘s blog, Rafia Zakaria takes issue with my response to TIME Magazine’s pro-war, propaganda cover art. Zakaria and I agree on the critical importance of getting women into real decision-making positions in the reconciliation and reintegration processes. However, Zakaria falls right into the bad frame pushed by TIME’s cover art, and in so doing she caricatures my position (and by doing so, attempts to caricature the entire anti-war Left) as being one of total abandonment of any sort of aid to Afghanistan or Afghan women. That’s not my position at all (see below), nor, as far as I can tell, is it the position of the anti-war Left.

As I said in my original post:

TIME’s depiction of the women’s rights issue is based on a faulty premise: that “staying” rather than “leaving” is having the effect of weakening an insurgency hostile to women’s rights. In fact, if we are to believe the official reports from the Pentagon to Congress, the opposite is true. As the first several months of President Obama’s escalation strategy played out, the military reports claim the insurgency gained in strategic and political power in the key areas of Afghanistan. As those trends continue, the political difficulties for women in the eventual reconciliation and reintegration processes increase. Prolonging the massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan makes it more likely that the regressive elements in the Kabul government will achieve their agenda through “compromise” with powerful insurgent elements during the reconciliation/reintegration processes.

Some sort of reconciliation process is going to take place. When it comes to securing the rights of women in Afghanistan, all other things being equal, sooner is better.

As the reader can tell, the issue is far more complex than the farcical “stay or leave” choice framed up on TIME’s shameful propaganda cover art. The U.S.’s massive troop presence and the escalating instability is strengthening the hand of the political forces that want to roll back women’s political equality, so the longer we stay, the worse off women will be as they attempt to navigate the eventual political settlement of the conflict. Yet, U.S. inattention to (or outright malignant influence on) the factors shaping the field for that political struggle are affirmatively hurting the struggle for women’s political equality. We will leave the combat field, and we have to do it soon, and while we leave, we have to do our best to help shape a political field supportive of the Afghan women’s struggle to liberate themselves.

Pulling this off will require a deft hand, and it’s not clear whether the Kabul government or our own government, given the atrophied nature of the State Department, is up to the task. Given the vested interests who have a stake in the existence of the Amnesty Law, repealing it will be enormously difficult in Afghanistan’s political arena (and no one should let the U.S. off the hook for helping to shape this political environment through support for known warlords and war criminals). But what is clear is that using the rights of women as a justification for extending our massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure on this issue and for the betrayal and heartbreak of those who care about the fate of Afghan women.

I wrote a long response to Zakaria in a comment submission, which I include below in full.

Thank you for a thoughtful article and for including my arguments among those discussed and critiqued above.

While you are correct that the West is complicit (and therefore morally culpable) in the rise of the Taliban, the same can also be said of the regressive warlords comfortably nestled inside the government. As Sonali Kolhatkar told us while Brave New Foundation was filming Rethink Afghanistan, our backing of the most fundamentalist warlords as pawns vs. the Soviets was really the beginning of the end of women’s political equality in Afghanistan.

We do share several points of agreement – the most critical of which is, as you say, “no withdrawal from Afghanistan should be initiated without ensuring that women are consulted and represented in developing the peace and reintegration program.” I say this in the article you cite.

What I think you’ve neglected in the above is that this exclusion of women in the process is happening right now, under current policy, and the bad framing behind TIME’s cover (keeping a massive U.S. military force is “helping,” while withdrawing troops is “abandoning”) provides cover for this neglect. The Amnesty Law that wipes the slate clean on Kabul-connected warlords’ crimes against women during past conflict and the exclusion of women from the the High Level Peace Council and the Joint Secretariat for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration Programs happened or is happening right now with tacit U.S. approval.

Even if we follow TIME’s lead and narrow our alarm about anti-women groups to the insurgency, the U.S. military strategy is still not “helping.” War always disproportionately affects women in general, but specific to this conflict, every indication we have, including official military reports, show that as we’ve added troops, the level of violence has increased and the size and capability of the insurgency has increased. At the very least, current policy is failing to arrest the growth of the insurgency. At worst, it’s directly driving its growth by alienating Afghans and legitimizing insurgents as defenders of Afghanistan against foreign forces.

Nowhere in my article do I question the importance of programs like “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,” nor do I suggest abandoning them. However, as Nicholas Kristof explains in his recent op-ed, these programs are not synonymous with the military strategy the U.S. pursues in Afghanistan, nor is it true that aid and education programs cannot be run without the umbrella of U.S. military occupation.

I agree Aisha and the other women of Afghanistan deserve our empathy and our best efforts to support their struggle for political equality in Afghanistan. However, I strongly disagree with the notion that foreign military force in general or the current U.S. military strategy in specific represent the best we can do.

Zakaria and I agree on a few very important points, but I think she’s dead wrong that delays in a U.S. troop withdrawal could help the women of Afghanistan. I wish she had taken the time to address the points made by women’s advocates in Afghanistan that are included in the Rethink Afghanistan documentary’s segment on this issue, which is embedded in my original post. Many of those points directly contradict many of the arguments she raises not addressed in my reply.  But I’ll say it again: the frame set up on TIME’s cover serves to obscure the neglect of women’s political equality in the current U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and if we want to support the struggle of Afghan women, we have to reject that frame.