A Response to Rafia Zakaria’s Response to My Response to TIME Magazine

Posted: August 5, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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.


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