Saving Women and Preventing Genocide: The Real Reasons We're in Afghanistan Now

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So now the
cheerleaders for war would have us believe that they are more concerned
for the welfare of Afghan civilians than are those who wish to end
the US occupation.

First we have
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sanctimoniously imploring
the editors of Wikileaks not to post more information that the administration
believes might endanger the lives of local Afghan informants:

have Taliban spokesmen in the region today saying they’re combing
through those documents to find people that are cooperating with
American and international forces,” said
. “They’re looking through those for names, they said
they know how to punish those people.”

Next, there
is Time magazine, a recent
of which was adorned with the badly mutilated face of
a young woman and the headline "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan."
(A statement, not a question.) As if the implicit pitch for more
war as a solution to violence against women did not provide enough
cognitive dissonance, the woman pictured was actually disfigured
by family members at the order of a Taliban official last year
– eight years after US forces entered Afghanistan.

In fact, the
Time piece fits very neatly with something found in one of
the leaked documents that has the White House so concerned. Titled
Red Cell Special Memorandum: Afghanistan: Sustaining West European
Support for the NATO-led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not
Be Enough,"
the document ."..outlines possible PR strategies
to shore up public support in Germany and France for a continued
war in Afghanistan."

The Memorandum

proposed PR strategies focus on pressure points that have been
identified within these countries. For France it is the sympathy
of the public for Afghan refugees and women…
Outreach initiatives
that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their
stories with French, German, and other European women could help
to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe
toward the ISAF mission
… Media events that feature testimonials
by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast
on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences."
(Emphasis mine.)

Lucinda Marshall at
."..I rather suspect that lurking out there in the fog of war
are more memos and reports that will document the use of women’s
lives as an official strategy to call for war. Clearly, it gives
additional and very troubling context to the Time piece.
Since the get go with this war, journalists have been u2018embedded’
by the military. It would appear that that they still are and not
just in war zones."

Perhaps most
bizarrely though, The Wall Street Journal's Bret
likens a US troop withdrawal to an invitation for a
Khmer-Rouge style reign of terror and genocide:

in all," says Stephens, "America’s withdrawal from Southeast
Asia resulted in the killing of an estimated 165,000 South Vietnamese
in so-called re-education camps; the mass exodus of one million
boat people, a quarter of whom died at sea; the mass murder, estimated
at 100,000, of Laos’s Hmong people; and the killing of somewhere
between one million and two million Cambodians.

is a peculiar fact of modern liberalism that its best principles
have most often been betrayed by self-described liberals. As with
Cambodia, they may come to know it only when – for Afghans, at least – it
is too late."

Stephens is
correct in thinking that there is a parallel to be made between
Afghanistan in 2010 and Cambodia in the 1970s. It's just not the
one he's thinking of.

Just as US
military occupation in the Middle East has been a boon for recruitment
among Islamic extremist groups, the US bombing of neutral Cambodia
during the Vietnam War inspired many in that country to support
the radical communist Khmer Rouge, giving it the support necessary
to take control of that country and ultimately inflict the horrors
Stephens condemns.

Between October
4, 1965 and August 15, 1973, the US military dropped some 2,756,941
tons of ordnance on over 100,000 sites in Cambodia. To put this
in perspective, according
to historian Taylor Owen, ."..the Allies dropped just over
2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II, including the
bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons,
respectively. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country
in history."

In a 2006
written with historian Ben Kiernan, Owen makes a convincing case
for what has long been asserted by many observers: Without the indiscriminate
carpet bombing of what was first a nominally neutral country and
later a US ally, the Khmer Rouge would likely have remained a radical
fringe organization with little chance of coming into power. It
was the US military assault on villages and countryside that killed
as many as 600,000 and drove surviving Cambodians into the arms
of the radical communist group, allowing them to seize power in

As journalist
John Pilger puts
: "Unclassified CIA files leave little doubt that the
bombing was the catalyst for Pol Pot’s fanatics, who, before the
inferno, had only minority support. Now, a stricken people rallied
to them."

Having ignored
the role of US military interventionism in helping to bring about
the very atrocity he warns of, Stephens writes:

might want to think hard about the human consequences of American
withdrawal. What happens to the Afghan women who removed their
burqas in the late fall of 2001, or the girls who enrolled in
government schools?"

Sadly, it is
very likely that they will continue to face abuse, disfiguring attacks
and even death for their acts of simple courage – just as they do
today under US occupation. Indeed, there is good reason to believe
that these kinds of attacks and the overall quality of life for
Afghan women have only grown worse with the US presence.

The Afghan
Independent Human Rights Commission reported
in March of 2008 that violence against women had nearly doubled
from the previous year, and a 2009
Human Rights Watch report
concludes that "(w)hereas the
trend had clearly been positive for women's rights from 2001–2005,
the trend is now negative in many areas." Other
reports (including one
from Amnesty International in May of 2005) call the first part of
that statement into question:

Ann Jones, journalist and author of Kabul
in Winter
, "For most Afghan women, life has stayed
the same. And for a great number, life has gotten much worse."

Sonali Kolhatkar,
co-director of the Afghan
Women's Mission
, says
"the attacks against women both external and within the family
have gone up. Domestic violence has increased. (The current) judiciary
is imprisoning more women than ever before in Afghanistan. And they
are imprisoning them for running away from their homes, for refusing
to marry the man that their family picked for them, for even being
a victim of rape."

Anand Gopal,
Afghanistan correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, says
"The situation for women in the Pashtun area is actually worse
than it was during the Taliban time. …(U)nder the Taliban, women
were kept in burqas and in their homes, away from education. Today,
the same situation persists. They're kept in burqas, in homes, away
from education, but on top of that they are also living in a war

years after the fall of the Taliban, and the liberation of women
hailed by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, thanks to the US and British
invasion," wrote
The Independent's Kim Sengupta in November of 2006, "such
has been the alarming rise in suicide that a conference was held
on the problem in the Afghan capital just a few days ago."

The US military
has made life worse for women in Afghanistan, not better. Is it
possible that a US exit will result in their lives becoming even
worse than they are now, as Bret Stephens and Time magazine
fear? Of course it is possible. But what is certain is that the
occupation has had a harmful effect on the lives of the vast majority
of Afghan civilians – not a positive one as the promoters of war
as a vehicle for social change assert. Also indisputable is that
the Taliban has grown
in strength
since the occupation began, and it only continues
to do so. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has looked
closely at the motives
for terrorism
. Even US intelligence agencies have acknowledged
that the US occupation of Iraq has strengthened Islamic fundamentalism
and ."..made the overall terrorism problem worse."

To call for
even more certain death and destruction as a defense against imagined,
possible worse bloodshed reveals a curious kind of moral reasoning.
For let's not forget what it is that Time magazine (despite
its protestations
to the contrary)
and Stephens are defending: The indiscriminate killing of innocent
men, women and children, in the pursuit of what they believe to
be some greater good.

When Stephens
decries the "killing of an estimated 165,000 South Vietnamese
in so-called re-education camps; the mass exodus of one million
boat people, a quarter of whom died at sea…" he conveniently
ignores the numbers of those who died because of US military
intervention in Southeast Asia. This would include a good portion
of the over 2 million Vietnamese (over a million of whom were civilians);
the tens of thousands of Laotians and as many as 600,000 Cambodians
– as well as the thousands killed by land mines and Agent
, both of which continue to kill and harm even 35 years
after the US's departure. Yet presumably, by Stephens's accounting,
these deaths and many many more would have been justified had the
US military stayed in Southeast Asia and managed to save the 415,000
Vietnamese, 100,000 Laotians and 1–2 million Cambodians. One
is compelled to ask: At what point does this kind of moral calculus
cease to make sense? Is there any point at which the number of those
who might be saved no longer justifies the number of innocents slaughtered?

Forget for
the moment that the US government did not enter Cambodia for the
purpose of saving its citizens from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge;
Forget that its actions in fact facilitated that murderous regime's
rise to power; Forget even that, after its exit from Vietnam, the
US government allied itself with Pol Pot, with Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger famously saying
to the Thai foreign minister in November of 1975 "You should
also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They
are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We
are prepared to improve relations with them.”

Forget also
the suspension of disbelief that is required in order to accept
the proposition that governments engage in wars for the purpose
of protecting civilian populations. Especially foreign civilian

Forget all
of that because really, it is beside the point. The point here is
not the hypocrisy, dishonesty or even navet of those who would
support war as a means of "protecting innocents." It is
the moral decrepitude of presuming to calculate the worth of one
person's life against another's, or even to declare that a certain
number of deaths (always, someone else's death) are "acceptable"
by virtue of preventing more deaths.

The reality
is that this kind of exercise can never be anything more than an
intellectual parlor game. As a practical matter, there is never
any certainty about how many will or will not die if a given course
of action is taken. Of course no-one could have known with any certainty
how many people would die after the US pullout from Vietnam –
any more than anyone could have known with certainty that the US
bombing campaign in Cambodia would eventually lead to the deaths
of 1–2 million Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
No matter how good the information is, one is ultimately dealing
in the realm of speculation.

But more to
the point, if one murder can be justified in this way, then so can
a thousand. And then a million. It soon becomes a silly, bloody
game of accounting where after a point the numbers become meaningless
and there is just one group of savages pitted against another, with
nothing to distinguish them but perhaps a marginally lower body
count, or slightly less stomach-churning methods of torture.

Earlier this
year, a man named Mohammad Qayoumi published a photo
in Foreign
magazine. The photos were taken from an old book
published by Afghanistan's planning ministry in the 1950s and 60s,
and were accompanied by Qayoumi's commentary recalling the Afghanistan
he had known as a young man. The images depict men and women in
western dress going about their daily lives in what appears to be
a fairly well-developed, functioning society. Qayoumi recounts:

"A half-century
ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled
casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories
in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was
a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking
large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower
stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people
had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities
for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that
has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real."

images are in stark contrast to pretty much any photos from Afghanistan
today, and are a poignant reminder of how much that country has
lost. They also give the lie to views such as that of former Blackwater
CEO Erik Prince who recently

“You know,
people ask me that all the time, ‘Aren’t you concerned that you
folks aren’t covered under the Geneva Convention in [operating]
in the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan? And I say, ‘Absolutely
not,’ because these people, they crawled out of the sewer and
they have a 1200 AD mentality. They’re barbarians. They don’t
know where Geneva is, let alone that there was a convention there.”

As Qayoumi's
photo essay demonstrates so clearly, Afghanistan is not a devastated
nation because its people "have a 1200 AD mentality."
It is devastated because it has been invaded and occupied by hostile
foreign powers for years. Anyone who truly cares about the welfare
of the Afghan people would do well to remember this fact before
proposing more of what has caused that country's problems as their

10, 2010

Bretigne Shaffer
her mail
] is a writer and filmmaker, and the author of Why
Mommy Loves the State.
her website.

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