Foreign Policy In Focus, November 2, 2009
A Call for Clarity on the Afghanistan War
Asking ordinary women and men to have a seat at a negotiating table with war criminals is akin to asking them to silence themselves or mark their foreheads with a target
Sonali Kolhatkar addressing an anti-war protest in California
While President Barack Obama reviews his strategy on Afghanistan, a perfect moment to send a strong unified message to end the war is slipping through our fingers. Whether it's because we seem to have bought into the lies about the goals of this war or because we mistakenly feel that a Democratic president is going to come to the right conclusion on his own, one thing is clear: There's no debate within the Democratic Party or in the White House about whether to end the war. The only thing being debated is how to continue the war.
Similarly, there's little debate among progressives about how this is a bad war, and at the very least we need an exit strategy. Paralysis has set in on the particular manner of ending the war: whether to wait for some sort of "peace process," to pull out troops now versus later, to preserve troop levels until Afghanistan's women are safe, or some variation of these questions. We're in a bizarre situation: As Obama waffles on how to continue the war in Afghanistan, progressives are waffling on how to end the war.
Despite some major differences between the Afghan and Iraq wars, U.S. military operations and their consequences in both countries are the same. Similar to Iraq, this war kills civilians and soldiers causing misery on all sides. Similar to Iraq, this war has made women less safe. Similar to Iraq, this occupation has become unpopular on the ground. Similar to Iraq, our actions are leading to greater instability. And similar to Iraq, our tax dollars are being disappeared into a sinkhole of destruction rather than human needs. Yet, unlike Iraq, where progressives were clear right from the start on ending the war, Afghanistan seems to confuse our moral compass.
Our actions in Afghanistan have caused a perfect storm of untold numbers of civilian deaths, fundamentalist resurgence, and women's oppression. We're protecting a corrupt government with a puppet president and criminal warlords, and our deadly bombing raids have led to a devastated and rightly bitter population and a stronger Taliban. There's no promising indication that our military operations can improve the situation, no matter how many troops are added. If ever the Afghanistan war ever had any legitimacy, it's irreversibly gone.
Enabling Women's Oppression
One of the original justifications for the war in 2001 that seemed to resonate most with liberal Americans was the liberation of Afghan women from a misogynist regime. This is now being resurrected as the following: If the U.S. forces withdraw, any gains made by Afghan women will be reversed and they'll be at the mercy of fundamentalist forces. In fact, the fear of abandoning Afghan women seems to have caused the greatest confusion and paralysis in the antiwar movement.
What this logic misses is that the United States chose right from the start to sell out Afghan women to its misogynist fundamentalist allies on the ground. The U.S. armed the Mujahadeen leaders in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, opening the door to successive fundamentalist governments including the Taliban. In 2001, the United States then armed the same men, now called the Northern Alliance, to fight the Taliban and then welcomed them into the newly formed government as a reward. The American puppet president Hamid Karzai, in concert with a cabinet and parliament of thugs and criminals, passed one misogynist law after another, appointed one fundamentalist zealot after another to the judiciary, and literally enabled the downfall of Afghan women's rights over eight long years.
Any token gains have been countered by setbacks. For example, while women are considered equal to men in Afghanistan's constitution, there have been vicious and deadly attacks against women's rights activists, the legalization of rape within marriage in the Shia community, and a shockingly high rate of women's imprisonment for so-called honor crimes — all under the watch of the U.S. occupation and the government we are protecting against the Taliban. Add to this the unacceptably high number of innocent women and children killed in U.S. bombing raids, which has also increased the Taliban's numbers and clout, and it makes the case that for eight years the United States has enabled the oppression of Afghan women and only added to their miseries.
This is why grassroots political and feminist activists have called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from their country. After eight years of American-enabled oppression, they would rather fight for their liberation without our help. The anti-fundamentalist progressive organization, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), has called for an immediate end to the war. Echoing their call is independent dissident member of Parliament Malalai Joya, who tells her story in her new political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords. The members of RAWA and women like Joya are openly targeted by the U.S.-backed Afghan government for their feminism and political activism. RAWA and Joya have worked on the ground, risking their lives for political change and echo the vast majority of poor and ordinary Afghan women. It's they whom we ought to listen to and express solidarity with. If American progressives think they know better than Afghanistan's brave feminist activists on how liberation can be achieved, we're just as guilty as the U.S. government for subjecting them to the mercy of women-hating criminals.
No Negotiations with Fundamentalist Criminals
Some on the left have made the case that the Afghanistan war can come to an end through a negotiated peace process where everyone has a seat at the table, including women. But this ensures that only those within the corrupt clique of Afghan politics remain involved in the future of Afghanistan — such as a few female allies of the fundamentalists who are plentiful in the current government.
Joya struggled her way into getting a "seat at the table" through the 2005 elections. For representing her people's views that war criminals ought to be brought to justice, she has been rewarded with death threats, assassination attempts, and the loss of her electoral title. Asking ordinary women and men to have a seat at a negotiating table with war criminals is akin to asking them to silence themselves or mark their foreheads with a target.
The reason why democratic forces in Afghanistan are completely underground and constantly living in fear of being killed is that time and again the U.S. government has insisted on bringing warlords and even Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. Asking the Obama administration to sponsor a "peace process" between civilian representatives and our warlord allies whose private militias we have armed, is the same as asking for exactly what President George W. Bush did eight years ago in Bonn, Germany after the fall of the Taliban. That process predictably led to the establishment of today's corrupt government. In fact, the Obama administration is very likely to patch up the recent failed presidential elections in the same way: by creating a power-sharing deal between two corrupt sides and their proxies and claiming that all sides were represented at the negotiating table.
Given our violent role in Afghanistan over the past three decades, the United States has scant credibility in sponsoring any kind of "peace" process. The most responsible action the U.S. can take is to end its occupation immediately, and clean up its mess.
Let's Call for an Immediate End to the U.S. Occupation
Those who make the case that withdrawing U.S. troops will unleash another bloody civil war where Afghan women and men will be at the mercy of the Taliban and warlords, are raising the exact same justification made for the war in 2001: that it's our moral duty to protect Afghans from fundamentalist violence. This logic ignores the fact that we have nurtured and created the very fundamentalist violence that targets Afghans as explained above. By empowering war criminals and protecting a corrupt government that has forgiven the crimes of all sides including the Taliban, and that even includes some Taliban leaders, all we have done is complicate a war that was on-going. "A member of RAWA who goes by the pseudonym Zoya in a U.S. speaking tour last month made it clear that it's hard to imagine things getting worse if the U.S. does pull out immediately. The damage isn't being prevented by the United States — it's being carried out by the United States.
Instead of subjecting Afghans to the three oppressive forces of a stronger Taliban, a corrupt and criminal government, and a deadly foreign occupation, the first thing we Americans can control most directly is to end our occupation immediately. This alone won't address the Taliban and Northern Alliance. But it will reduce the oppressive forces at work, and potentially reduce the legitimacy of the warlords and the motives driving the Taliban.
How do we undo the damage we have subjected innocent Afghans to? Afghans themselves have the answers to that. Surveys have shown that a majority of Afghans want a complete disarmament of our warlord allies — essentially that the U.S. needs to take back the guns we put into the hands of the Northern Alliance and their private militias. Surveys have also shown that Afghans want war crimes tribunals to hold all the corrupt and criminal fundamentalists accountable in some sort of court, perhaps even the International Criminal Court (U.S. government officials shouldn't be exempt from this type of accountability either). With weapons, warlords, and U.S. troops gone, real democracy could potentially take root and pro-democracy forces could someday operate freely. Many have also called for a massive Marshall Plan for poverty-stricken Afghanistan, to flood the country with money in the hands of small groups, organizations, and civil society, and eventually to help rebuild the country with a strong, non-drug-based economy. With all the money freed up from military operations that would be fairly feasible.
As for the Taliban, even the U.S. government publicly admits that the Pakistani government's own agencies have long supported the renegade army as a tool for national and regional stability. With the U.S. troops gone, the Taliban's raison d'être inside Afghanistan would be greatly weakened. If the United States were to take the lead in regional talks between Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China to address the Pakistani government's fears of a hostile regime in Afghanistan, it would go a very long way toward undermining the Taliban.
These measures are necessary but may not guarantee stability for Afghanistan. Still the current occupation only guarantees instability, so at the very least the time for a non-military solution is now. In other words, we can choose to repeat a failed experiment with predictably negative results by extending the war in any number of ways. Or we can implement the complex, constructive measures that could potentially help stabilize Afghanistan, undermine the fundamentalist misogynist criminals, help the Afghan people take back their country, and undermine the conditions for violence.
These are complex demands to make of the Obama administration. But it has taken a complex set of destructive American policies and many years to destroy Afghanistan. It will take a similar amount of time and complexity, as well as trial and error, to help rebuild Afghanistan for ordinary Afghans, and by extension make Americans safer. We can make these demands as secondary points in our call for an end to the war. But the primary demand easily fits on a protest placard: "End the U.S. War in Afghanistan NOW." Let's make that call loudly, clearly, and ubiquitously, as soon as possible, so that Obama and Congress can't ignore us any longer.
Sonali Kolhatkar, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission and co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. She has worked in solidarity with RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) for nearly 10 years. For more information about Afghan Women's Mission, RAWA, and how to support Afghan activists, visit www.afghanwomensmission.org.
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