The Surge and Afghan Women

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"The Surge and Afghan Women"

I think it’s good that Barack Obama didn’t pull the cynical stunt of trying to pretend that US military engagement in Afghanistan is primarily about helping Afghan women. That said, I think Dylan Matthews goes too far in suggesting that US military engagement in Afghanistan is actually irrelevant for Afghan women:

It was Karzai’s government that legalized marital rape and banned women from leaving the home without their husband’s permission. Karazi has also previously suggested that he would be comfortable including former warlords with Taliban-esque views on women in his government, and with brokering deals with the Taliban itself that involve sacrificing women’s rights protections. One can see the case for supporting such a government on national security grounds, but it is hard to see how bolstering the Karzai regime is supposed to represent a substantial gain for women’s rights.

Well, look, it’s hard to see how supporting a government with Karzai’s record could support a substantial gain for women’s rights until you consider that the most plausible alternative is . . . the Taliban. It’s like how Ben Nelson is more progressive than Mike Johanns. “Better than the Taliban” is a low bar to cross and, consequently, the coalition we’re backing in Afghanistan crosses it*. If you read what groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation or the Funders Network for Afghan Women or Human Rights Watch are saying, none of them are cheerleading for Obama’s policies, but none of them are calling for the withdrawal of international military forces either. Instead, they’re generally calling for a more ambitious approach.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has done a lot of reporting on Afghan women over the years and writes for The Daily Beast that there’s little support for the departure of American troops among the organizations doing work with Afghan women and girls:

Even while some political activists and pundits in Washington and London sound the call for a full troop withdrawal, women here argue that a complete pullback would only exacerbate the battery of formidable problems plaguing their struggling nation. Though nearly all say the international community could have done a far better job in securing a teetering Afghanistan, where practically every citizen can now rattle off a personal tale of corruption, few women say they believe foreign forces should go. In a series of conversations with a dozen women leaders spanning a range of sectors, from health care to business to politics, some of whom rarely speak to journalists, the consensus was that existing troops must stay for now—if only because things would be far worse were they to leave. Insecurity would rise, the Taliban would gain power, and women and girls would immediately lose ground.

I think the best thing to say is that American troops aren’t in Afghanistan in order to help Afghan women, and there are a lot of things America could do in the world that would be more effective ways of advancing women’s rights if that were our primary goal, but Afghan women are nonetheless beneficiaries of the mission.

That said, when it comes to military operations you can’t just bracket the question of feasibility. If the administration’s plan is fatally flawed and simply leads to several more years of fighting followed by inevitable withdrawal and Taliban takeover, then we’re not actually helping anyone. This is why things like Richard Just’s insistence on trying to understand everything through a lens of “realism” versus “idealism” are so annoying. If the administration has a workable plan to bring stability to Afghanistan, then implementing that plan will have humanitarian benefits. But if the plan’s not workable, then it’s not workable, and it doesn’t matter how idealistic or ambitious you try to make it.

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