Afghanistan: War does not help women

 In Afghanistan

Ann Jones, who has spent years working with women in Afghanistan, wrote a gripping piece for the Nation that guts the notion that war has helped Afghan women, and seriously questions the purpose of escalation.

I felt a bit sick, as anyone would, from the picture she paints of what today’s Afghanistan holds for women. She cites a report from the human rights division of UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which “attributes women’s worsening position in Afghan society to the violence the war engenders on two domestic fronts: the public stage and the home.”

The UNAMA researchers looked into the unmentionable subject of rape and found it to be “an everyday occurrence in all parts of the country” and “a human rights problem of profound proportions.” Outside marriage, the rapists are often members or friends of the family. Young girls forced to marry old men are raped by the old man’s brothers and sons. Women and children–young boys are also targets–are raped by people who have charge of them: police, prison guards, soldiers, orphanage or hospital staff members. The female victims of rape are mostly between the ages of 7 and 30; many are between 10 and 20, but some are as young as 3; and most women are dead by 42.

It’s just these kinds of horrific accounts that were used to sell the war in 2001. Now 8 years later, Jones pushes us beyond the simplistic notion that more troops mean more security and a better lot for women.

I confess that I agonize over competing proposals now commanding President Obama’s attention because I’ve spent years in Afghanistan working with women, and I’m on their side. When the Feminist Majority argues that withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan will return the Taliban to power and women to house arrest, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of women I know and care about. Yet an unsentimental look at the record reveals that for all the fine talk of women’s rights since the US invasion, equal rights for Afghan women have been illusory all along, a polite feel-good fiction that helped to sell the American enterprise at home and cloak in respectability the misbegotten government we installed in Kabul. That it is a fiction is borne out by recent developments in Afghanistan–President Karzai’s approving a new family law worthy of the Taliban, and American acquiescence in Karzai’s new law and, initially, his theft of the presidential election–and by the systematic intimidation, murder or exile of one Afghan woman after another who behaves as if her rights were real and worth fighting for.

The bad news on America’s allies in Afghanistan:

Most Afghans surveyed between 2002 and 2004 by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission thought the leaders of the mujahedeen were war criminals who should be brought to justice (75 percent) and removed from public office (90 percent). The mujahedeen, after all, were Islamist extremists just like the Taliban, though less disciplined than the Taliban, who had risen up to curb the violent excesses of the mujahedeen and then imposed excesses of their own. That’s the part American officials seem unwilling to admit: that the mujahedeen warlords of the Karzai government and the oppressive Taliban are brothers under the skin. From the point of view of women today, America’s friends and America’s enemies in Afghanistan are the same kind of guys.

A key problem with current US strategy is our reliance on the military to deliver humanitarian aid and development projects – difficult jobs our already overburdened military doesn’t have the training or public trust to carry out.

Today, most American so-called development aid is delivered not by USAID, but by the military itself through a system of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), another faulty idea of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Soldiers, unqualified as aid workers and already busy soldiering, now shmooze with village “elders” (often the wrong ones) and bring “development,” usually a costly road convenient to the PRT base, impossible for Afghans to maintain and inaccessible to women locked up at home. Recent research conducted by respected Afghanistan hands found that this aid actually fuels “massive corruption”; it fails to win hearts and minds not because we spend too little but because we spend too much, too fast, without a clue. Meanwhile, the Taliban bring the things Afghans say they need–better security, better governance and quick, hard-edged justice. US government investigators are looking into allegations that aid funds appropriated for women’s projects have been diverted to PRTs for this more important work of winning hearts and minds with tarmac. But the greatest problem with routing aid through the military is this: what passes for development is delivered from men to men, affirming in the strongest possible terms the misogynist conviction that women do not matter. You’ll recognize it as the same belief that, in the Obama administration’s strategic reappraisal of Afghanistan, pushed women off the table.

The civilian agencies that could more successfully provide aid and development are anemic, and instead of directing the funds to them that they need, they are being co-opted by the military.

Unfortunately, proponents of the McChrystal plan for intensifying counterinsurgency and sending in thousands more troops may have gotten major new boost from John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

You know what this means, right? We need to get louder. If you haven’t already, please click here and tell your member of Congress to get on the record against the war.

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