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


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:

“You 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 Gibbs. “They’re looking through those for names, they said they know how to punish those people.”

Next, there is Time magazine, a recent cover 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 “CIA 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 continues:

“The 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.)

Says 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 ‘embedded’ 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 Stephens likens a US troop withdrawal to an invitation for a Khmer-Rouge style reign of terror and genocide:

“All 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.

“It 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 article 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 1975.

As journalist John Pilger puts it: “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:

.”..somebody 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:

Says 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 zone.”

“Five 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 Orange, 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 populations.

Forget all of that because really, it is beside the point. The point here is not the hypocrisy, dishonesty or even naïveté 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 essay in Foreign Policy 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.”

The 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 said:

“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 solution.

August 10, 2010

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

Copyright © 2010 by Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given

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