By Madeleine Bunting
Ten years ago the West closed down the debate on Afghanistan with stories of oppression. The reality is far more complex still.
The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan falls this week, but it will attract a fraction of the attention afforded last month's events marking a decade since 9/11. Only a few stalwart protests in the U.K. and the U.S. planned for Saturday will try to get an inattentive public to engage with what is now America's longest war.
This conflict has lasted longer than the First and Second World Wars combined. Conservative estimates of Afghan casualties are put at about 40,000, and coalition casualties almost match those killed in the Twin Towers. Meanwhile the costs to the U.K. alone are running at £12 million a day. Operation Enduring Freedom has turned out to involve a lot more endurance than was ever envisaged, and precious little freedom.
The war fatigue that breeds indifference and bewilderment is in sharp contrast with the intense interest that launched this war. In September 2001 there was an avid appetite to understand the tragic complexities of Afghanistan's history and the plight of a country traumatised by decades of conflict. An art-house film hit box office success when Kandahar, made by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, discovered the rich seam of sympathy later exploited so successfully by the novel The Kite Runner, and a string of other bestsellers. Afghanistan seemed a country in need of saving from itself. It's hard now to remember that Afghanistan was the popular war in comparison to Iraq. Protest was muted or nonexistent.
Key to this largely supportive public opinion was how, over the course of few weeks in 2001, a war of revenge was reframed as a war for human rights in Afghanistan, and in particular the rights of women. It was a narrative to justify war that proved remarkably powerful. A cause that had been dismissed and ignored for years in Washington suddenly moved centre-stage. The video of a woman being executed in the Kabul stadium that the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan had offered to the BBC and CNN without success was taken up by the Pentagon and used extensively. The Taliban's brutal treatment of women, the closure of girls' schools: all were used to justify military invasion and close down debate.
Laura Bush, the then first lady, took over the President's weekly White House radio talk the week before Thanksgiving in 2001, and banged the drums for war. She conflated the battle for women's rights and the war on terror: “the brutal oppression of women is the central goal of the terrorists”, she claimed. She said that “civilised people” had an “obligation to speak out” across the world against what was happening to Afghan women and the “world that the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.” She concluded with “the fight against terrorism is about the fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Cherie Booth [Blair] echoed her sentiments.
This isn't just history, the conflation of western aggression and women's rights has underpinned the last 10 years of conflict. Laura Bush has expanded on her 2001 themes at regular intervals ever since. In 2010, Time ran a cover photo of a girl, Bibi Aisha, whose nose had been cut off, and used the headline: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” As my colleague Jonathan Steele points out in his fascinating new book, Ghosts of Afghanistan, Bibi's story didn't quite fit the template of brutal Taliban.
But it didn't much matter. The plight of Afghan women was a rallying cry that didn't allow for discussion or nuance. There was enough truth — such as the worst maternal mortality in the world — to silence any doubt. This simplistic morality tale of how American soldiers would advance the rights of Afghan women fits neatly into the thesis put forward by Susan Faludi in her book, The Terror Dream. Here she analysed how, after 9/11, Americans used historical myths, of cowboys rescuing and protecting weak women, for instance, in a bid to make larger sense of the attack.
Over the last decade little attention has been paid to understanding Afghanistan and its history. The country had experienced various attempts during the 20th century to bring progress to Afghan women. These ended in failure, prompting deep resistance because they were seen as foreign, imported modernisation that corroded traditional Afghan identity. The issue of women's rights opened up divides between the urban and rural populations and between different ethnic groups in an already fragmented country. The position of women has been deeply politicised in this war-torn country. In conservative rural areas, powerbrokers built up their legitimacy with appeals to traditional values. Girls' education was a particularly sensitive subject, provoking anxieties about the transmission of conservative values and the functioning of kinship groups. Such entrenched social systems cannot be re-engineered by outsiders, however well-intentioned.
What has also been forgotten is that in the long civil war during the 1990s, sexual violence against women had become endemic — indeed many of the warlords backed by the U.S. had a terrible record. The Taliban managed to reduce it, albeit through some brutal methods. Women didn't much like the Taliban, but they recognised that they had brought a measure of security.
What has also been ignored is any understanding of how Afghanistan's long history of conflict affected gender roles. There is plenty of research on the impact of conflict on women, who are increasingly among its primary victims. They experience violence from both enemies and friends.
The common pattern is that conflict polarises gender roles: masculinity becomes more aggressive and women are idealised as “the bearers of a cultural identity,” in the words of the World Health Organisation. Their bodies become part of the battle field. This is as true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as of Afghanistan. In the latter, foreign intervention ultimately only exacerbates such deeply destructive trends.
This is uncomfortable stuff for someone concerned about women's rights. What is the best way to advance them in deeply hostile cultures? How does one support those in the country trying to working for change? Was it right to use a story about a war for women's rights? Can their spread ever be accompanied by military aggression? These are tough questions that can be argued many ways, but on the last I persist in thinking, as I did in 2001, that the answer is no.
Oxfam is bringing out a report urging the international community not to trade in women's rights in a peace settlement with the Taliban. It calls for a long-term commitment to support women. I admire and understand the sincerity of their intentions but question whether women's rights should be an obstacle in the process of a settlement. And I'm sceptical as to whether foreign powers are in a position to impose negotiating terms. A degree of security in Afghanistan — it hardly merits the word peace — may cost women's rights as it did in the 1990s, and many Afghan women may regard that as tragic but necessary.
Human rights organisations and aid agencies have been caught in an excruciating dilemma over the last decade in Afghanistan. Many opposed the invasion but since then they have unwittingly been dragged into the role of cheerleaders for the U.S.-led coalition, and been uncomfortably complicit in a project of nation-building that was tailored for the western public as much as Afghan women. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi