We’re doin’ it for the kids

afghan-civilian-casualties

An Afghan woman and her daughter grieve after an air strike in Shindand district last summer. Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP

A very interesting article appears today in the Independent, discussing some policy concessions proposed by representatives of the Taliban who have been quietly negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Among the proposals: a commitment to refrain from banning the education of girls, measuring the length of beards, or making the wearing of burqas compulsory.

This puts in a new context yesterday’s revelation that President Karzai recently signed a law that codifies the rights of Afghanistan’s Shi’as to be governed by family law based on traditional Shi’a jurisprudence, which (it is believed, since the law itself has not yet been publicly released) prevents women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.

Immediate commentary saw purely political motives behind Karzai’s signature, labelling it a blatant appeal for electoral support from Shi’as (who make up roughly 20% of the population – the Guardian article claims 10% for some reason), and specifically from the Hazaras (who are themselves predominantly Shi’a and who, as the third largest ethnic group in the country behind Pashtuns and Tajiks, represent a powerful swing vote). But perhaps Karzai was also sending kind of signal to the Taliban, attempting to reassure them that the future of a peaceful Afghanistan will be a traditional and religious one, not one in which the country has become a Central Asian version of Orlando, Florida.

Liberals are outraged at what they see as Karzai’s backsliding. Marc Malloch Brown, the UK’s Foreign Office minister for Africa, Asia, and the UN, declared that “The rights of women was one of the reasons the UK and many in the West threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan. It matters greatly to us and our public opinion.” This is true, as far as it goes, and indeed the Afghan war in this sense represents a kind of temporary rebirth of the Cold War consensus that existed (most of the time) between internationalist liberals and anti-communist conservatives: liberals are happy to champion the war insofar as it frees benighted foreigners from medieval traditions, and conservatives are happy to champion women’s rights insofar as it gives them carte blanche to kill terrorists and demonstrate American military prowess.

Yet both of these motives are quite literally foreign to the actual residents of Afghanistan, who must somehow conceive of and then implement a peace process that will result in a government that is neither extremely religious, extremely corrupt, nor extremely oppressive — but one which, when all is said and done, will likely be at least moderately religious, corrupt, and oppressive. Standing in the way of achieving this humble goal has been the Taliban’s unrealistic hope of returning to power and re-establishing a zealous and puritan rule, and the West’s unrealistic hope of turning Afghanistan into a pluralist liberal democracy with all the mod cons.

But military stalemate has had a salutary effect on both sides, forcing positions gradually to soften. To those who believe in unconditional surrender, talk of compromise sounds treasonous. Yet it is just this spirit of compromise against a backdrop of stalemate that eventually tamed the Irish Republican Army. Neither extreme Loyalists like Ian Paisley nor extreme Republicans like the “Real IRA” were pleased with the compromises being made, but everyone else was — a fact that enabled Northern Ireland to find its way to peace after decades of insurgency.

Similarly, peace will one day come to Afghanistan, and the compromises that make it possible will also, almost certainly, make a lot of people unhappy. Depending on the goals we had for the war, peace may even feel a little bit like defeat. But any such unhappy peace will be preferable, for the people that really matter, to continued war. The campaign in Afghanistan, which began as an attempt to topple the Taliban government and capture Osama bin Laden, has gone on for nearly eight years now, and has lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians. Our ends do not justify such destructive means. So when our governments tell us that we’re fighting in Afghanistan to ensure that little girls can go to school, we should balance this claim against the following basic truth.

War doesn’t educate little girls; it kills them.

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5 Comments

Filed under Foreign Affairs, History

5 responses to “We’re doin’ it for the kids

  1. islandbookworm

    War kills a few girls, but the Taliban would prevent *all* of them from going to school and consign *all* women to a life of misery. Personally I think the “war on terror” is far, far better than the Taliban’s war on women.

    Women’s rights are human rights.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Everyone agrees that women’s rights are human rights. But I have to say that your argument is coming rather close to the “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” line of justification. I’d be more sympathetic to that if we were waging this war on our own territory (imagine a 500 pound bomb falling on your neighbor’s house in the cause of bringing his family and yours improved human rights), but we’re inflicting this violence on their land, and their families. It’s just too easy for us, too cost free, to state our preference for war over there while we sit safely at home.

    War — by bringing with it violence, fear, thuggery, poverty, famine, and disease — is the ultimate denial of human rights. And making human rights a justification for war is hardly more civilized than using religion for the same. People with big armies almost always think they’re doing other countries a favour by invading and “improving” them. They’re hardly ever right.

  3. No omelettes here! Bombing is not a solution, as the resurgence of the Taliban shows. My contention is just that the Taliban are far worse than the war. This does not go for Iraq—it was a far more advance country. But there was not much you could do to make Afghanistan worse than it was, particularly for women. Women’s pelvises were breaking in childbirth because they got no exposure to sunlight, ever, and so they were deficient in vitamin D and their bones were Swiss cheese. Afghan men, women, and children were already starving and dying and being executed in the most grisly ways. We just didn’t see it on CNN. It was no agrarian idyll, it was a hell to rival any that war can conjure.

  4. By the way, I don’t believe for a minute that the war was started to free the women. It was a selling point, but against the grain of history it actually happened, albeit not completely or permanently, yet.

  5. Well argued, Sylvia (as expected!). I have to admit that I find this the toughest subject to debate, first because every situation is unique and often awful enough that war can seem in good faith to be the lesser evil, and second because I’m debating against good people who care passionately about human welfare. I’ll try to return to this topic later, but for now you’ve given me some tough food for thought, and I appreciate that.

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