The Nation, 9 November 2009

nation 9 nov 09For me, the highlight of this issue was a review of Mary Beard‘s The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found.  Beard’s “down to earth portrait of Pompeii” is informed by her grasp of “the latest research in demography, the history of Roman politics, architecture, ancient economics, feminist and post-colonial studies.” 

The same issue includes a number of articles about the war in Afghanistan.  As the editors summarize this symposium:

The principal rationale for America’s expanding military commitment in Afghanistan is that a Taliban takeover there would directly threaten US security because it would again become a safe haven for Al Qaeda to plot attacks against the United States. But the essays by Stephen Walt and John Mueller strongly refute that assumption, pointing out that a Taliban victory would not necessarily mean a return of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan, and that in any case the strategic value of Afghanistan and Pakistan as base camps for Al Qaeda is greatly exaggerated and can be easily countered.

Similarly, proponents of sending more troops to Afghanistan argue that Taliban success would embolden global jihadists everywhere and destabilize Pakistan in particular. Yet, as the essays by Selig Harrison and Priya Satia show, this narrative does not fit the realities. While American policy-makers and Al Qaeda may think of this as a grand meta-struggle between the United States and global jihadism, many Taliban fighters are motivated by other factors: by traditional Pashtun resistance to foreign occupation; by internal ethnic politics, such as rebellion against the Tajik-dominated government of Hamid Karzai; or by anger over the loss of life resulting from American/NATO aerial attacks that have gone awry.

As for Pakistan, the essays by Manan Ahmed and Mosharraf Zaidi explain why the Taliban threat to Pakistan is not as serious as many assume, and why a newly democratic Pakistan has turned increasingly against Islamist extremists. As Ahmed and Zaidi suggest, Pakistanis are quite capable of defending their country–not for American interests but for their own reasons–and Pakistani stability is more likely to be threatened than enhanced by military escalation in Afghanistan.

And finally, Robert Dreyfuss offers an exit strategy: as it winds down its counterinsurgency, Washington should encourage an international Bonn II conference that would lead to a new national compact in Afghanistan.

Well, not quite “finally.”  The issue also includes a piece by Ann Jones about Afghan women.  Jones mentions groups like Feminist Majority that argue for a continued US troop presence in the name of Afghan women’s rights.  She mentions her own years of experience working with women in Afghanistan, and gives it as her assessment that “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.”  In light of the fiercely patriarchal Shi’ite Personal Status Law (the SPSL, “or as it became known in the Western press, the Marital Rape Law,”) she goes on to say that “From the point of view of women today, America’s friends and America’s enemies in Afghanistan are the same kind of guys.”  She is unimpressed by the number of women in the Afghan parliament:

But what about all the women parliamentarians so often cited as evidence of the progress of Afghan women? With 17 percent of the upper house and 27 percent of the lower–eighty-five women in all–you’d think they could have blocked the SPSL. But that didn’t happen, for many reasons. Many women parliamentarians are mere extensions of the warlords who financed their campaigns and tell them how to vote: always in opposition to women’s rights. Most non-Shiite women took little interest in the bill, believing that it applied only to the Shiite minority. Although Hazara women have long been the freest in the country and the most active in public life, some of them argued that it is better to have a bad law than none at all because, as one Hazara MP told me, “without a written law, men can do whatever they want.”

Jones sees little hope, and much tragic irony in the possibilities facing Afghanistan:

So there’s no point talking about how women and girls might be affected by the strategic military options remaining on Obama’s plate. None of them bode well for women. To send more troops is to send more violence. To withdraw is to invite the Taliban. To stay the same is not possible, now that Karzai has stolen the election in plain sight and made a mockery of American pretensions to an interest in anything but our own skin and our own pocketbook. But while men plan the onslaught of more men, it’s worth remembering what “normal life” once looked like in Afghanistan, well before the soldiers came. In the 1960s and ’70s, before the Soviet invasion–when half the country’s doctors, more than half the civil servants and three-quarters of the teachers were women–a peaceful Afghanistan advanced slowly into the modern world through the efforts of all its people. What changed all that was not only the violence of war but the accession to power of the most backward men in the country: first the Taliban, now the mullahs and mujahedeen of the fraudulent, corrupt, Western-designed government that stands in opposition to “normal life” as it is lived in the developed world and was once lived in their own country. What happens to women is not merely a “women’s issue”; it is the central issue of stability, development and durable peace. No nation can advance without women, and no enterprise that takes women off the table can come to much good.

Jones knows Afghanistan quite well; I know it not at all.  I can only hope that there is something left in the local culture of the seeds from which a relatively woman-friendly Afghanistan once grew, and that those seeds will again send up green shoots once foreign armies leave the country .

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