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A Call for Clarity on the Afghanistan War

New America Media/Foreign Policy in Focus, Commentary, Sonali Kolhatkar Posted: Nov 12, 2009

Editor's Note: As the Obama administration prepares to dispatch more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Sonali Kolhatkar offers a perspective on the realities of war for the Afghan people. Kolhatkar is co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission and co-author of 'Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.' This article was previously published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

While President Barack Obama reviews his strategy on Afghanistan, a perfect moment to send a strong unified message to end the war is slipping through our fingers. Whether it's because we seem to have bought into the lies about the goals of this war or because we mistakenly feel that a Democratic president is going to come to the right conclusion on his own, one thing is clear: There's no debate within the Democratic Party or in the White House about whether to end the war. The only thing being debated is how to continue the war.

Similarly, there's little debate among progressives about how this is a bad war, and at the very least we need an exit strategy. Paralysis has set in on the particular manner of ending the war: whether to wait for some sort of "peace process," to pull out troops now versus later, to preserve troop levels until Afghanistan's women are safe, or some variation of these questions. We're in a bizarre situation: As Obama waffles on how to continue the war in Afghanistan, progressives are waffling on how to end the war.

Despite some major differences between the Afghan and Iraq wars, U.S. military operations and their consequences in both countries are the same. Similar to Iraq, this war kills civilians and soldiers causing misery on all sides. Similar to Iraq, this war has made women less safe. Similar to Iraq, this occupation has become unpopular on the ground. Similar to Iraq, our actions are leading to greater instability. And similar to Iraq, our tax dollars are being disappeared into a sinkhole of destruction rather than human needs. Yet, unlike Iraq, where progressives were clear right from the start on ending the war, Afghanistan seems to confuse our moral compass.

Our actions in Afghanistan have caused a perfect storm of untold numbers of civilian deaths, fundamentalist resurgence, and women's oppression. We're protecting a corrupt government with a puppet president and criminal warlords, and our deadly bombing raids have led to a devastated and rightly bitter population and a stronger Taliban. There's no promising indication that our military operations can improve the situation, no matter how many troops are added. If ever the Afghanistan war ever had any legitimacy, it's irreversibly gone.

Enabling Women's Oppression

One of the original justifications for the war in 2001 that seemed to resonate most with liberal Americans was the liberation of Afghan women from a misogynist regime. This is now being resurrected as the following: If the U.S. forces withdraw, any gains made by Afghan women will be reversed and they'll be at the mercy of fundamentalist forces. In fact, the fear of abandoning Afghan women seems to have caused the greatest confusion and paralysis in the antiwar movement.

What this logic misses is that the United States chose right from the start to sell out Afghan women to its misogynist fundamentalist allies on the ground. The United States armed the Mujahadeen leaders in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, opening the door to successive fundamentalist governments including the Taliban. In 2001, the United States then armed the same men, now called the Northern Alliance, to fight the Taliban and then welcomed them into the newly formed government as a reward. The American puppet president Hamid Karzai, in concert with a cabinet and parliament of thugs and criminals, passed one misogynist law after another, appointed one fundamentalist zealot after another to the judiciary, and literally enabled the downfall of Afghan women's rights over eight long years.

Any token gains have been countered by setbacks. For example, while women are considered equal to men in Afghanistan's constitution, there have been vicious and deadly attacks against women's rights activists, the legalization of rape within marriage in the Shia community, and a shockingly high rate of women's imprisonment for so-called honor crimes all under the watch of the U.S. occupation and the government we are protecting against the Taliban. Add to this the unacceptably high number of innocent women and children killed in U.S. bombing raids, which has also increased the Taliban's numbers and clout, and it makes the case that for eight years the United States has enabled the oppression of Afghan women and only added to their miseries.

This is why grassroots political and feminist activists have called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from their country. After eight years of American-enabled oppression, they would rather fight for their liberation without our help. The anti-fundamentalist progressive organization, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), has called for an immediate end to the war. Echoing their call is independent dissident member of Parliament Malalai Joya, who tells her story in her new political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords. The members of RAWA and women like Joya are openly targeted by the U.S.-backed Afghan government for their feminism and political activism. RAWA and Joya have worked on the ground, risking their lives for political change and echo the vast majority of poor and ordinary Afghan women. It's they whom we ought to listen to and express solidarity with. If American progressives think they know better than Afghanistan's brave feminist activists on how liberation can be achieved, we're just as guilty as the U.S. government for subjecting them to the mercy of women-hating criminals.
No Negotiations with Fundamentalist Criminals

Some on the left have made the case that the Afghanistan war can come to an end through a negotiated peace process where everyone has a seat at the table, including women. But this ensures that only those within the corrupt clique of Afghan politics remain involved in the future of Afghanistan such as a few female allies of the fundamentalists who are plentiful in the current government.

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