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December 06, 2009

Not all feminists love escalation in Afghanistan

Dana Goldstein has a piece called "Why Feminists Love the Surge" in the Daily Beast. Her prime example is Eleanor Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has advocating for women and girls in Afghanistan since 1996. Smeal believes that long-term U.S. military occupation is the only way to save women and girls from the horrors of another Taliban-style regime.

Yet, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the nation's oldest and most illustrious feminist group, opposes the U.S. occupation. RAWA argues that the real enemy of women's rights in Afghanistan is religious fundamentalism, not the Taliban, per se.

RAWA sees the U.S. occupation entrenching a regime stuffed to the gills with fundamentalists, reactionaries, misogynists, criminals, and warlords. As the group says on its website

The US "War on terrorism" removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr. Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban. RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the US-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempt to restore their religious fascism on our people.

At feministe, Frau Sally Benz links to an interview with a RAWA spokeswoman known only by the pseudonym "Zoya." Zoya's on a speaking tour, but her face is blurred out for her own safety. Even in occupied Afghanistan, it's dangerous for women to speak out.

Westerners usually frame the debate over U.S./NATO policy in Afghanistan is usually framed as a choice between handing the country back to the Taliban or propping up the Karzai regime. The latter is assumed to be a dramatically better option for women's rights. 

Karzai pays lip service to women's rights, but jettisons them whenever he needs to make a compromise to stay in power. It should be noted, for example, that the Karzai government was responsible for the infamous Shia Family Law which legalized marital rape within Shia marriages.

Last month, Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament, told Michelle Goldberg of the Daily Beast that the situation for Afghan women is every bit as bad under Karzai as it was under the Taliban. Joya is also concerned that civilian casualties are fueling popular support for the Taliban.

RAWA and its grassroots allies think that pro-democracy forces could transform the country on their own without U.S. military occupation. That's a point of view we seldom hear in U.S. media.

I don't know how realistic it is to think that pro-democracy forces could prevail in a two-front struggle against Karzai's warlords and the Taliban, but the question hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the issue of whether the U.S. could force reform at gunpoint. Maybe RAWA and its allies would have a better shot at power if the occupation wasn't shoveling billions of dollars to the most reactionary elements in society.


democracy can’t be donated

This is a very powerful statement. Representative government as it exists in the west, though we often like to think otherwise, not self-evident as the best means of governance. The truth is that no governmental system can stand for any length of time if it is imposed from without and made to perpetuate without an underlying change in culture to pin it in place.

By all accounts, we have not worked hard or smart enough to encourage the cultural shift that would make western style democracy function in Afghanistan. Until we do, civil rights will be denied, the government will fester with corruption and we'll have to keep shooting at shadows.

We have no right to interfere in another sovereign country. We certainly can't dictate cultural, tribal or religious changes to people who don't want to change.

These sorts of changes, such as the right to vote for men or women and all the rights we have in the west (some of which we had removed) will only come when the people THERE want those rights and struggle to get them by changing the mindset.

You can't go into every family, marriage and so forth and tell people how to behave and think. Just look at FGM, and how this is still so widespread.

At best we can offer humanitarian aid, education, health care, infrastructure, micro finance and invest time and support those who advocate human rights. And when and if the time comes, the people will declare their rights.. that is unless their is some force who sees their rights as a threat to the powers that be.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Before 9-11 the only reason we knew about the Taliban was because of feminists. Colin Powell was okay with them b/c they clamped down on the drug trade fairly effectively. Afghanistan under the Taliban was one of the worst places on the planet for women, who lived under an apartheid system.

"We have no right to interfere in another sovereign country." Of course we do. National boundaries are arbitrary. We are all members of human race and all live on one planet. Anyways, offer "humanitarian aid" is "interfering."

"Maybe RAWA and its allies would have a better shot at power if the occupation wasn't shoveling billions of dollars to the most reactionary elements in society."

So the Taliban aren't the most reactionary elements in society? I don't buy it.

According to RAWA, a lot of the warlords and drug runners in the Karzai government subscribe to the same theology as the Taliban. The Northern Alliance is especially notorious for theocracy.

The US/NATO occupation has two components: Fighting the Taliban and propping up the Karzai regime. This summer's presidential "election" showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that democracy in Afghanistan is very expensive and bloody theater.

Propping up the Karzai regime means retrenching a lot of vested interests. RAWA's argument seems to be that pro-democracy forces might actually have a chance if the occupiers weren't backing some of their enemies to the hilt and inflaming popular support for others.

We have to fight the sexism and anti feminism and women hating over there so we don't have to fight it over here.

I'd buy this a lot more if American leftists were saying, more military spending is counterproductive, we should instead ramp up aid to schools and make it a national policy to turn Afghanistan into a modern, prosperous ally. Or if they were saying, Karzai is Syngman Rhee II and the US should no longer personally support him. But they're not - they're saying the Taliban is no worse than Karzai and the US should withdraw entirely and let the Afghans find their own way.

Which American leftists are saying the Taliban is no worse than Karzai? That's distressing. But I think you can make the case for a complete US withdrawal without arguing that Karzai is as bad as the Taliban.

We can't ramp up aid to schools in Afghanistan unless we ramp up security to protect the aid workers. Schools are a favorite target of the Taliban. Keep in mind that for every dollar

Where are all these civilian aid workers going to come from? Unlike troops, we can't just order them to deploy to a war zone. The State Department is having a bear of a time convincing its people to accept postings in Afghanistan. Why would they? They're afraid they'll be hung out to dry if U.S. troops start leaving in 18 months.

Who's going to pay for all this? It costs significantly more to send a civilian employee to Afghanistan to than it does to send a soldier.

So far, we're just talking sticker prices. You also have to take into account the fact that a huge chunk of every dollar will vanish into the pockets of corrupt officials, extorting gangsters, and the like. Afghanistan is the second-most corrupt country in the world, second only to Somalia, according to Transparency International.

The Obama surge plan will cost an extra $30 billion per year. If we really wanted to improve the lives of women, we could spend less than half of that to slash worldwide maternal death rates by 50%--according to a recent UN report.

If we're itching to improve women's rights, there are more efficient ways to go about it than trying to occupy and democratize Afghanistan at gunpoint.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

We can't ramp up aid to schools in Afghanistan unless we ramp up security to protect the aid workers.


large section of afghanistan is not a war zone. west, north, and central are pretty sedate. Tho' I wouldn't call it perfectly peaceful.

Helmand, Qandahar, and border with afghanistan (specially 3 cities next to pakistan are all war zone.)

see this map (basically, helmand, kandahar, Kabul)


I think as a concrete political movement to lift women's quality of life. in the past 2 decades, US based feminist movement is fairly irrelevant to the world. It's just another DC lobbying group that happen to talk about women's issues. Money talks, the rest is media spin and political newstainment.

Parse, the subtext I've gotten from Lindsay and the people she links to is that Karzai is so bad the US might as well abandon him for the Taliban. RAWA, which is not a Western feminist group but gets support from the left, is quoted in this post as saying, "The US government and Mr. Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban." This is incorrect - the criminal leaders in question are not feminists, but they don't execute women who fail to wear burqas on the street - and dangerous.

Lindsay, you're falling into the same trap as Bjorn Lomborg, with his claim that developed countries should keep emitting CO2 and spend money on nutrition supplement aid. The Afghanistan budget isn't politically fungible. Spending $30 billion per year does not come at the expense of spending $30 billion on general foreign aid; it comes at the expense of either defense spending, or budget balancing 5 years down the road. So the question is whether $30 billion a year over 3 years is better than nothing, and, given the costs of state failure, I'd argue that it is, even if this policy does not lead to East Asian growth rates. And if it does, then, well, remember that in 1960 South Korea was poorer than Afghanistan is today.

As for corruption? Meh. The other form of aid you propose is as corruption-prone; William Easterly tells stories of African aid projects where the percentage of aid money that goes to helping people is in the single digits.

remember that in 1960 South Korea was poorer than Afghanistan is today.

Wasn't South Korea even poorer than North Korea going into the 1970's?

Yes, it was. Hell, even in the 1980s, communist apologists talked of North Korea as a shining example of progress and of South Korea as a backward fascist state.

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