Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children.
Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war. The conflict outside their doorsteps endangers their lives and those of their families. It does not bring them rights in the household or in public, and it confines them even further to the prison of their own homes. Military escalation is just going to bring more tragedy to the women of Afghanistan [...] The U.S. military may have removed the Taliban, but it installed warlords who are as anti-woman and as criminal as the Taliban. Misogynistic, patriarchal views are now embodied by the Afghan cabinet, they are expressed in the courts, and they are embodied by President Hamid Karzai.
This brings up the important question of what, exactly, we're trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Policymakers have surely factored human suffering into the grim arithmetic of determining the costs and benefits of war, but what if the authors are right - what if it's the same villainy, only with new villains?
The possibility or impossibility of creating an effective, liberal Afghan government is a question that the Obama administration will have to face head-on. The sad answer is probably that Afghanistan's geography alone - to say nothing of its history, culture, or politics - makes it almost impossible for NATO or any other outside force to establish effective political rule, much less political rule that would be acceptable to Westerners. (I think the authors' assessment of the war as imperialist aggression is myopic, but that's a different argument.) But still, after reading their argument, my main reaction was to ask for patience - the war is not yet over. Perhaps there's still a chance.
But ultimately, the exact nature of the political leadership and the state of women's rights in Afghanistan are secondary concerns: the main mission of the war is to fight terrorism. Security from al Qaeda is the goal that will determine NATO's course of action and the metric by which its success will be judged. The question is this: does the Obama administration think that nation-building in Afghanistan is the best way to fight terrorism? Lots of people are discussing Marc Lynch's recent contention in Foreign Policy: "I just don't really see why trying to build an Afghan state is a significant American national interest, or that it can be done at a price commensurate to its significance." If Afghanistan becomes a (relatively) safe and stable place, can't al Qaeda simply regroup somewhere else? And if that's the case, is there any point to nation-building in Afghanistan? Eric Martin notes that, in addition to achieving very little in national-security terms, it would simply strengthen the hellish conditions Afghan women and children live in:
The authors do highlight one (of) the primary obstacles to creating a liberal-ish government in Afghanistan that will safeguard women's rights: there are no major political factions, or constituencies, that would push for - or even support - such a government. [...] And in pursuit of propping up this corrupt, warlord dominated, misogynistic government, we are killing thousands of Afghans - including and especially women and children. In addition to creating conditions that lead to more and unspeakable hardships for those same women.
I don't know for certain if that's true, but I worry it probably is. If the current leadership retains power, women will continue to suffer. If the Taliban regained power, women would suffer. The only chance for women in Afghanistan is the hope that credible Afghan political leadership (however backwards) could be engaged and pressured by the international community into reforming and modernizing its treatment of women. If Afghanistan is isolated from the world, that hope is gone. But maybe it's naïve to believe it could exist in the first place.
Perhaps chief among the neoconservatives' fantasies was the conviction that democracy could be created at gunpoint. Maybe human rights activists are just as deluded to think war and nation-building can change anything for women in Afghanistan. Are there really just two options - abandonment or nation-building - both of which are hopeless?