A decade ago, I posed one question to Afghan women, in sewing circles, voting-rights seminars, support groups, impromptu schools, and on the street. What, I asked, do you most want for your country?
After 20 years of brutal civil war and draconian Taliban rule, their top priority was always security. They wanted to trust that their husbands would come home safely each night, and that their daughters could go out on the street without being humiliated or mutilated. No image better epitomized their longing for inviolability and dignity than the iconic National Geographic photo of a faceless, handless, burqa-shrouded woman carrying caged birds on her head.
The women’s second wish was education. In one home literacy class for beginners ranging from girls of seven to a mother in her 20s, the mother pointed to her accompanying toddlers and explained that she wanted to master reading so she could be elected to the forthcoming loya jirga—the traditional tribal council that under American pressure would this time include social outsiders—and make a better life for her children.Women in prison, many of them underage, many incarcerated only because they fled husbands who beat them, pleaded to be released for just a few hours to see doctors. Refugees yearned to return to their native villages and restore the irrigation for their apricot trees.
I had little faith in Western forced transformation of war-torn agrarian societies, after having visited villages in Vietnam on the back of a motorbike in the 1960s. And while I was agnostic about the axiom that the fierce Afghans always repel foreign invaders, I was persuaded by anthropologist Thomas Barfield’s variant that the Afghans are skilled at enlisting foreign allies to help them fight internecine wars and equally adept at dumping their alien allies when they are no longer useful.
Yet because of the resilience and even exhilaration of those Afghan women at the prospect of liberation, I suspended my skepticism. I hoped against hope that their dreams would be fulfilled. If CIA commandos on horseback could rout the Taliban with their GPS pointers in 2001, then perhaps NATO forces could just as miraculously find tribal allies, keep them from defecting, and persuade a critical mass of local leaders of the virtues of building schools. Perhaps this time around, the money the West flooded into Kabul and Islamabad would in fact accelerate modernization and not just skew social justice and turn the corrupt rich into millionaires. Perhaps the aspect of St. Augustine’s conditions for a just war that requires a combatant to have a good chance of winning—so it doesn’t simply make things worse by escalating the killing inconclusively—was fulfilled.
In retrospect, I think the United States never did have that Augustinian chance of victory. But it certainly had no chance of winning in Afghanistan after Washington, in a war of choice, squandered its asset as the world’s sole remaining superpower by invading Iraq on specious grounds: That Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and was collaborating with al-Qaida. That regime change in Baghdad would enhance Israel’s security. That Iraq’s small urban middle class would rise up and institute democracy. That America’s democracy could safely compromise its monopoly on legitimate violence by outsourcing major war efforts to Blackwater mercenaries. That the U.S. monofocus on Iraq would not debase the military campaign in Afghanistan.
The Western intervention in Afghanistan did have one big success. It established secure zones that enabled civilians to get three million girls and women into schools and universities—up from an estimated 5,000 under the Taliban. Optimists contend that local Taliban leaders will by now tolerate popular education for girls if and when they take back power, either by a negotiated political deal or by force of arms. Yet attacks on girls’ schools in the transitional year of 2012 cast doubts on this assumption. And once America’s combat role in the country ends next year, no U.S. president will ever recommit forces for another ambiguous ten or 20 years just to educate Afghan females.
In virtually all other respects the Afghan experience has mocked both neo-conservatives’ dreams of social engineering and liberals’ visions of a “responsibility to protect” other nations’ civilian populations against atrocities by their own governments. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it most bluntly in telling West Point cadets that any successor of his who deploys substantial American ground troops to Asian, Middle Eastern, or African theaters should have his head examined. President Barack Obama prudently scaled down his generals’ aim of victory to “Afghanistan, good enough.” And despite the SEALs’ killing of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden 16 months ago, Afghanistan has vanished from the U.S. presidential campaign. Kabul is being relegated to its own devices—and the most likely scenario of a resumption of civil war as NATO forces are drawn down.
Today I have to count the costs of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. I mourn the deaths of more than 2,000 American soldiers, more than 1,000 allied soldiers, and more than 13,000 Afghan civilian victims of both NATO and Taliban weapons. I mourn the betrayal of our own ideals in the American resort to torture of prisoners. I mourn, with Iraq veteran and British MP Rory Stewart, “our inability to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes of occupation, to recognize an impossible mission, to expose the flimsiest of national security arguments, or to accept the limitations of government institutions abroad.”
Above all, I am haunted by my long-ago conversations with Afghan women we once encouraged to gamble on a nobler future—and are now abandoning as fully as we abandoned Vietnamese employees struggling to get onto helicopters lifting off from the U.S. embassy roof for the last time. I wonder, heretically, if it would have been better for them if we had not kindled Afghan hopes we could never fulfill. Did our pursuit of a revolutionary best rather than a more modest evolutionary good in raising aspiration for change make things worse rather than better for Afghanistan’s 15 million women?
This is the question I would now ask women in Kabul on the anniversary of 9/11.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.
World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond