This article originally appeared at TruthDig.
In once, and to some extent still, relatively cosmopolitan Baghdad, Iraq, I once saw three young female college students from Mustansiriyah University walking home from class. They couldn’t have been more differently clothed. One wore a full burqa that exposed only her eyes; another a hijab, a more modest head scarf without a facial veil, and a pair of jeans; the third sported a pink miniskirt and a revealing tank top with her long hair fully exposed. Still, they chatted like old friends.
By early 2007, this range of women’s clothing was already highly rare in all but the safest Baghdad neighborhoods, yet it did still happen. I remember woefully realizing that I, a 23-year-old American lieutenant, had been treated to a rare glimpse of Saddam’s largely secular (if brutal) regime that had preceded the U.S. military’s ill-fated invasion. Before Uncle Sam fractured Iraq and empowered Islamist zealots, I was often told by locals that men and women could go on dates and drink alcohol publicly in cafes along the Tigris River. But those days were gone.
Four years later, and even further east in the proverbial Greater Mideast, while patrolling rural Kandahar, Afghanistan—birthplace of the Taliban movement—I hardly even saw a solitary grown woman. There, in the backwater of a country full of backwaters, adult women were rarely seen outdoors and never without a male family member as an escort.
It was all rather archaic and made Baghdad seem as liberal as Boston. I remember one young girl with shocking blue eyes, maybe twelve, playing close to my patrol base in the nearby village of Pashmul. Watching her skip a strange, improvised jump rope gave me rare moments of innocent joy in an altogether dangerous place I shouldn’t have been in in the first place.
Then one day, she disappeared, this (to me) nameless, joyful girl, never to be seen again. Eventually I asked a village elder, who probably played both sides—Taliban and America—against the other, what had happened to the blue-eyed Afghan girl. His answer was simple: puberty. She had had her first period, was immediately deemed a “woman,” and cloistered away behind the mud walls of her family home until her father decided to marry her off—likely to a much, much older man. Such was life in rural southern Afghanistan. It seemed most of the ethnic Pashtun villagers wanted it that way.
I think about that striking young girl occasionally as I repeatedly argue for the full and rapid withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan—which is, after all, the gold standard of hopeless wars. As I’ve predicted, it seems likely the Taliban will either conquer much of the country outright in the near future or at least maintain de facto control of Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated south and east indefinitely. That means Afghan women in those regions, and potentially many others, will suffer.
Yet, here’s the nasty truth: When I (and some 100,000 other US troops) occupied much of Afghanistan, rural women still suffered. We could scarcely alter the longstanding cultural traditions of these regions. If, at the height of Obama’s Afghan surge, the status of most (largely pastoral) women didn’t change, what hope do the remaining 14,500 or so American soldiers still there have to protect these women? And after 18 years of stalemate, if—as now seems obvious—the US can’t meaningfully win this war, what point is there in pining over the fate of human rights in this landlocked Central Asian time warp?
Sure, it’s disturbing, but it’s also a solid fact of life. What’s more, militarist, interventionist mainstream foreign policy wonks’ sudden feigned concern for the fate of Afghan women is cynical bunk meant only to prolong America’s longest ever war. It was never about women’s rights or humanitarianism in general. The US military and CIA invaded Afghanistan out of vengeance for the 9/11 attacks, out of a degree of uncertainty about what else to do. Someone had to pay, someone had to be bombed, and bin Laden was, well, in Afghanistan.
Treating the terror attacks as an act of war rather than an international crime was then the original sin of these forever wars. The rapid decision to shift strategy in Afghanistan from limited counter-terror operations to nation-building, counterinsurgency and prolonged military occupation ought to be considered the second sin.
Make no mistake: The well-being of Afghan women hardly motivated the architects of the American invasion and occupation. Need proof? Here’s an ever-so-brief history lesson. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89), the CIA not-so-secretly backed some of the worst Islamist theocrat “freedom fighters” against the Soviet-backed secular communist government then in power.
Whatever else Soviet socialist-style reforms brought to Afghanistan, they undoubtedly greatly improved the lot of local women, who gained full civil and social rights, access to education and prospects for professional careers. Uncle Sam hardly cared about Afghan women back then. It was not so long ago when Washington knowingly backed the most chauvinist theocrats in the Afghan mujahideen and, let’s not forget, the Islamists’ Arab volunteers—including one Osama bin Laden.
What’s more, if the many D.C.-based backers of continued, perpetual US military involvement in Afghanistan were truly concerned with women’s rights, perhaps they’d raise the alarm about the millions of women oppressed by Washington’s ally, the Saudi absolute monarchy. After all, women in the kingdom live under the thumb of venal theocracy, as morality police roam the Saudi streets. This is a kingdom that still beheads women for “sorcery” and “witchcraft.” On this topic, you’ll hear hardly a peep from the dominant class of Washington interventionists.
One final note on mainstream militarist hypocrisy. A majority of these folks are older, white, socially conservative American men. Hardly feminists by any stretch of the imagination, on domestic policy they widely refuse to address the pervasive gender pay gap, have no stomach for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and support the escalating state-based war on constitutionally protected abortion rights. See, the militarists’ hypocrisy knows no bounds.
The whole phony concern for Afghan women’s rights in the wake of a potential US military withdrawal is a canard. These hypocrites’ calls for perpetual war on behalf of Afghan women’s souls serve only as an excuse for imperial expansion, future domination of Afghan mineral wealth, a regional check on the growing Chinese dragon and mastery of potential oil pipelines to bypass Russia. It’s all old-fashioned geopolitics, folks, mixed with some absurd attachment by the military to dominance of the region. The Afghan people, especially women, rank as little more than pawns in a new Great Game in this long-contested region.
This author, as a former “guest” in the country, and as a (mostly) empathetic human, is sad for the women who do and will live under medieval Taliban rule. Still, the realist in me recognizes the limits of American military power, that the war shouldn’t have ever been fought and can’t be won. And as a born-again skeptic and a student of Afghan history, I know this much, too: Washington helped create what became the Taliban, sold out Afghan women to theocracy once before in the interest of embarrassing a Cold War rival, and never, ever, cared much about the plight of the blue-eyed girl who once made me smile.
I only wish the militarists in the foreign policy elite would admit as much, and leave the abandoned Afghan women out of it.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen