Though President Barack Obama made two passing references to “human rights” in his speech Tuesday announcing a short-term troop surge in Afghanistan, he did not—as his predecessor, George W. Bush frequently did—mention the specific problems facing Afghan women, from staggering rates of domestic violence, rape, forced marriage, and child marriage to a lack of access to education and modern reproductive medicine.
In the wake of the address, a number of prominent women’s and human-rights organizations have declared themselves disappointed—not only by Obama’s choice of words, but, more significantly, by his plan to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in 18 months, which they say is far too little time to improve the situation markedly and turn women’s rights efforts over entirely to the Afghan government and NGOs.
“When I think of why the U.S. and the world have a moral obligation to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, women are the central issue,” says Sunita Viswanath, founder of the New York and Kabul-based Women for Afghan Women.
“It’s more than perplexing,” says Eleanor Smeal, founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which runs a Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls. “It’s perplexing, disappointing, and I don’t understand why.”
Many of Smeal’s liberal allies—normally very enthusiastic about women’s rights issues—don’t necessarily agree. They want to bring the troops home as soon as possible, and believe doing so will actually help Afghan women. A poll by the grassroots liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org found that 56 percent of its members opposed the war in Afghanistan, and only 16 percent supported it. Less than 4 percent supported the troop surge. Drawing down is a goal distinctly at odds with the idea of making a long-term commitment to improving women’s lives in a faraway land. That would smack of nation-building, after all, and as the president made clear in his speech, nation-building is a task he wishes to avoid. “The nation that I am most interested in building is our own,” he said pointedly.
• Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: What the Surge Means for Women The Democratic foreign-policy establishment has pronounced itself satisfied with this calculation, hailing Obama as a hard-headed realist who accepts the limits of American power. Obama’s speech was “intellectually honest,” says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the progressive National Security Network, a Beltway think tank. “There is a calculation by the president and people around him that the previous administration’s willingness to use rhetoric about women’s rights and human rights to sell a set of policies that really had little or nothing to do with those issues really devalued those issues.”
Yet in Washington Tuesday, Feminist Majority, Human Rights Watch, and Women for Afghan Women broke with their liberal fellow travelers, holding a press conference announcing their support for a long-term American commitment to Afghanistan. Their positioning reflects the extent to which the Afganistan debate has scrambled the usual ideological camps; the once-Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, opposes the surge, while these traditionally pro-peace groups find themselves supporting a stepped-up U.S. military presence in a foreign country.
“When I think of why the U.S. and the world have a moral obligation to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, women are the central issue,” says Sunita Viswanath, founder of the New York and Kabul-based Women for Afghan Women, which runs domestic-violence and children’s shelters in Afghanistan. Viswanath describes herself as “hugely disappointed” by Obama’s speech. “Based on our experience on the ground and everything we know, if the president is saying that in three years the country is going to be up on its feet, able to govern, run, and secure itself, I think that’s highly, highly unlikely,” she says. “I don’t believe that is something in the realm of possibility.”
A key question is whether civilian efforts to aid Afghan women will continue at full strength even after the withdrawal of American troops. USAID, for example, runs programs on the ground in Afghanistan training rural midwives, opening schools for girls, and providing microloans to women entrepreneurs. But at least under current conditions, aid workers describe themselves as reliant upon troops for their security. The administration hasn’t directly addressed the question of which of these civilian programs will be long-term. In his speech, the president was vague when it came to civilian efforts: “We will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security,” he said.
Palwasha Hassan, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute for Peace, says she wants to hear details. “I don’t think sending troops alone is the solution,” she says. “I was hoping for a very holistic approach to Afghanistan—longer-term thinking.”
Hassan argues that the United States owes Afghan women open-ended support to make up for America’s history of financing and training the mujahideen, tribal fighters who resisted the Soviet Union during Cold War proxy battles of the 1970s and 1980s. Branches of the mujahideen became the Taliban, whose policies against women were considered the most repressive in the world.
Other progressives, though, say the women’s rights activists are naïve, and have failed to grapple with the fact that feminism was never more than a rhetorical ploy in debates about the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, whose real goal has always been to root out al Qaeda. They also point to the occupation’s high cost in dollar terms, as well as the American public’s limited tolerance for foreign wars. A recent Pew poll found that isolationist sentiment is at a four-decade high.
Even if the administration was willing to commit to a nation-building project in Afghanistan, it would be with an Afghan partner whose own record on women’s issues is mixed at best. Though President Hamid Karzai recently signed the new Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women—which ups the penalties for rape, domestic violence, and child marriage—he also supported, earlier this year, the Shia Family Law, which subjected women in the Shia minority group to a number of discriminatory laws, including rules regarding when they can and cannot leave home unaccompanied by a man. Karzai has also made political alliances with warlords who hold regressive opinions on women’s rights.
Afghanistan’s rising tide of violence doesn’t help. According to a United Nations report, 2,118 Afghan civilians were killed in 2008, many of them collateral damage in insurgent attacks aimed at American soldiers. In October of this year, the U.S. military launched about 2,500 air strikes on the country, one of the maneuvers most likely to result in civilian causalities.
“Girls’school attendance has started to decline again” because of the violence, says the National Security Network's Hurlburt, citing Afghan parents’ fears that their daughters will be targeted by kidnappers or victimized by bombings. “There’s a sense that we haven’t quantified how the drift of the past few years has been particularly harmful for women.”
Obama has talked about women’s rights in Afghanistan before—most prominently in a May 27 speech. But that hasn’t helped buffer him against criticism for his latest address—criticism bolstered by the memories of Bush’s habit of regularly calling out the crucial nature of women’s rights. “The U.S. government has said for eight years that they would be paying attention to the women’s rights situation, and suddenly it seems like a withdrawal from that position,” Hassan says. “It’s certainly not good news for Afghan women.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.