In all the debate about Afghanistan, we don’t hear much about our obligation to the wretched lives of Afghan women. They are being treated as collateral damage as the big boys discuss geopolitical goals. No, we can’t go around saving every failed state, but as well as clear national security interest, there’s a moral obligation here that is being forgotten.
More than a million Afghan men died fighting our proxy war against the Soviets. The streets of Kabul today are full of sightless beggars and amputees who paid the price for that nine-year struggle. America funded the Islamic revival, giving out Korans and Stinger missiles to beat the Communists, then pulled out and was surprised when the assassins of 9/11 were spawned by the chaos left behind.
Today the grounds for betraying Afghan women again are being fertilized by the received wisdom of the “quagmire” lobby, which keeps summoning up the analogy of Vietnam.
The women of Afghanistan, left behind as their men fought, did what the women of World War II did—used their wits and resourcefulness to preserve some semblance of civilization. The Taliban’s backward vision of a radical Islamist state was a utopian fantasy. Except in the rural villages of the south, women before the Taliban worked as doctors, judges, teachers, broadcasters, and budding politicians.
Now Afghan women are terrified we will abandon them again. Anne McBride, who observed the elections last month, emailed me: “The women I met at polling stations risked their lives to come out and vote, but they are angry that the Taliban ruined their lives and are willing to risk it. They are not tolerant of half-steps for women.” Are we really considering throwing them back into the dark, leaving them even more vulnerable after their return to freedom?
Anyone in doubt about what fate we would again consign them to should read a compelling 2002 memoir, My Forbidden Face, written by a 21-year-old author under the pseudonym Latifa. She was a high school graduate in Kabul about to go to college and living the life of a normal teenager with a mother working as a busy doctor until the Taliban rose to inflict a life of virtual house arrest and terror. Forbidden to leave the house for college, allowed no TV or magazines and only the crazy boredom of Koranic chanting on the radio, Latifa writes of the creeping death of sloth and depression, lying around a dark house waiting for nothing. “The Taliban,” she says, are “a nasty germ, a dangerously militant microbe that propagates by spreading a serious disease insidiously fatal to the freedom of women.”
• Frank Rich: Obama at the Precipice (NYT)• Gerald Posner: Karzai Family SecretsToday the grounds for betraying Afghan women again are being fertilized by the received wisdom of the “quagmire” lobby, which keeps summoning up the analogy of Vietnam. But Afghanistan is not Vietnam, and the Taliban is not the Vietcong. The Vietcong had the sympathies, if not the active allegiance, of 80 percent of the people. The Taliban approval rating is no more than 8 percent, even in the grassroots Pashtun southeast region. The Taliban may want to separate their image from al Qaeda’s after we bombed the hell out of them, but they still share al Qaeda’s radical Islamic ideology, expressed in beatings, suicide bombings, and hostility to female education.
Saad Mohseni, the 43-year-old chairman of the Moby company and Afghanistan’s most dynamic young media executive, was dismissive of our weakening resolve when I met him at a conference in Aspen on Saturday. "When it comes to damaging U.S. interests, the Taliban and al Qaeda are the same," he told me fiercely. “War is also psychological. The Taliban are stronger now because they know they have survived the myth of American force. They have confronted their fear and survived it.” He is in no doubt that American ambivalence will reinforce terror: "It would be naïve to assume that they will turn into a strategic U.S. ally if [the Taliban] end up prevailing in Afghanistan."
One especially irritating fallacy making the rounds is that Afghanistan was always a strife-ridden tribal no man’s land. In fact, as a nation state, it enjoyed 100 years of relative peace from 1880 until the Russian tanks rolled in. I’ve just seen the wonderful little movie, Afghan Star, executive-produced by Mohseni and shown at Sundance in January, about Afghanistan’s craze for its very own version of American Idol. The film gives a vivid picture of a brutalized civilization, hungry for modernity. We see how the popular TV show offers an experience of democracy more vividly personal than the polling booth—the chance for Afghans to send a text message to vote for their favorite candidate in a talent contest. The kids we see in the film tell us over and over they are sick of war and death. They want to be cool, they want to sing and dance, and they speak the language of pop culture, English.
Now America has developed Intervention Fatigue. Our troops are severely taxed by repeated tours of duty. It’s good that Obama is taking time to weigh the consequences of risking more American lives for what, thanks to his predecessor’s attention deficit disorder, is in danger of turning out to be mission impossible. It’s an additional bad break that President Karzai’s credibility has been blown by a series of sleazy election maneuvers and dubious drug brothers who sound like refugees from Scarface.
The only benchmark for success against terrorism back home is not being hit again. Gayle Tzemach, a writer studying Afghan women who just returned from Kabul, believes Americans have forgotten why Afghanistan matters. She considers it inconceivable that we could risk a Taliban return that would strengthen their hand in a nuclear Pakistan. “We under-resourced this mission so thoroughly for so long it’s been self-fulfilling,” she told me by phone on Sunday. “It’s like giving Lance Armstrong a bike with two flat tires and no brakes and saying, I can’t believe you didn’t win the race’... Afghan women are very strong and realistic. They all say that if the U.S. thinks they can withdraw, history will repeat itself: ‘You ignore our country and I promise you that you will be back.’”
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .