War: What Afghan Women ‘Want?’

Tucked away in the tens of thousands of pages of WikiLeaks documents released in late July is a CIA special memorandum dated 11 March 2010. Its subject is “sustaining West European support for the NATO-led mission” in Afghanistan. The CIA document offers recommendations for shoring up public opinion in the face of growing skepticism in France, Germany and other European countries. Among the options suggested for media manipulation is the following:

Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.

This past week two major news stories on the plight of Afghan women appeared in the most influential U.S. media. The New York Times published a front page story quoting Afghan women who fear the loss of rights from political reconciliation with the Taliban. The same week Time devoted its cover photo and lead story to Aisha, a disfigured 18-year old Afghan girl whose nose was cut off by her husband. The story is headlined “What Happens If We Leave.” Aisha is described as frightened by the prospect of political reconciliation with the Taliban and quoted as saying the Taliban “are the people who did this to me.”

Are these stories just a coincidence? Could it be that the CIA’s recommended media strategy is at work in the U.S.?

Actually, the strategy of exploiting the suffering of Afghan women to justify war has been going on since the very beginning. Laura Bush famously spoke of ‘liberating Afghan women’ in a radio address in November 2001, and this has remained a core theme of U.S. and NATO policy ever since.

Protecting the rights of women in Afghanistan is certainly a just cause, but this is not an objective that can be secured through war and militarized counterinsurgency. The continuation of war has done more to harm than to help women. The few rights gained by women in the years immediately after 2001 have steadily eroded, despite the presence of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops. Foreign military intervention has sparked a powerful insurgency that has strengthened the Taliban and created a backlash against women’s rights, not only in Taliban-controlled areas but within the Kabul government as well.

To justify this folly in the name of defending women’s rights is perverse, a bizarre new chapter in the history of attempting to rationalize the irrational.

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