David Rothkopf

Women, Islam, Afghanistan, President Obama, and Andrew Sullivan

Over time, I have come to the conclusion that responding to reader comments or other bloggers’ observations concerning a post that I have written is, more often than not, a mistake. Such efforts get circular very quickly and typically the parties involved really didn’t actually want a dialogue in the first place but were just ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Over time, I have come to the conclusion that responding to reader comments or other bloggers’ observations concerning a post that I have written is, more often than not, a mistake. Such efforts get circular very quickly and typically the parties involved really didn’t actually want a dialogue in the first place but were just using something I’d written as springboard to make a point they’d had in mind for a long time … or because their therapist suggested that they find harmless ways to cope with those barking voices they hear in their brains all night long.

Nonetheless, sometimes a clarification is in order. That is the case with regard to my last post, "Women and Islam: The Real Test of Our Values." Because so many people seem to have mistaken my sense of urgency for dealing more effectively with the systematic and wide-spread abuse, murder, and denigration of women around the world with an argument that the United States remain in Afghanistan in order to protect the women of that country.

Certainly, I believe that while the United States does have a presence in Afghanistan that we should do whatever is in our power to combat the violations of the basic rights of women. This should include intervening to stop it, opposing political leaders and factions of every sort that promote it or tolerate it and working hard to support initiatives that combat it and educate and empower women. We can argue about whether we are there on a counterinsurgency mission (we say we are but we’re not) or a counter-terror mission (we are but it’s over) but if we are anywhere, it is our obligation to promote and protect the most fundamental human values in which we and all civilized societies believe.

That said, I want to be absolutely clear about this — which I thought was unnecessary because I had been clear about it in the past.  We should be getting out of Afghanistan as quickly as we possibly can. As I have frequently written before, the real threats we face in the region are largely in Pakistan where containment and isolated often covert or unmanned strikes are the appropriate response. Counter-insurgency is effectively if not intentionally a code-word for a nation-building mission that is unachievable in any time frame that is tolerable to the American public. Our partners are corrupt and incompetent. Our enemies are infinitely more patient than we are. And perhaps most importantly, we have already achieved all we could have hoped to achieve following the post 9/11 strike that would inevitably have come from any U.S. president regardless of party. The Taliban regime was pushed out. Al Qaeda was degraded to the point our own CIA director has said only 50-100 remain in the country. And we have established some forward presence in the country that we should attempt to maintain after the bulk of our troops have left. (If the cost of maintaining that is continuing aid efforts that actually help improve social and economic conditions in the region, then that is a net good in my view.)

Had we established clear enough goals at the outset of the venture, we could already have been in the process of wrapping the most expansive, costly and risky phase of this venture (this ten year war) up. Similarly, had we not gone into Iraq, we might also be doing so. Not just because we would have focused more on Afghanistan but also because our currently redoubled efforts in Afghanistan were pursued, I believe, largely to provide domestic political cover for the withdrawal from Iraq that is also long-overdue.

President Obama and his advisors made a calculation on some level that by portraying Afghanistan as "the good war" to which they were committed while pulling out of "the bad war" in Iraq that they would be able to appear strong and resolutely anti-terror enough for the American electorate. The fact that Afghanistan was only a "war of necessity" very briefly — until the Taliban were out and al Qaeda was destroyed or pushed into Pakistan — was overlooked either due to convenience or misunderstanding. 

It is now clear that this stance is an uncomfortable one for the administration. They spent almost a year grappling with trying to shape an Afghanistan policy.  Then, when they arrived at one – counterinsurgency — they could barely maintain it as their stated position for six months. Because today we have the vice president saying the mission is really counterterrorism and the president trying to argue we have very limited goals there. That this is happening while his new general in command argues that we will only pull out very slowly (even as the speaker of the house suggests she expects something very different) creates the impression of confusion brought about by uncertainty. Personally, I don’t believe the president is — at heart–really comfortable with his own administration’s policy. (Which my past study of national security policy-making suggests is a far more common conundrum that you might imagine. For example, recent presidents from Johnson to Clinton have for political and other reasons boxed themselves into policies they viscerally doubted or worse.) 

My guess is that if Senator Obama were still in Congress he would be one of this administration’s harshest critics. 

In my "Women and Islam" piece I thought I made this clear enough by saying, "frankly a prolonged stay in Afghanistan is neither in the U.S. interest nor, in fact, is it moral on its own because it produces an appalling waste of life and resources and much suffering in pursuit of an unachievable goal." Perhaps the problem came when I then said that we can’t leave Afghanistan or pursue any of our regional goals and "at the same time turn a blind eye to the systematic abuse of women and its justification by friends, enemies and whatever it is you might call the Afghan and Pakistani governments." That doesn’t seem inconsistent to me but I understand how it could be misinterpreted. We need to get the vast majority of our troops out-although I think we will unfortunately need to maintain a forward presence in Afghanistan indefinitely. And we also need to address this issue of abuse of women not just in Afghanistan but around the world.  Because that can’t rationally imply global troop deployment what I meant was that we need to redouble efforts within the international community to put teeth behind our commitment to respect for women as a bare minimum for entry into global society. 

The redoubtable and frequently brilliant Andrew Sullivan took the time to comment on the idea that we could do more on this within the international community with the rejoinder, "please!" — as if an eye-roll was enough to dismiss this idea to the category of the absurd. (He said I sounded like a politician … which really hurt.) I’m as skeptical of international diplomatic mechanisms as anyone but there is certainly plenty more we can do that we are not doing to isolate and pressure countries that mistreat women. Denying them aid seems a reasonable start (except for aid that helps fix the problem). So too does denying them entry to international regimes and programs to which they seek entry for reasons of national pride or interest. After all, denying those who deny women a voice in their societies a voice in international forums seems only fair. 

This means setting aside the false justifications of religion or culture.  Neither justifies abuse, murder or compromising human rights. This means taking on the Saudis as well as the Afghans, our friends as well as our enemies, powerful countries as well as weak ones. I’m under no delusion this will be easy but it is also crystal clear that the term "world civilization" will be an oxymoron so long as the majority population of the planet is so regularly and widely abused and those with the power to do something about it continue to do so little.

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