Thursday, November 1, 2012

Women in Afghanistan: Then, Now, Tomorrow

Aesha is a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off as the penalty for fleeing her abusive in-laws.

Aesha posed for the Time magazine cover photo because she wanted the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan. Or this is the story being reported by the American media.

Today Aesha has a nose, but only a prosthetic nose. As of May 2012, the psychological damage suffered by the young woman has proven more destructive than her disfigurement. She has mood swings – violent tantrums. According to the British Mail Online, "Her plastic surgery had to be delayed because (she was emotionally not ready to cope with) the painful and lengthy surgery required."

Aesha is in ruins, physically and emotionally, and so is her homeland.

For another media report, try this link to a New York Times story on another young girl attacked and left for dead in an honour killing.

The last I heard, all Canadian military will be out of Afghanistan after 2014. Canada will continue to financially support the Afghan military for three years with an annual payment of $110-million, but our military presence will be over.

Canada claimed one of its priorities in Afghanistan was to help Afghan women. Are we abandoning this goal as we prepare to leave the Asian country, its society and culture in tatters after decades of war?

I understand the Canadian military is in favour of this action and I can understand why. The story we are told is that Afghanistan is a battle that cannot be won. And they are right, at least when it comes to the present military battle.

Supposedly the country is a brutal, tribal land ruled by vicious war lords. Foreign armies foolish enough to invade, it is said, find themselves mired in a crushing, unending war impossible to win. The history of foreign engagements in the country over almost the past two centuries seems to support this belief.

Afghan women, I've been told, are treated cruelly but that is the Afghan way. There is nothing we can do to save these women. This is a problem that can only be solved by the Afghans themselves.

I'm not a war booster. I find the entire idea of marching off to war repellent, although sometimes it is necessary. As a young man I considered myself very luck to be Canadian and not compelled to fight in Viet Nam like so many of my American friends. I didn't support that Southeast Asian war.

The invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent war seems somewhat similar to that long over Southeast Asian conflict. The sooner the Western military is out the better. Still, Afghanistan seems different from Viet Nam. Under the Taliban Afghanistan seems more like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

According to the Cambodian section on mekong.net

There is nothing unique about government-sponsored violence. There is, in fact, nothing especially unusual about widespread killing, or even genocide. The rallying cry heard in the wake of World War II — "Never again!" — is a noble sentiment but not a reflection of reality. Ask the Indonesians, or the Timorese, or the Salvadorans, or the Rwandans, or the Albanians . . . or the Cambodians. (Allow me to add, the Afghans to this sad list.)

I'm troubled by our leaving of Afghanistan. It will not be long before all Western armies will have departed. Were we wrong to have entered Afghanistan? Probably. Are we wrong to be leaving? Probably not.

Still, leaving Afghanistan in ruins, its culture and traditional society destroyed, is to leave a vaccuum that may well be filled by the Taliban, religious fanatics, or by the criminal warlords once decried and now, in many cases, enjoying begrudging support by the West. This is a Gordian that cannot be cut, the result simply unravels, we must find a way slowly to untangle the mess that the British, the Russians, the Americans, even the Afghans themselves have created.

I worry I don't know enough to make a thoughtful decision. I do know that every time I try to learn a little about Afghanistan, I come away more confused. What I discovered when I start researching this post didn't  jibe neatly with the stories I usually heard and always claimed to reflect "the truth."

Sgt. Kimberly Lamb U.S. Armed Forces-Released by U.S. Army: ID 120627-A-LE308-091
First, the country is not all a complete desert waste land. There are large swaths of the country that one could call lush. Think of the United States. If you have ever traveled the American West, you know what a large chunk of the U.S. is arid desert. But no one would call the United States anything but blessed when it comes farmland. Countries are big places.

Afghanistan is in many ways a blessed land. It was not always hell. Many would argue strongly that the West brought and installed hell in Afghanistan. Is there anyway that as we remove troops from the country that we can take the hell out of the little country as well?

When I began asking questions about women and their place in Afghan culture I found the following published by the U.S. Department of State:

Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society.  Women received the right to vote in the 1920s; and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. There was a mood of tolerance and openness as the country began moving toward democracy. Women were making important contributions to national development. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan's highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women. Afghan women had been active in humanitarian relief organizations until the Taliban imposed severe restrictions on their ability to work. These professional women provide a pool of talent and expertise that will be needed in the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Islam has a tradition of protecting the rights of women and children. In fact, Islam has specific provisions which define the rights of women in areas such as marriage, divorce, and property rights. The Taliban's version of Islam is not supported by the world's Muslims. Although the Taliban claimed that it was acting in the best interests of women, the truth is that the Taliban regime cruelly reduced women and girls to poverty, worsened their health, and deprived them of their right to an education, and many times the right to practice their religion. The Taliban is out of step with the Muslim world and with Islam.

Afghanistan under the Taliban had one of the worst human rights records in the world. The regime systematically repressed all sectors of the population and denied even the most basic individual rights. Yet the Taliban's war against women was particularly appalling.
Is the above all true. Yes, but the story is getting some spin.

According to Huma Ahmed-Ghosh: "Afghanistan may be the only country in the world where during the last century kings and politicians have been made and undone by struggles relating to women’s status." But he does agree with the Yanks when he says, "Women in Afghanistan were not always oppressed by fundamentalism as occurred under the Mujahideen and the Taliban."

I know arguing for any continuing involvement by Canada in Afghanistan is not a popular position. I know that few question the wisdom, the morality, of pulling our troops out of Afghanistan. It is not a welcoming country for our military. Still, does our total abandonment of the country after a few additional short years demonstrate wisdom or morality? Would our feelings change if our wives,  daughters, granddaughters were threatened by the violence of the resurgent Taliban?

Wanting to know more about Afghanistan, both the history and the present situation, I am posting links to a number of important documentaries that I tracked down on YouTube. The first two are historical and were originally broadcast by the BBC. The next four are the work of two excellent Canadian journalists, David Pugliese and Scott Taylor, who travelled about war torn Afghanistan carefully documenting what they found. Talk about guts. These are two incredible journalists. (I worked with Dave Pugliese when he was a reporter for The London Free Press.)

One approach to assisting the Afghans with minimal military involvement is the use of PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams). The Canadian reporter, Scott Taylor, interviews a Turkish chap about his country's PRTs and their success. Canada supports a number of PRT projects in the Kadahar region.

I found a number of good videos on Afghanistan but the links keep breaking. I am supplying the following plus links but be warned all embedded video and all links may not work by the time you visit.


For part two you will have to google it. Good luck. Also, google Rory Stewart. He is not simply a talking, media head. His views carry weight.

One  America woman interviewed in the Canadian documentary, Sarah Chayes, wrote a book, The Punishment of Virtue, detailing her experiences in Afghanistan. We learn from her Internet site:

 "The story Chayes tells is a powerful, disturbing revelation of misguided U.S. policy and of the deeply entrenched traditions of tribal warlordism that have ruled Afghanistan through the centuries."

"She reveals how the tribal strongmen who have regained power-after years of being displaced by the Taliban-have visited a renewed plague of corruption and violence on the Afghan people, under the complicit eyes of U.S. forces and officials."

This is a link to a review of her book in The New York Times.

When you consider the time and money that the West has dumped in Afghanistan, how does one explain that this little Asian country has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. No place one earth equals Afghanistan at 121. 63 deaths per 1000 live births. Its neighbour, Turkmenistan has a rate of approximately 40, while Uzbekistan is about 20.

But death doesn't just stalk the very young in Afghanistan. The life expectancy at birth is only 49.72 years.


  1. That's an interesting take on it.

    "I know my position here is not popular. I know that few question the wisdom, the morality, of pulling our troops out of Afghanistan. . . . "

    I don't think you made your position clear. I think it is "I reluctantly support continued Canadian military action in Afghanistan".

    Is the above all true.[?] Probably. Is the story getting some spin.[?]

    I haven't had a chance to look at the David Pugliese and Scott Taylor videos yet.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I have rewritten some of my post as my thoughts are evolving as I watch the videos to which I linked, and as I read comments like the one I received from you.