By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Little by little U.S. policy makers are beginning to realize that a war with the Taliban can’t be won. Why not? Because it’s almost impossible to extricate or isolate “the Taliban” from the rest of Afghan society.
Here, for instance, is a less than exhaustive list of how and why Afghan menfolk get involved with the Taliban: Theology. Ethnic loyalty. Yearning for justice and order. Traditional mores. Excitement and adventure. Disgust with corruption in Kabul. Money. Self-protection. Anti-American, anti-foreigner sentiments. Fear, threats or duress.
Unfortunately for American (or NATO) aspirations, no one incentive can counter or neutralize each and all of these motivations. As far as theology is concerned, there is a civil war going on within Sunni Islam. Since this is not our battle, we can’t win it. What's more, our influence is negligible—or worse: by confronting the Taliban, we create sympathy for beleaguered fellow Muslims even among those who actually loathe the Taliban. The U.S. has also been unable to mitigate corruption within a central government functioning under a Constitution imposed by foreigners, whose fingerprints taint it beyond redemption, corrupt incumbents or not. Traditional Afghans ask: wouldn’t Sharia or simple Paktunwali be preferable? Fear is more elemental. Fear goes away when the Americans patrol, though relief is usually tinged with the shame of depending on non-Afghans for security. When the Americans move on to the next village, district or province, however, the guys with the guns are Taliban again. Time to grow the beard back.
So it’s not surprising that a new Washington consensus is emerging: bring the Taliban in from the cold. Get them to buy into the system. More wishful thinking! If the Taliban leadership (or even lower level types) were sincerely amenable to joining in a government according to the present rules, why have they been fighting all these years? Who honestly believes the Taliban, even in partial power, will respect women’s rights (defined according to Western standards) even if they promise to do so? Isn’t this the likely scenario: they’ll persuade their non-Taliban male colleagues to limit women’s opportunities, little by little, until it’s back into the box, ladies.
The Taliban may take a while to regain the unchallenged upper hand in much of Afghanistan, and that’s the bright side for American forces. With a little luck, the Yanks will be gone, the war lords will regroup and the re-Talibanization can be blamed on U.S.-favored Afghans who refused to use a proven model effectively. Whew!
Actually, most Afghan men won’t suffer during this transition. Changing sides is an art form in pragmatic Afghanistan. As for women, well, it’s the women who flourished in those bubbles of American (and earlier, ironically, Soviet) protection. Throwing aside the burqa, they practiced their professions—medicine, law, education, politics—openly. Others ran beauty parlors or NGOs, many for the advancement and protection of women fleeing the still heavy hand of traditional patriarchy. And then there were the girls who trooped to school, eager to train their minds for a fully human existence. Young or mature, these women threaten the old mores. They will be targets as the Taliban regain legitimacy. The better known will not be safe, even if they retreat behind the veil. As for the the young brides facing forced marriage to repulsive old men, the weary women battered beyond bearing, the girls who let their gaze stray innocently in the direction of a young goatherd, who will save them in a retalibanized Afghanistan? Their only safety will lie outside Afghanistan, if they can make it, if there’s an underground railroad to pass them safely, hand to hand, to a haven of refuge and rebirth.
The U.S. has a spotty record that includes abandoning those who help and trust us. People who risked their lives to work for us in Iraq or even those who put in thirty or forty years of loyal service in our embassies have to jump through ungracious hoops to get immigrant visas. Nevertheless, there is a procedure, and I am suggesting that women who “came out” during the American heyday in Afghanistan are equally deserving.
It won’t be easy for a barely pubescent girl in the coming new/old Afghanistan to escape brothers seeking to kill her for honor's sake, but should she show up in some U.S. embassy or consulate asking for refuge, will we honor her plea? Or will we send her home to certain death in a land we thought we could change, but couldn’t?