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Ralph Lopez

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The Real Story Behind Time's Afghan Woman Cover: American Complicity

Posted: 08/14/10 04:00 PM ET

There has been much discussion, as well as misunderstanding, of the Time magazine cover photo of the Afghan woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban. The purported object lesson is clear: If we leave Afghanistan now, this is what will happen. The woman had tried to run away from her abusive husband, and this was her punishment. Despite the torrent of bad news about the war, Time would have us believe this is the choice we face. But that is a comic-book version of Afghanistan.

The reality is even more disturbing: The repressive and misogynistic forces the picture depicts are the very ones now being bolstered by U.S. policy.

How could this be? To understand Afghanistan, it is necessary to understand that the key fissure in the society's slow evolution towards modernity is not tribal, nor ethnic, but country versus city. And here, America's historical role in the region has had a disastrous effect on Afghanistan's women.

In 1979, the CIA started secretly aiding opponents of the pro-Soviet government in Kabul, increasing the likelihood that the Soviet Union would be drawn into what Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski hoped would be "their own Vietnam." The young socialist government, which had overthrown a centuries-old monarchy, was cosmopolitan, outward-looking, and stressed the education of women as well as men. This was a time when women in Kabul could wear mini-skirts. In its search for proxies to attack the Kabul regime, Brzezinski and the Cold Warriors turned to the conservative warlord elements in the countryside. They were of all ethnicities; Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek. What they had in common was their ability to raise and organize fighters - and their Medieval attitudes toward women.

These Mujehadeen were natural enemies of any central government that sought to consolidate power and force change. The CIA supplied them with billions of dollars in weapons and ammunition, including surface-to-air missiles that could bring down Russian jets and helicopters. The rest is history. The Russians left, Afghans were abandoned by the U.S. to deal with bombed-out rubble and millions of landmines which remain to this day, and the country devolved into brutal civil war among the factions we had armed, from which the Pakistan-based Taliban emerged victorious.

After the American offensive in 2001, Afghans woke up from their Taliban nightmare, which had imposed law and order by reducing the number of punishments for nearly all crimes to one: death. But when they looked around at their new government, to see who was now running the country, to their dismay they saw the same conservative, mountain village warlords who had made life so hellish they made the Taliban look good by comparison.

Many of these warlords had played key roles in Brzezinski's game of bogging down and enfeebling the Russian military. Now they have posts in the new government, or if they do not, soon might. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord and war criminal, started his career throwing acid in women's faces back in his college days in Kabul. These days, he fights alongside the Taliban, but is not one of them - and the U.S. and Karzai are considering bringing him into the government, because he commands 10,000 men and can help keep order.

The Tierney Report, issued this summer by the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. Tierney (D-MA), shows that we are in the process of strengthening exactly these conservative, misogynistic elements. This is the result of massive and systematic protection payments to warlords and their insurgent allies, for safe passage of military supply convoys to American bases. Without the payments, there is no way to get supplies through. The report, Warlord, Inc.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan, shows we are working at terrible cross-purposes in Afghanistan.

Rural marriage traditions which allow girls to be essentially given away as early as age 10 are at the root of much of the abuse which women endure. Dr. Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, is at the center of attempts to change the legal age of marriage for women to 18, which is the age for men. But enforcement of such a law would require government structures that can rival the power of the rural warlords. Sobhrang told a reporter in 2007: "The international community made a mistake empowering the mujahedeen who are now stronger in the provinces. They make and follow their own laws there."

For going on 10 years now, U.S. policy on Afghanistan has allowed traditional enemies of any central government to grow unchecked, unbalanced by any real effort to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. When their power is diluted with jobs programs, community infrastructure projects, and opportunities in the cities, then warlords of all stripes lose. But keep everyone in a perpetual state of semi-starvation and hopelessness, and the warlords (including the Taliban ones) remain the only employers in town. Usually those jobs involve fighting someone or other.

The answer to the warlords -- and more importantly to what Afghans, especially the young, call "warlordism" -- is the economic strengthening of the popular base. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently unveiled a program to lure the economic Taliban, that is, fighters who fight mainly for the wage, away from the insurgency with the lure of jobs. In this she has heeded the words of Karl Eikenberry, now the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, but formerly the commander of U.S. forces there, who told the House Armed Services Committee in 2007: "Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families."

But Clinton's proposal threatens to fail by not going far enough. If jobs, preferably involving the construction of basic infrastructure, are politicized and given only to those who quit the Taliban, then those ex-combatants and their families will become targets for retaliation. This would add yet further impetus for violence. For far less than the cost of one month of military operations -- about $5 billion -- a widespread cash-for-work program could be implemented for everyone.

Some Americans will say this is ridiculous when there are not enough jobs right here in the U.S. But Americans don't work for $5 a day, and Afghans are happy to. It's not the $5 billion we spend on a civilian solution in Afghanistan that will break the bank and take away jobs from Americans. It's the $250 billion and counting that we have spent on counterproductive military operations and hardware.

General David Petraeus says frequently and correctly that the "center of gravity is the Afghan people" -- not Afghan combatants, nor former combatants, but all the people. Despite his interpretation, that's an excellent argument for abandoning so-called "counter-insurgency" operations, preparing for U.S. troop withdrawal, and placing bets on an economic strategy that weakens the warlords. All our military presence has done so far is alienate a people who were not alienated before. After the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, the oppressive and rather spooky characters who had terrorized Afghans for 7 years were suddenly gone. Afghans began listening to music again, shaved their beards if they felt like it, flew kites, and engaged in countless other long-deferred Afghan pleasures. Wedding palaces went up in all their gaudy, flashing neon-light glory, and one of the first public entertainments to re-open in Kabul was the movie theater. The longest running blockbuster by a wide margin? Rambo III.

Now self-immolation and the suicide rate among Afghan women are at an all time high. With the warlords of all sides still strong and getting stronger, nothing has changed for them. The constant state of war only strengthens the Taliban by placing them in the position, as disliked as they are, of national liberators.

Strengthening the "center of gravity" by going big on jobs and development in a country where unemployment is 40 percent will weaken the warlords -- those who sit in the Karzai government and those who fight against it. By changing the dynamic, Afghans might someday resume their experiment in empowering women, so suddenly aborted by Brzezinski's eagerness to give the Russians "their own Vietnam."

This post originally appeared at Nieman Watchdog.