Raping Afghanistan

What a pickle for the human rights hawks spraining their wrists to applaud President Obama's renewed focus on "The Right War" in Afghanistan. As it turns out, despite Laura Bush's much publicized entreaties on behalf of Afghan women, the government her husband put in place as the solution to the Taliban problem is even more misogynistic than its predecessors. Last month, President Karzai legalized marital rape, in a move that apparently constitutes political pandering in Afghanistan. This is the Afghan political leadership that the U.S. has fought for seven and a half years to install and protect, and that -- depending on the outcome of the upcoming election in Afghanistan -- 21,000 more U.S. troops may be defending against the Taliban resurgence.

To be fair, like so many other crises America and the world faces today, President Obama is not responsible for having created this problem. Moreover, he has been crystal clear that his administration's objectives in Afghanistan have little to do with the welfare of Afghan civilians. So at least he can't be blamed for hypocrisy. "We have stated very clearly that we object to this law," the President stated over the weekend. "But I want everybody to understand that our focus is to defeat al Qaeda and ensure that they do not have safe havens from which they can launch attacks against the Alliance." (Some of his pro-war supporters have been far less clear on that point.) The interests Obama's escalation are designed to protect are solely American ones -- this is no Wilsonian foreign policy at work here. But what of the Secretary of State?

Here's Senator Hillary Clinton in a Time magazine column in 2001:

Thanks to the courage and bravery of America's military and our allies, hope is being restored to many women and families in much of Afghanistan.....President and Mrs. Bush have properly highlighted the mistreatment of Afghan women by the Taliban and insist that women play a role in Afghanistan's future.....we, as liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban in Afghanistan....A post-Taliban Afghanistan where women's rights are respected is much less likely to harbor terrorists in the future.....We can start by including women in the rebuilding process in Afghanistan. And just as the Clinton Administration withheld recognition of the Taliban government and condemned its treatment of women, we must not recognize any successor government until women have the right to determine what role they will play in 21st century Afghanistan.

Can we, "as liberators," now then expect Secretary Clinton to retract U.S. recognition from the Karzai government until it repeals this abomination of a law and allows women to have an active role in rebuilding their country instead of being forced by their own elected leaders to submit to violent domination by their husbands? After all, a future of self-determination for Afghan women is pretty much exactly what then-Senator Clinton insisted American soldiers fought and died for -- not just the limited aims that now define the mission she represents.

Political rhetoric, of course, is cheap. But one would hope it would be a little less so when it comes to matters of war.

With the release of his AfPak policy review, the President has sparked a healthy and serious debate over the prospects of attempting to make America safer through the use of military force in the region. There is plenty for people of good faith to disagree about within that limited frame. But unless and until the Secretary of State stands behind her words from eight years ago and directs U.S. diplomats to withhold recognition of the Karzai regime -- an unlikely prospect to say the least -- then advocates of escalation in Afghanistan need to quit pretending that the interests of the Afghan people have a thing to do with the rationale for continuing this endless war.

One thing is clear from Afghanistan: military means do not well serve social or humanitarian ends, and nor does lofty and empty rhetoric. If it did, the administration would not now be in the position of being forced to consider what to do about a U.S. puppet regime that endorses the rape of its own citizens. If there's something good to be said for Obama's policy review of the conflict in Afghanistan -- and I don't believe there is much good to be said for it -- at least it's honest about the depressingly limited objectives a military-first approach can achieve.

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