We’re doin’ it for the kids

An Afghan woman and her daughter grieve after an air strike in Shindand district last summer. Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP

A very interesting article appears today in the Independent, discussing some policy concessions proposed by representatives of the Taliban who have been quietly negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Among the proposals: a commitment to refrain from banning the education of girls, measuring the length of beards, or making the wearing of burqas compulsory.

This puts in a new context yesterday’s revelation that President Karzai recently signed a law that codifies the rights of Afghanistan’s Shi’as to be governed by family law based on traditional Shi’a jurisprudence, which (it is believed, since the law itself has not yet been publicly released) prevents women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.

Immediate commentary saw purely political motives behind Karzai’s signature, labelling it a blatant appeal for electoral support from Shi’as (who make up roughly 20% of the population – the Guardian article claims 10% for some reason), and specifically from the Hazaras (who are themselves predominantly Shi’a and who, as the third largest ethnic group in the country behind Pashtuns and Tajiks, represent a powerful swing vote). But perhaps Karzai was also sending kind of signal to the Taliban, attempting to reassure them that the future of a peaceful Afghanistan will be a traditional and religious one, not one in which the country has become a Central Asian version of Orlando, Florida.

Liberals are outraged at what they see as Karzai’s backsliding. Marc Malloch Brown, the UK’s Foreign Office minister for Africa, Asia, and the UN, declared that “The rights of women was one of the reasons the UK and many in the West threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan. It matters greatly to us and our public opinion.” This is true, as far as it goes, and indeed the Afghan war in this sense represents a kind of temporary rebirth of the Cold War consensus that existed (most of the time) between internationalist liberals and anti-communist conservatives: liberals are happy to champion the war insofar as it frees benighted foreigners from medieval traditions, and conservatives are happy to champion women’s rights insofar as it gives them carte blanche to kill terrorists and demonstrate American military prowess.

Yet both of these motives are quite literally foreign to the actual residents of Afghanistan, who must somehow conceive of and then implement a peace process that will result in a government that is neither extremely religious, extremely corrupt, nor extremely oppressive — but one which, when all is said and done, will likely be at least moderately religious, corrupt, and oppressive. Standing in the way of achieving this humble goal has been the Taliban’s unrealistic hope of returning to power and re-establishing a zealous and puritan rule, and the West’s unrealistic hope of turning Afghanistan into a pluralist liberal democracy with all the mod cons.

But military stalemate has had a salutary effect on both sides, forcing positions¬† gradually to soften. To those who believe in unconditional surrender, talk of compromise sounds treasonous. Yet it is just this spirit of compromise against a backdrop of stalemate that eventually tamed the Irish Republican Army. Neither extreme Loyalists like Ian Paisley nor extreme Republicans like the “Real IRA” were pleased with the compromises being made, but everyone else was — a fact that enabled Northern Ireland to find its way to peace after decades of insurgency.

Similarly, peace will one day come to Afghanistan, and the compromises that make it possible will also, almost certainly, make a lot of people unhappy. Depending on the goals we had for the war, peace may even feel a little bit like defeat. But any such unhappy peace will be preferable, for the people that really matter, to continued war. The campaign in Afghanistan, which began as an attempt to topple the Taliban government and capture Osama bin Laden, has gone on for nearly eight years now, and has lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians. Our ends do not justify such destructive means. So when our governments tell us that we’re fighting in Afghanistan to ensure that little girls can go to school, we should balance this claim against the following basic truth.

War doesn’t educate little girls; it kills them.

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