Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

The powerful image that appeared on the cover of the recent issue of Time Magazine in one sense represents the terrible problem of global violence against women, sanctioned by a hodgepodge of tribal customs, religious misinterpretation and government-sponsored terror campaigns against citizen populations. But the image is just part of a cover story, accompanied by its own question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” 

Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

Anticipating a reaction, managing editor Richard Stengel wrote:  “Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.” 

Stengel goes on to acknowledge the disturbing effect the image might have on children and to detail the elaborate security measures taken on behalf of Aisha, who also faces the promise of reconstructive surgery in the United States. And then he makes this statement: “I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”  

In the final paragraph, he makes reference to the Wikileaks report on the progress (or lack) of the war. Stengel insists the story is not a corrective to those reports; “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”

He concludes, however, by noting that, “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”

Emotional truth: the phrase has the same effect on me as “the real story”; it’s often a disingenuous way of skewing the story and pulling the reader/viewer to one side. Maybe that’s what all good storytelling does; certainly it’s what an opinion piece does, but then why the disclaimer?  

Most of us realize that the Taliban represents a local cultural interpretation of a religious way of life that is obscenely oppressive to women. We also know this sort of interpretation allows many cultures to subjugate its women, a fact that compels my involvement with organizations such as Women for Women.  Yes, there could be dire consequences for women and for all citizens if the Taliban were to return to power. 

But the picture, coupled with the question that is really a statement in disguise (“this WILL happen after we leave Afghanistan) is designed to shock and, I think, to manipulate. The implication is that we readers will have allowed these sorts of horrific mutilations to continue should the U.S. withdraw. I appreciate that the author at least addresses the difficulties in getting the government to speak out forcefully against these crimes committed against its own citizens. Afghanistan President Karzai seems to believe that negotiation with the Taliban is his only option, and that he finds himself in an  either/or situation, whereby he must sacrifice the rights of girls to attend school in order to save lives. His government could do both if it had the will to shake off the corruption and commit resources to building a strong army along with a strong infrastructure. But it doesn’t and we’ve left U.S. troops to engage in simultaneous efforts of changing local hearts and minds (and customs) while maintaining a highly visible and active military presence.  

History is supposed to have taught us that trying to counter a persistant homegrown insurgency that combines tribal instincts with modern weaponry is something of a fool’s errand. That doesn’t mean that we don’t remain fully commmitted to human rights around the world, only to recognize the limits of military intervention. 

Maybe the editors of Time were sincerely trying to present another view of the conflict in Afghanistan; maybe they were trying to shock or guilt readers into considering the consequences of a hasty peace; or maybe they were engaged in a bit of sensationalism, not to mention competition with Wikileaks’ domination of the news cycle over the past week.    

So no, there’s nothing wrong with the image, which says everything about the horrific abuses women suffer every day in the name of custom or tradition or religion. But in assessing the cover as a whole, we might remember when presented with claims of emotional truth: there’s never just one.

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“I am not opposed to all wars; I’m opposed to dumb wars.”
then-candidate Barack Obama, March 26, 2008
ObamaAfghanistan is a war which we didn’t start but which we will end. We have twenty months (more or less) to do so. Before we end it, we will provide a surge to counter the insurgency. This will be done in full view of absolutely everybody. This is not done lightly but with the security of the United States in mind. We will secure key areas (not deeply rural areas because we can’t; no one can) against the Taliban as we  train and grow the Afghan Army. Yes, we are forced to count on support from a deeply corrupt government, but we will hold that government accountable. We will not send them money directly but instead will fund local leaders, build up local miltia and convert former insurgents. We cannot send troops uninvited into Pakistan, where we know Al Qaeda is most active and where the nuclear arsenal is less than secure, but we will be close by. We will try to cut off any nascent partnership between the Taliban and Al Qaeda and prevent new alliances from growing. Most importantly, we will convince ordinary Afghans that we are there to help them take their country back and then move it forward. This is at the heart of any lasting success.
War is hell. It’s also either strategic, unavoidable, inevitable, unwinnable, manageable, practical, essential — or dumb. What have we here?

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According to the weekly news index from Pew Research, Afghanistan has become the focus of both old and new media – at least until some cute video of a pet or a baby starts circulating or some reality show contestant starts complaining, at which point new media will take a sharp detour. I’ve been hesitant to blog about international affairs recently. So many people do it so much better (see Steve Clemons’ Washington Note) and what can I add? Or perhaps I should say: where’s the challenge? How hard is it to criticize a policy in flux? Like shooting fish in a barrel – one of my least favorite images, by the way, as it manages to encompass both cruelty and an excessive use of firepower to prove a point.

Still, I’m going to toss in my two cents, though I risk pointing out the obvious, over-simplifying the situation, and boring my readers to tears. We all need to be at least superficially up to speed before we can determine, not only what we want our country to do in Afghanistan, but also why we always seem to end up in these positions.


Afghanistan is a country with a complex history. Landlocked, the area has been at the crossroads of competing eastern and western, religious and secular empires for centuries. For the last thirty years, it has been in a continuous state of civil war. In the late seventies, the secular government in Afghanistan was also viewed as pro-Soviet. The U.S. Cold War strategy at the time was to covertly support the “other” side in order to counter Soviet influence in the Persian gulf. In the case of Afghanistan, our 80ssupport went to a loose but ideologically conservative coalition of religious leaders and tribal leaders – the mujahideen. The Soviets then countered with an invasion to shore up their friends in the government, the United States began to arm the anti-communist factions (which also received aid from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and a horrible civil was broke out in which between half a million and two million Afghan citizens were killed. You can check at any one of dozens of sites on Afghan recent history (even Wikipedia is more or less up to date) or you can watch the infinitely enjoyable CW's war copy“Charlie Wilson’s War” starring Tom Hanks, Philip Hoffman Seymour and Julia Roberts. I leave it to you.

Although the United States may have assumed an ideological victory (as Charlie Wilson never did), it became clear, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that we might have backed the wrong horse. The Taliban wreaked havoc on the citizenry in its zeal to bring everyone in line with the supposed dictates of a particular brand of fundamentalism, resulting in not only a mass exodus of intellectuals but also a repressive regime that removed freedoms, violates human rights and reduced women to second-class citizens.


The United States’ activities in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks were called “Operation Enduring Freedom” a military campaign to destroy presumed Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. 301px-US_Army_Afghanistan_2006The U.S. also sought to overthrow the Taliban government because they were presumably harboring Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, although documents show that Washington was giving the Northern Alliance information and logistics support as part of concerted action with India, Iran, and Russia – that would be our current adversary and our former one. The Taliban was ousted, the secular leader Hamid Karzai was made the 225px-Hamid_Karzai_in_February_2009transitional chairman of the newly installed government, then became president in 2004.


In a few words: Taliban resurgence, particularly in the countryside, an spike in illegal drug activity, corruption charges against the present government currently enjoying U.S. largesse, voting fraud and human rights violations still occurring and the Afghan people – and our foreign policy – once again caught between a rock and a hard place. The Afghan government is neither reliable nor trusted by the people. The extent of our ability to force change appears limited. Even Joe Biden is dismayed. What we have is money to withhold and manpower to withdraw. We can just say no, or as Tom Friedman suggested in his NY Times op-ed piece, tell the government to shape up or we ship out. And do it.

We might also consider asking (or demanding or forcing) our own strategic thinkers to get to work redefining their own terminology with respect to our policy in Afghanistan and indeed around the world. What does it mean to choose sides? What does a victory look like? How do we propose to battle an ideology? What do we think will make the United States safe, what with poorly protected facilities, ill-defined immigration policies, poor follow-up for visas and other home protection issues that need attention? Can we say we’ve seriously considered a wholesale revamping of our foreign policy and military approaches to make those approaches at once more robust and more practical?

Or shall we continue as always, with an either/or, add more, subtract more, we won/we lost mentality? Shall we continue to send our troops into harm’s way while our leaders dither about what a sustainable foreign policy in the twenty-first century looks like and the rest of us dither about whatever it’s easiest to absorb?

That seems almost too easy – like shooting fish in a barrel.fish

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