How to save them.

August 6th, 2010

The debate over the American war in Afghanistan has reached something of a boiling point. The disclosure by WikiLeaks of military documents revealed skepticism among officials about the progress America has made in Afghanistan and whether its goals are achievable.  In the wake of the scandal, a recent Newsweek cover story titled, “We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It,” argued for an almost immediate withdrawal.

Photo Credit: United States Army.

As if in response, last week Time Magazine published a cover which features an 18-year-old Afghan woman named Aisha, whose beautiful face has a gaping hole where her nose once was. Her ears are also missing, though in the portrait her hair is covering the wounds. A Taliban commander sentenced her to this fate because she ran away from her in-laws, who were exploiting her as their slave. Time wrote, “This didn’t happen 10 years ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It happened last year.”

The photo of Aisha has ignited a debate worldwide on the U.S. military role in Afghanistan.  The New York Times called the cover “an Internet litmus test about attitudes toward the war.”  I have heard friends point to this cover as a “reminder to those who doubt the necessity of war.”

In part because of the Time cover image, this debate has focused on the consequences of withdrawal; in particular as they impact women. “Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved,” exclaimed Fawzia Koofi, a Member of the Afghanistan Parliament. Another Afghan women’s rights advocate, Manizha Naderi, said of the picture of Aisha, “People need to see this and know what the cost will be to abandon this country.” On the other side, critics argue “violence against women is no rationale for military violence.”

I would not challenge that the U.S. military plays a critical role in the effort to stave off the Taliban, and therefore improve the plight of women in Afghanistan.  But I must question why our debate has exclusively focused on a military solution.

Just last week Richard Holbooke, Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, stated that rampant corruption in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with an essential device for recruitment.  He added, “If you read Taliban propaganda, which we study very carefully, they never mention the issue of women, girls in school, because that was their most losing issue…What they talk about is corruption, which is why we’re here. That’s their number one recruiting tool.”

In 2004 Joseph Nye developed the now widely used concept of soft power, which is the ability of countries (or individuals) to get others to do what they want through co-option and attraction to ideals.  This is opposed to hard power, which is coercion (war) and payment (aid, usually). The debate between soft and hard power has not been lost on Afghanistan.  Many have argued the election of President Obama has signaled a U.S. foreign policy shift toward soft power, particularly in this war.  Greg Mortenson’s book, “Three Cups of Tea,” makes the case that the U.S. should promote peace, economic development and Taliban resistance by building schools in Afghanistan and that this would be far more effective strategy than military occupation.

But winning the battle against corruption is rarely parceled with soft power objectives. It should be.

We will not win the hearts and minds of Afghans on women’s rights or development alone. Afghanistan’s endemic corruption, drug trade, and the public perception of involvement by high-ranking officials in illegal activities have made the government unpopular and fueled support for the Taliban.  As the Wall Street Journal reported this has undercut “a war effort that is now focused on convincing Afghans to support their own state and turn away from the insurgents.”

It is not possible to solve the problem of corruption with military action. It is not possible to win a hypocritical war that funnels in billions of dollars in aid, but allows $3.18 billion in the last three years to escape through customs. As one U.S. official investigating corruption put it: “It’s not like they grow money on trees here. A lot of this looks like our tax dollars being stolen.”

That’s why I argue it’s time to turn the debate over military involvement, Aisha, and women’s rights in Afghanistan on its head.  It is not a question of deserting these women or not.  It is a question of how to save them.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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