Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Rethinking Afghanistan

That was the title of a session today at the CAF conference. The speakers were Robert Greenwald (a documentary film-maker), Anand Gopal (a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor), Roshanak Wardak (Member of the Parliament, Afghanistan) and Ann Jones (author). Dr. Wardak is a native Afghani and the other three panelists have spent considerable time in Afghanistan.

The rethinking the panel urged us to do is about the role of the U.S. military. All four argued that the presence of American military forces makes life more difficult in Afghanistan, and that those forces should be withdrawn, if the well-being of ordinary Afghanis is what we are concerned about.

But the military invasion wasn't about the well-being of the ordinary Afghanis, whatever Laura and George Bush once told us. It was about Afghanistan as a terrorist haven and training camp, and given the similar role of the nearby tribal areas in Pakistan it's not terribly likely that the U.S. military would just leave.

I found the discussion on women's issues most interesting. Several panelists pointed out that the women in Kabul and a few other larger cities may have benefited from the 'liberation' the American forces brought. Girls can go to school in those areas and some women can work outside the home or choose to do without the burqa. But nothing at all has changed for the vast majority of women, especially those who live in very traditional rural areas. One panelist quoted a Supreme Court judge who had stated that women in Afghanistan have two rights: to obey their husbands and to pray at home.

Ann Jones argued that the presence of U.S. forces in rural areas actually diminishes the freedom of local women and girls. The men lock them up to protect them from foreign men. She also pointed out that the U.S. military has been taught to respect the local 'cultures' so well that they only talk to the powerful men in the villages and ignore all other villagers, including all women. But this makes the Afghanis think that the American talk about women's rights is so much hogwash. After all, Americans themselves only pay attention to the men in the villages!

What are we to conclude, then, about the future for the women of Afghanistan if the forces stay or if they leave? The message I got (though I'm feeling unusually cynical, these days) is that their future is gloomy either way but perhaps slightly less so if the forces leave.