Are war and occupation the only safeguard for women's rights in Afghanistan?

By Lindsey German - Stop the War Coalition

If we were to believe the stories coming out of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan, the occupying armies are the thin blue line protecting women there from something much worse.

Isn’t it incredible how much the military operation in Afghanistan relies on the arguments about women’s liberation to justify its continuation?

If we were to believe the stories coming out of the conference on Afghanistan which took place in Bonn on 5 December, the occupying armies are the thin blue line protecting women there from something much worse.

They went to war justifying the killing of thousands in the name of women’s rights. Laura Bush and Cherie Blair endorsed their husbands’ warmongering.

In the ensuing decade since war began ten times as much money has been spent on the military in Afghanistan than on reconstruction -- and most of that reconstruction has been related to military aims.

So women’s position has not altered fundamentally in those ten years, and the billions of pounds spent on war have never been channelled towards social projects which might have improved the positions of women. Now some women fear that secret talks with the Taliban will weaken their position even further. They also fear that austerity cuts in overseas aid will harm the projects over women’s education.

The problem is, it is impossible to deal with the structural inequalities facing women in Afghanistan by promoting war and occupation as their only safeguard. In reality, this leaves the structures of oppression intact which ensure that women are in such a vulnerable position.

Hillary Clinton waxed lyrical in Bonn about the need to protect women. She is the same US secretary of state responsible for airstrikes on civilians in Afghanistan and for the gruesome remote control drone attacks which are killing so many in Pakistan. The US withdrawal of troops from Iraq this year comes after nearly a decade that has left I million Iraqis dead and 4 million refugees -- very large numbers of them women.

She is joined by a series of organisations that argue for the continuation of the war to protect women. The Poverty Matters blog (supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) is concerned at the lack of funding for women and their lack of real involvement in decision making over future peace talks. The Green Scarves solidarity movement with Afghan women calls for peace talks to involve women. The journalist Nick Danziger, in a video made on a visit to Afghanistan organised by Oxfam, says, ‘Among all the women I spoke to, not one single woman said they wanted the western forces to leave.’

That may be true, but if so they are not necessarily representative of Afghan women. One woman who disagrees strongly and wants to get the troops out is Malalai Joya, the former Afghan MP. She was in Bonn, demonstrating outside the conference. Joya claimed that it was a lie to say Nato troops would be leaving by 2014.

She puts a rather different case from the Afghan government, which wants some troops to stay beyond 2014, or even from some of the NGOs who are concerned about women.

Her argument is that it is impossible to fight for real democracy in Afghanistan while the troops are there. They support a corrupt and unpopular government, they work with the warlords who are some of the worst oppressors in Afghanistan, and they do nothing to help create an atmosphere where those who want democratic change could flourish.

Conditions of war make a more dangerous society, where it is harder for women to escape some of the worst aspects of a conservative and narrow social culture.

When she spoke in Bonn, Joya said that ‘Education is the key to strengthening emancipation’. Yet education for women is under attack because of cuts to aid projects. Austerity here at home is matched by a diehard commitment to _and funding for _wars abroad.

The history of Afghanistan, its place as one of the poorest countries in the world, a society which stresses control by husbands and fathers, are all features which women have to fight against. The occupation and war is not helping that process. Getting the troops out will not solve the problems of Afghan society, or the problems of women there. But it will free the country from imperialist rule and allow those Afghans who want democratic change to fight for it free of occupation.

Prolonging the war in the name of liberation will achieve the exact opposite of what its proponents intend.