The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war—one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests—thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War—before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda—groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.
And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.
Unfortunately, the mission was not a success, and most of the promises made at the outset of the conflict, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, have failed to materialize. In response, insofar as they talk about Afghanistan at all, policymakers have attempted to claim that the primary U.S. interest in the country is, and always has been, about denying a foothold to the Taliban and other extremist groups—although even by this measure, the campaign has been a failure.
Nonetheless, this revisionism cannot be allowed to stand. We must evaluate America’s longest war according to the terms by which the occupation was justified–improving the status of Afghan women. And by this standard, the war must be condemned in the strongest terms: according to the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), it is impossible to verify whether any of the U.S. investments in Afghanistan have benefitted women at all.
Teachable moments, unlearned lessons
The crown jewel of U.S. efforts to empower Afghan women was supposed to be education. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations frequently touted the number of schools allegedly built in Afghanistan, and the number of students attending. However, according to a recent Buzzfeed investigation, up to one-tenth of the schools cited in these reports have either been destroyed, decommissioned, or were never built in the first place. As for the numbers on female enrollment—Afghan politicians inflated them by up to 40%.
Moreover, it generally unclear what is meant by “education” because the quality of instruction in Afghanistan varies wildly, with many schools lacking stable premises, basic security, qualified teachers, accurate texts, electricity, food, or potable water. Conversely, in many insurgent-controlled areas, the Taliban have opened new schools and even encourage women to attend, because they have come to view “education” as a means of indoctrinating a new generation of mujahedeen—in many cases relying on Cold-War era textbooks developed and provided by the United States for just this purpose.
However, the new U.S.-sponsored texts are also laden with propaganda, to include revisionist history. A good deal of the curriculum designed for girls is focused on imparting liberal values and Western gender expectations under the pretense that these norms are objectively correct. Unfortunately, far less effort was paid to providing Afghan women with the means to actualize the aspirations being inculcated within them:
Afghanistan is a heavily patriarchal society. Accordingly, the success of any feminist enterprise will be almost entirely contingent upon Afghan men and boys changing their attitudes and behaviors. But very few resources were dedicated to this purpose, because most aid monies and foreign donations were earmarked specifically for the education of women. This is a critical oversight because, for instance, most violence against Afghan women is not carried out by the Taliban or foreign fighters, but by members of their own families and communities. To make matters worse, there is virtually no legal framework or enforcement mechanisms to prevent or avenge these crimes when they occur, so perpetrators act with near-total impunity.
Moreover, Afghanistan is a very traditional society with a long history of resistance to imperialism. Attempts to simply transplant and enforce foreign standards and practices are likely to be viewed from within this context, and to be met with suspicion or outright hostility. In order to be accepted and remain viable, reforms should be derived from indigenous values, beliefs and frames of reference. The failure to take heed of these realities has been responsible for a good deal of the popular resistance to U.S.-led initiatives.
And unfortunately, there has been little done to address, or even learn from, these missteps. For instance, many of the same issues have already manifested themselves in USAID’s new female-centric PROMOTE program. But skewed priorities and mismanagement are hardly limited to initiatives for empowering women—rather, these shortcomings have come to define and undermine the entire state-building project in Afghanistan.
Reconstruction aid in Afghanistan was spent overwhelmingly on developing the country’s military. Yet despite hundreds of billions of dollars invested in these forces over a decade-and-a-half, they find themselves struggling to even maintain a stalemate against the Taliban. Meanwhile, relatively little effort has been paid to addressing the underlying socio-economic conditions that drive many Afghans to support the insurgency or participate in illicit enterprises. And the resources that were dedicated to non-military ventures have been largely squandered:
Most of the infrastructure projects in Afghanistan were awarded to private contractors with little oversight or accountability. As a result, tasks were generally completed far over budget and behind schedule—with the quality of work often being extremely low, and a good deal of the funding being difficult to account for at all. For instance, according to a recent SIGAR audit, at least 47% of the health clinics supposedly built in Afghanistan cannot be determined to have ever existed (let alone to be currently operating or functioning well).
Much of the infrastructure that actually was built in the earlier stages of the occupation is already crumbling—from schools and hospitals to more simple and essential infrastructure like roads, bridges, dams, canals or the power grid–and according to SIGAR’s assessment, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will be able to maintain what remains, let alone building upon it in the future.
In all of these efforts, USAID seemed concerned with bolstering the U.S. economy than establishing one in Afghanistan. More than 80% of the contractors assigned to projects in Afghanistan were imported foreigners: the better-paying jobs went to Americans and much of the manual labor was assigned to illegally trafficked and grossly underpaid workers from neighboring countries (in order to allow the contractor to pocket more profits). And rather than building up Afghanistan’s agricultural, textiles, or manufacturing base to provide the materials for these initiatives, resources, supplies, and even food aid were overwhelmingly procured from the United States (or U.S. companies). Even the Pentagon task force assigned with developing the Afghan economy spent more than $150 million on renting lush villas for themselves, procuring luxury meals, and insulating themselves with extensive private security.
As a result of these skewed priorities, Afghanistan was unable to leverage reconstruction resources into developing a viable and self-sustaining economy outside of illicit opium production. Instead, according to a recent Pentagon assessment, U.S. policies, practices and investments in Afghanistan fostered a culture of corruption which now poses an existential threat to the state.
In this context, it is not clear what anyone, male or female, is supposed to actually do with their education. In fact, given that unemployment remains rampant, and most workers earn less than $1 per day, it seems completely irresponsible and counterproductive to virtually double the country’s labor market by pushing for equal participation by women. In order to expand the economy or render it more inclusive, there has to be a functional economy to begin with. This should have been the priority.
Put another way: it is well-established that investing in women can pay huge dividends for entire societies, giving rise to virtuous cycles of improvement for all—to include helping to end conflicts and reduce terrorism. However, the flipside of these dynamics is that “women’s issues” are not distinct from other social challenges and, ultimately, it is impossible to meaningfully empower women without attending to broader sociological issues as well. The approach always has to be “both/and” rather than “either/or.”
A war without end or purpose
Women tend to be radically and disproportionately affected by austerity and war. Unfortunately, Afghan women are likely to face both for the foreseeable future because the U.S. did not create a stable, independent and self-sustaining Afghanistan–it created a client-state. To this day, 65% of the Afghan government’s budget continues to come from international assistance rather than tax revenues, and the country is perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy. Due to this dependent relationship on the United States, most of the hard-fought gains of the last 14 years, limited though they may be, could be washed away entirely as the U.S. draws down—despite increased investments from China and Russia.
American taxpayers have spent more than $700 billion in Afghanistan. The war has claimed more than 150,000 lives, primarily non-combatants. Additionally, thousands of U.S. soldiers have been casualties of the campaign, to include my own brother. It is monstrous to think these sacrifices may have been made in vain—but this is the reality we seem to be faced with. And just as Afghan women stood to gain the most from Operation Enduring Freedom, it is Afghan women who will bear the brunt for its failure.
The U.N. estimates that civilian deaths in Afghanistan are up 1% in the first half of 2015 as compared to last year. Female casualties, however, have increased by more than 23%. Given how the U.S.-led campaign was justified, this not just a geostrategic setback, it is a moral abomination.