The sunk cost of blood and treasure

Two local experts weigh in on U.S. departure from Afghanistan.

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afghanistan kabul 18 8 2021 The War in Afghanistan women rights
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Greg Young is a professor of political science at CU Boulder and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. As a teenager in turkey, where his father was stationed during military service, Young developed an interest in the Middle East. His research on uncertainty and counterinsurgency has made Afghanistan a primary area of focus for him. We spoke with Young about the history of this region that has been called “the graveyard of nations,” and how he thinks the U.S. removal of troops will impact women in Afghanistan and the international community. 

Boulder Weekly: Can you give me a primer on Afghan government and politics?

Greg Young: There are 14 recognized ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Balochis, Turkmens, Nooristanis (Pamiris, Arabs, Gujars, Brahuis, Qizilbash, Aimaq and Pashai), and I don’t know how many languages they speak. And there are 60 million of them that have absolutely no sense of nationalism. There is a book by a British gentleman, Rory Stewart, called The Spaces In Between (2004), and after the fall of the Taliban, he took it upon himself to walk across Afghanistan, Herat to Kabul. In doing so, he was testing A) Islamic hospitality: Would they take him in in all these little villages? And B) he was also testing what did they think about the Taliban? Do they care about Hamid Karzai (the new president the Americans had kind of installed, but he was ultimately elected)? In most of these villages, people had never been more than 25 miles from their village in their life, they had no idea what was going on in Kabul. They cared more about their poppy crop. And the hospitality was in fact fine — he spoke one of the languages — but very often these people have no sense of what it is to be an Afghan. And there’s this huge debate about how did this happen so fast? Well, the Afghan army has never been effective. The kids joined the Afghan army not because they have a belief in the central government, but because they want a job and they want to learn how to read and write.

It took nothing at all for the Taliban to bribe, pay, persuade many of these guys who had supported the government to change sides. And so the idea that somehow or another [the U.S.] can go in and nation build… the United States military delivers kinetic force with incredible velocity and precision, but that’s not how you protect women’s rights. That’s not how you build a Western-leaning democracy. That’s not how you change a tribal system that has been in place for a thousand years. 

BW: What makes Afghanistan “the graveyard of empires”?

GY: I would say the diversity, the lack of a national sentiment, the illiteracy, the lack of communication, the tough climate, the fact that it’s not really contained within the borders that we consider Afghanistan, the fact that Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium in the world and that finances the Taliban insurgency as well as some money laundering banks in Europe. And the fact that the United States is the most powerful military in the world, but we have historically not been particularly good at counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is more political than military. It’s about winning hearts and minds. And it’s very difficult to use our high technological weapons on people who have AK 47s and RPGs, and don’t communicate via any kind of electronic intelligence. 

BW: There’s international fear mounting about what’s going to happen to women in Afghanistan. How valid is that concern?

GY: It’s certainly valid. But it’s been difficult to believe that 20 years of American military intervention in Afghanistan have really improved the lives of the people there. Probably more women and girls are going to school in Kabul, but I would say that’s not true about the countryside. And I’m not saying that’s something we shouldn’t care about, but by and large, if we want to do that, that’s going to take way more troops than we were willing to put in. … Protecting women’s rights is not really the mission of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps delivering women’s rights at the point of a gun. It requires aid and economic development, as well as trying to influence the Taliban with regard to women’s rights, but you’re not going to do it at the point of a gun. We should have invaded Saudi Arabia if women’s rights were our concern 20 years ago. I don’t believe that 20 more years of American military occupation would help women’s rights any more than change them on the margins, but it’s an issue and it is something we should care about. It’s not for the military to do. It’s a political issue, not a military issue.

BW: What does the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan mean for international relations — how does it affect the world?

GY: I would say already we’re seeing openings for China and Turkey, who are trying to come in for maybe economic systems for construction projects, but not military intervention. I think we’re already seeing the Taliban trying to put on, at least in Kabul, a better face for the international community. But you see out in the countryside, what’s going on in the villages, retribution and women getting beaten up or shot for not wearing a headscarf. That certainly makes news, and I don’t know how widespread that is, but I would say you’re going to see the Taliban trying to put on a better face to the international community to maintain their aid that they’ve been getting. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, largely because of 40 years of conflict. The international community is still going to try to influence the Taliban with regard to opium production. They may be able to get some quid pro quos, but I don’t know how effective that will be. … There’s a lot of people feeling like their time in the military, that their time in Afghanistan was wasted because, ‘I lost a friend, I lost a colleague, I lost an arm, and now look what we’ve done.’ It’s a similar feeling post-Vietnam. … But there comes a time when the sunk cost of blood and treasure is not worth any future blood and treasure.  

Feminism in the Middle East

With feminist politics georgraphy professor Jennifer Fluri

We spoke with CU geography professor Jennifer Fluri more specifically about women’s rights in Afghanistan. For the last 25 years, Fluri has studied — often in the field — how feminist organizations in the region mobilize and operate, initially the internationally known Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and later, after her dissertation, a number of other women’s rights groups.

“There’s a lot of diversity in these organizations,” Flouri says. “Some, because they’re so driven by international donors, tend to take a liberal feminist, add-women-and-stir, if you will, approach; have women work outside the home to provide them with economic opportunities. Some take much more of a healthcare approach: Let’s try and decrease maternal mortality rates, decrease infant and under-five mortality, because those are serious issues in Afghanistan. Some took much more of an Islamic feminist approach and what it says in the Quran about women’s roles and Islam. Some took a more… Marxist isn’t quite the right word, but more of a community-based, working-together approach. Some organizations were raising money to run shelters for women who had run away from their families or abusive partners.”

Flouri is currently leading research on how the U.S. withdrawal of troops and resurgence of the Taliban are affecting women’s leadership roles in the country. 

“One of the things I hope [the U.S. doesn’t] do is just fetishize and focus on the veil and the burka,” as symbols of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Fluri says. “That’s not the issue. It’s more about what women’s positions in society are going to look like going forward, and how they dress isn’t as important to women as what they do or where they’re able to go. Right now it’s just so chaotic — for both men and women. What’s going to happen to the infrastructure and healthcare and all these people who had jobs? Are they no longer going to have jobs because they were dependent on international funding? Will women be in the government in any way, shape or form? What voice or influence will they be able to have? Those are, I think, the questions we should be asking.” 

Fluri suggests two organizations to donate to support Afghan women:

Women Globally Working to Protect Afghan Women: Organized by Denver resident Patricia Cooper, a multi-hyphenate feminist rights advocate, gofundme.com/f/protect-women-leaders-in-afghanistan

Rubia: Founded by Rachel Lehr, a co-collaborator of Fluri’s, Rubia has helped raised funds for evacuation and resettlement of Afghan families over the last 20 years, rubiahandwork.org/donate