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April 13, 2009 7:58 pm
The Darul Aman palace is a huge neo-classical pile with hundreds of rooms, set against the backdrop of the snowy mountains that surround Kabul. From a distance, it is an imposing sight. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I visited a few weeks ago, it is also a ruin. The palace was all but destroyed in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s.
Darul Aman was built in the 1920s by Amanullah Khan, a reformist king who also promoted women’s rights and discouraged the wearing of the burqa. Ninety years later, the king is long dead, his palace is a wreck and the burqa is ubiquitous in Kabul.
I thought of King Amanullah’s reforms this week, as debate flared over a law recently passed by the Afghan parliament. The statute, which applies to the country’s Shia minority, would require women to get their husband’s permission to leave the home and make it illegal for them to refuse to have sex with their husbands.
News of the law was a severe embarrassment for the Nato alliance, just as it was announcing a new strategy to prop up the Afghan government and fight off the Taliban. One of Nato’s most popular arguments for the war has long been that the Taliban are medieval, women-hating savages. Western officials stress the number of girls who have been able to go back to school since the fall of the Taliban seven years ago. Laura Bush, the former first lady of the US, once argued that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.
The new Afghan law is now said to be “under review” by President Hamid Karzai – while the perils faced by women’s rights activists were underlined this weekend by the murder of Sitara Achakzai in Kandahar. Similar problems are surfacing in Pakistan, now that the government has conceded control of the Swat valley – just two hours from the capital, Islamabad – to Taliban-style militants.
Since then, a horrifying video has circulated of a young girl being flogged by bearded mullahs for some alleged act of immodesty. Last week Pakistan’s human-rights commission reported that the Swat militants have destroyed 131 girls’ schools since they took power earlier this year.
Both the Pakistan and the Afghan governments are key allies of the west in the conflict formerly known as the “war on terror”. But is it also our business to prevent Afghans and Pakistanis waging a “war on women”?
Western leaders seem confused. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the outgoing Nato secretary-general, condemned the new law and said of the Afghan war: “We are there to defend universal values.” President Barack Obama took a slightly different line. He called the new law “abhorrent”. But he also said that people should remember that American troops are in Afghanistan to fight for US national security and that “we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda”.
So which is to be – universal values or national security? The easy way out of the argument is to say that there is no conflict between these aims. The Taliban and al-Qaeda oppress women and threaten the west. By defeating them, you advance western security and women’s rights.
In the case of Pakistan, this is probably true. The decision to concede the Swat valley to the Pakistani Taliban is a security disaster. It has given Islamist militants and foreign terrorists new resources and safe havens. This is dangerous for both Pakistan and the west.
So the sooner the Pakistani government can re-assert control over the area, the better. The US and the UK should use all their powers of persuasion – including financial and military aid – to persuade the Pakistanis to be less supine in Swat.
The case of Afghanistan is trickier. Nato is openly looking for an exit strategy for western troops. This could well involve dealing with those elements of the Taliban that are not committed to a global jihad – and so making some accommodation with their ferociously reactionary social values. Sadly, these do have roots in Afghan society. Things would be much easier if western views of women’s rights were indeed “universal values” – but they are not, at least not among Pashtun tribesmen. It is significant that Mr Karzai is thought initially to have approved of this new law as an electioneering gambit, ahead of the presidential poll in August.
After seven years of fighting, the US and European public now deserve some clarity about our war aims in Afghanistan. We are not fighting for women’s rights. We are fighting to prevent the country ever again becoming a base for attacks on the west.
This does not mean that the protection of women should be a matter of indifference for the US and for the European governments that have sent troops to Afghanistan. By invading the country, we took some responsibility for the government that is left behind. So while the west still funds and protects the Karzai administration, we should lean on the Afghan government not to accept outrageously misogynistic laws.
But we should also be realistic about what Nato can achieve. The very phrase “exit strategy” acknowledges that we are on our way out. Once western troops have left, it is the balance of forces within Afghan society that will decide whether girls’ schools remain open and women can walk the streets in freedom.
There are modernisers and brave individuals within Afghan society who will fight for women’s rights, long after Nato has left. But, as the fate of King Amanullah’s reforms suggests, there can be no guarantee that the modernisers will win.
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