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Howard Dean on Continued War in Afghanistan: YEAAAGGGHHH!!!!

Yeah, I went there.

I rooted for Howard Dean until the end in 2004. I remember watching the video feed as he let out his infamous "Dean Scream," thinking to myself that this man is trying just a little to hard to keep his supporters’ enthusiasm going. Most people who were paying attention to the situation on the ground knew our team had serious and potentially insurmountable problems. Yet here was Dean, shrieking positive energy with all his might, insisting we were still headed for the Promised Land. When I stumbled [h/t Siun] across his recent cringe-inducing display of enthusiasm for the Afghanistan war, it took me right back to that Iowa stage:

Here’s what’s at stake. It’s not just the Taliban. I think we could probably control the Taliban and the al-Qaeda in the Northwest territories by doing some of the things we’re already doing—drones and air power and so forth. Roughly 50 percent of the Afghan people are women. They will be condemned to conditions which are very much like slavery and serfdom in a twelfth century model of society where they have no rights whatsoever. So, I’m not saying we have to invade every country that doesn’t treat women as equal, but we’re there now. We have a responsibility. And if we leave, women will experience the most extraordinary depredations of any population on the face of the earth. I think we have some obligation to try and see if we can make this work, not just for America and our security interests, but for the sake of women in Afghanistan and all around the globe. Is this acceptable to treat women like this? I think not.

"If we leave women will experience the most extraordinary depredations…" If we leave. Is Howard Dean under the impression that our counterinsurgency efforts are on behalf of a government friendly to women? His comments seem to indicate that the parties to the conflict include:

  1. the United States, fighting to prop up
  2. a pro-women’s rights Kabul government, threatened by
  3. woman-hating insurgents.

This is a childish and willfully ignorant statement of the situation in Afghanistan, and it’s dangerous. The canard that U.S. military violence in Afghanistan helps women is false, no matter how many times intellectually shallow rhetoric makes the claim–but repetition can make it true in the mind of the public. To butcher Aaron Sorkin, if Howard Dean thinks the war in Afghanistan–or any war for that matter–helps women, then apparently he was campaigning in 2004 to be the Chief Executive of Fantasy Land.

War’s Effects on Women

Let’s stop and think for a minute about the effects of war on women, whether it’s in Afghanistan or Antarctica. From

…"[G]ender-based inequity is usually exacerbated during situations of extreme violence such as armed conflict." Women and girls in particular experience conflict and displacement in different ways from men because of the gender division of roles and responsibilities. The targeting of women and girls by armed forces further exacerbates the situation.Examples of such targeting and gender-based inequity leading to higher mortality and morbidity (illness) among females during armed conflict include:

  • violence against girls and women, including rape and sexual slavery;
  • hunger and exploitation in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, when men take control of food distribution;
  • malnutrition, when food aid neglects women’s and children’s special nutritional requirements; and
  • culturally inappropriate and/or inadequate access to health services, including mental and reproductive health services.

…Health services for women, girls and the children in their charge break down in wartime, just when they need them most…Often health services available in emergency situations are dominated by men, so many women and girls, for cultural or religious reasons, underutilize these services despite their need of them.

The population movements and breakdown of social controls engendered by armed conflict encourage, in their turn, rape and prostitution as well as sexual slavery to serve combatants. Unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, are the collateral physical effects of this human degradation.

So please, Dean et. al., spare us the tripe that bombs, drones, and strapping, chivalrous men with guns advance the cause of women. They don’t. Grow up.

The Rule of the Rapists

If Dean had bothered to just type in "rape" and "Afghanistan" as search terms in Google, he would have found a recent report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Silence is Violence, disclosing that rape is not even a crime in under the laws of the government for which American troops are killing and dying. However, a woman who reports a rape to the authorities will find that sex outside of marriage is a crime, and she will probably be convicted of that crime unless she can produce four male witnesses that corroborate her claim that the sexual intercourse was not consensual. If imprisoned, she may find herself at the mercy of detention facility officials who "are said to have forced female detainees into prostitution or to conduct sexual acts in exchange for food and other items."

If she manages to avoid punishment from the legal system, cultural mores (not Taliban decrees) dictate acceptable resolutions of the conflict between her family and that of her assailants, including:

  • killing both the victim and the rapist,
  • forcing the victim to marry the rapist, or
  • giving girl(s) from the rapist’s family to the victim’s family as compensation for lost honor.

All this assumes, of course, that the rapist isn’t totally immune from accusation in the first place. For example, marital rape is considered a contradiction in terms. Readers might recall the international outcry in response to the passage of a law by the Afghan national government enshrining a husband’s legal right to demand sex from his wife four times a week–essentially, legalizing rape in some parts of the country. Under intense pressure, the law was changed:

Though the section about submitting to sex every four days has been deleted, other articles remain that give a husband power to order sex, said Shinkai Kharokhel, a lawmaker from Kabul involved in efforts to reform the legislation…[A husband] can withhold [financial] support if [his wife] refuses to submit to his "reasonable sexual enjoyment," according to a translation of the article supplied by Human Rights Watch…Such an exception is equivalent to saying a husband can starve his wife if she is refusing to have sex with him, Kharokhel said.

Worse, powerful government officials and their cohorts frequently sexually assault women with impunity:

In the northern region for example, 39 percent of the cases analyzed by UNAMA Human Rights, found that perpetrators were directly linked to power brokers who are, effectively, above the law and enjoy immunity from arrest as well as immunity from social condemnation.

This toxic atmosphere for women’s sexual rights under the Kabul regime led local women’s rights groups to coin a new phrase for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan: "The Rule of the Rapists." Recounting the hollow victory for women brought about after the fall of the Taliban, one NGO worker said:

"During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged; now she’s raped."

Kabul’s (Lack of) Response to Threats Against Women

Again, from Silence is Violence:

…Female parliamentarians, provincial council members, civil servants, journalists, women working for international organizations (including the United Nations), as well as those considered to be engaged in “immoral” professions, have been targeted…in some instances by government authorities…Lack of adequate protection from the Government, as well as support from the international community, is a source of complaint and frustration for women in high-profile positions.

Women cannot express themselves freely, particularly when their actions are deemed to conflict with traditional practices. Women in politics, for example, not only face threats and attacks from anti-government elements, but also from within the ranks of government. Chauvinist attitudes, conservative religious viewpoints and the domination of Parliament by MPs with a history of warlordism, means that women are silenced; they actually face attacks – both verbal and physical – if they speak their minds. In 2006, MP Malalai Joya had water bottles and abuse hurled at her by fellow MPs when she questioned the criminal records of some Mujahedeen; she had to be escorted out of parliament for her own safety.

…Victims repeatedly complain that inadequate attention is given by authorities when they report a case of harassment, threat or attack. Women feel that the lack of action by Afghan authorities serves to reinforce the view that perpetrators of violence are immune from punishment.

…Afghan women have repeatedly reported that they have lost faith in the law enforcement and judicial institutions that they consider ineffective, incompetent, dysfunctional and corrupt. Referring an incident to the police, the national directorate of security (i.e., the intelligence service) or a prosecutor is said to be of no avail; cases are usually not taken seriously, properly recorded or acted upon. Ultimately, authorities are not willing or are not in a position to provide women at risk with any form of protection to ensure their safety. For instance, the outspoken head of a district office of a department of women’s affairs told UNAMA that following threats from the Taliban over a period of several months in 2008, her request for security guards for her office was turned down, including by the provincial governor, who she reported had told her: “if you are under threat, just go home.”

The UNAMA report relays a popular Afghan saying to convey the widespread attitude toward women:

“Women are made for homes or graves.”

Conclusion: Dean’s Scorn-Worthy Enthusiasm

The U.S. military is not in Afghanistan on some vague mission to bring happiness, light and human rights to the Afghans. The President, his congressional allies and his generals have defined the effort in Afghanistan as counterinsurgency, meaning that our goal is to back the Kabul government with sufficient skill and vigor that it/we compel the local population’s consent to the rule of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and obtain their cooperation in driving out the Taliban. But make no mistake: counterinsurgency favors "peace over justice"–it says so right there on page xxxix in the manual. That means that, in pursuit of the defeat of the insurgency, we’ll look the other way as the host nation government violates rights of citizens as long as we share a common purpose.

All of the above information about the plight of women under the rule of U.S. allies in Afghanistan is readily accessible by anyone with an Internet connection; only the willfully ignorant can pretend that our "team" in Kabul is the do-gooder, pro-women’s-rights faction, facing off against those who seek to repress women and wrap them in burqas. Repression of women in Afghanistan transcends the line between the Taliban and the Kabul government. The Taliban might enforce their draconian modesty laws through beatings, but where Kabul’s writ holds, modesty is enforced by sexual assault–meaning burqas have become something of a self-defense mechanism versus the regime our violence supports.

Malalai Joya, the former MP mentioned above who was pelted with water bottles for speaking out against the corruption and violence in the Afghan national government said recently:

Just like in Iraq, war has not brought liberation to Afghanistan. Neither war was really about democracy or justice or uprooting terrorist groups; rather they were and are about U.S. strategic interests in the region…A troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, and continued air strikes, will do nothing to help the liberation of Afghan women. The only thing it will do is increase the number of civilian casualties and increase the resistance to occupation.

To really help Afghan women, citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere must tell their government to stop propping up and covering for a regime of warlords and extremists. If these thugs were finally brought to justice, Afghan women and men would prove quite capable of helping ourselves.

Howard Dean needs to check his enthusiasm for war and listen to Joya. If the U.S. is truly interested in improving the lives of women in Afghanistan, we should end the war, now.

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Derrick Crowe

Derrick Crowe