The Best Defense

Can the United States bring Afghanistan from Old Testament to 21st century?

"... it's like walking through the Old Testament" -- that's a description of Afghanistan's Uruzgan province provided by Dutch Army Brig. Gen. Tom Middendorp to the Washington Post last summer.

The United States wants 21st-century-style women's liberation in Afghanistan, but can the United States make that happen -- and fast? It took the United States 144 years (1776 to 1920) to grant women the right to vote. Now Afghanistan is expected to go from Old Testament times to the 21st century in something closer to 144 months. 

It would be great if the United States had a magic wand to make Afghanistan a land of freedom, democracy, good governance, and women's rights. Gen. Stanley McChrystal even thinks he has one; he calls it "government in a box." Reality check: The only people who can create a stable, free Afghan government that is "of the people, by the people, for the people" is the Afghan people themselves. And unfortunately, it doesn't seem like a critical mass of them are onboard yet to make that happen. So, the United States and its allies find themselves trying to drag Afghanistan kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Yes, this is discouraging. Every day that goes by is another day that Afghan women are treated worse than animals. But there are a lot of people out there who think that if the United States just perseveres and just continues plugging away at it, democracy and women's rights will happen -- just read Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl's excellent FP piece, "Betrayed," about why the United States must not let down the women of Afghanistan. 

The authors point out that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- an absolutely unflagging advocate for women and girls around the globe -- said in March, "... the subjugation of women is a threat to the national security of the United States." Hudson's research proves it: "states with higher levels of violence against women are also less peaceful internationally. Indeed, violence against women is a better predictor of bellicosity than level of democracy, level of wealth, or presence of Islamic civilization."

I share the authors' belief that the United States shouldn't abandon the women of Afghanistan, but I also think there are limits to what the United States can do. Just like you can't force someone to fall in love with you or command an atheist to genuinely believe in God, you can't make an entire society embrace women's rights. Yes, social change is possible -- the West went from burning women as witches to women burning bras -- but it unfolds indigenously, organically, slowly, over decades, centuries. Now the United States wants to hit the fast-forward button on social change in another country. Imagine if Dutch troops dropped into Alabama and pushed for sincere, societywide, approval of same-sex marriage -- how fast do you think social change would be?

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Yet, Hudson and Leidl write: 

The military should spend less time courting "moderate" Taliban and more time showing Afghan community leaders how gender equality -- including female access to family planning methods -- will result in healthier families, lower maternal and child death rates, poverty alleviation, and greater self-determination.

But just a few paragraphs earlier, they mention the "chauvinism that permeates Western military culture" and note "the ready availability of pornography on U.S. bases." Sounds like Americans will have to somehow change their own military's internal culture before the U.S. military will be equipped to teach Afghan community leaders about gender equality and family planning. (And speaking of family planning, since when did the U.S. military become the Planned Parenthood of Afghanistan?) And if the United States can't figure out how to change its own military's culture, then what does that say about trying to change culture in a foreign country?

Yet, I share the authors' moral fervor that something must done. It's irresponsible as a privileged American to sit quietly and do nothing while women are being gravely mistreated. But I doubt there is a quick solution out there. Moral challenges are century-long challenges. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written, "In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe." Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was onto something when he said "maybe 100" when asked how many years the United States would remain in Iraq, where the United States is also engaged in national-building.

There are problems with every solution that is suggested. Hudson and Leidl write "the coalition needs to support 'regime change' through the building of democratic institutions that will groom a moderate, educated middle class of young women and men to eventually take over." The key word is eventually, and the key question is, how does an international coalition build "democratic institutions"? We're not talking about bricks-and-mortar structures here.

The authors recommend that U.S. President Barack Obama "make subsequent aid contingent upon maintenance of a strong presence for women in the Afghan government." Tying such strings to aid goes against all the American rhetoric about Afghan self-determination and the freedom of Afghans to create their own government. Plus, if the Afghan government doesn't meet certain gender criteria, is the United States really going to withhold aid to a country that is so geostrategically important to U.S. security? (And wouldn't withholding aid hurt women even more?)

Hudson and Leidl declare, "We must hold Afghanistan responsible for its treaty obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)." But that demand sounds hypocritical because the United States is one of the few countries that hasn't ratified CEDAW. And, what would "hold[ing] Afghanistan responsible" entail?

In their conclusion, the authors actually get to the painful truth: "On the basis of America's track record, women around the world should have no faith that U.S. soldiers will improve their security." Well, of course: Soldiers are there to fight wars, not participate in social movements.

So what's the answer to the question: Can the United States bring Afghanistan from the Old Testament to the 21st century -- and do it fast? I don't like the answer I keep coming to: no. The United States will have be tenaciously patient -- maybe for 100 years -- and realize that at most it can have only a minor, supporting role in effecting social change in Afghanistan.

For the sake of Afghanistan's women, I hope I'm wrong.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images