The Audacity Of Help: The Obama Administration And Afghan Women

Critics are complaining that President Obama's Tuesday night address lacked analysis of the situation facing women in the region, which appears to contradict Hillary Clinton's pledge to make women's issues a cornerstone of national security strategy. Was the omission intentional?

Yesterday afternoon, Jake Tapper of ABC News put White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on the spot about what it means to discuss women's rights as well as human rights:

TAPPER: And if I may, just one more. In his March — in his March speech President Obama mentioned that if the Taliban returns to controlling Afghanistan it would be bad for human rights. And he specifically singled out women and girls. He did not mention human rights in Afghanistan. He talked about human rights more broadly, but last night he didn't mentioned human rights in Afghanistan and he definitely didn't mention specifically women and girls.

GIBBS: Well, I believe in — I believe in the context of the three pillars that he saw, mentioning the basic recognition of human rights in Afghanistan is obviously important to what is happening there.

TAPPER: But he didn't mention women and girls, and is that...

GIBBS: Again, I think the umbrella of basic human rights was — was the same thing.

TAPPER: So even though he mentioned it in March and he didn't mention it last night, we're not supposed to read anything into that at all?

GIBBS: I wouldn't. I mean, I have not looked exactly at the word phrasing of each speech, but the umbrella of basic — recognizing the basic human rights of everybody in Afghanistan would include that, yes.

Gibbs' argument that women's rights are human rights is a good one, and one often used by feminists. However, its been shown before that if the rights of women are not specifically addressed,they can easily fall to the wayside. As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon explains in the Daily Beast, while war is hell for all involved, everyone in Afghanistan is not suffering equally:

A recent U.N. report said the country suffers from "a deeply entrenched culture of impunity" in which perpetrators of violence seldom face punishment and victims "risk further violence in the course of seeking justice."

But some women's rights groups, including Women for Afghan Women, the organization that oversees the shelter where Naseema lives, greeted President Obama's speech Tuesday night-and his vow to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan-with a modicum of hope, and a call for a long-term American commitment to the country.

"Without security, the Taliban will engulf the country and return women to the hell of rape, domestic captivity, denial of education and health care-to the erasure of their very humanity," the group's leaders said in a statement. [...]

Wenny Kusuma, who heads the United Nations Development Fund for Women in Afghanistan, calls violence against women the most urgent and immediate issue facing the nation's females-and one that has yet to be taken seriously by the Afghan government or its international backers. "Until politicians and the international community stop offering lip service to the rights of women and begin backing their words with some seriousness, [the violence] will continue to get worse," Kusuma says.

Over at Politico, Ben Smith talks to Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who could not believe such a critical security issue was left out:

"It is so naïve just to think [the Taliban] are just going to stay [in Afghanistan]," she said. "They have international backing, they have international funding, and they intend to take on all modern values and ways of life," she said. "They're establishing a totalitarian dictatorship that they want to spread."

Smeal also argued that Obama's policy would be an easier sell if he focused on Taliban human rights abuses.

"People don't like what they did to women," she said of the Taliban. "If the whole picture was revealed the American public would be more supportive."

Admirers of the White House approach, however, argue that America's Afghan allies also have horrendous human rights records, and that President Obama doesn't actually want to drum up support for engagement in a country he intends to leave.

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Glenn Greenwald also thinks that Obama made the right choice in not emphasizing the rights of women:

While Obama's speech last night largely comported to what his aides spent days anonymously previewing, there was one (pleasantly) unexpected aspect: he commendably dispensed with the propagandistic pretext that we are fighting in Afghanistan in order to deliver freedom and democracy to that country and to improve the plight of Afghan women. Many Democrats (the self-proclaimed "liberal hawks") love to support American wars on the self-righteous ground that we're going to drop enough Freedom Bombs to liberate millions and invade other countries in order to re-make other peoples' cultures for their own good. In order to maximize support for his escalation, Obama — like Bush so often did — could easily have relied on that appeal to our national narcissism and exploited justifiable disgust for the Taliban in order to manipulate "liberal hawks" into supporting this war on human rights grounds. During the build-up to the speech, it was predicted by several influential Obama advisers that he would do exactly that. Indeed, when announcing his prior Afghanistan escalation in March, Obama played up the humanitarian rationale for this war.

But there was almost none of that in last night's speech. As Ben Smith correctly notes, Obama did not even mention — let alone hype — the issue of women's rights in Afghanistan. There were no grandiose claims that the justness of the war derives from our desire to defeat evil, tyrannical extremists and replace them with more humane and democratic leaders. To the contrary, he was commendably blunt that our true goal is not to improve the lives of Afghan citizens but rather: "Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda." There were no promises to guarantee freedom and human rights to the Afghan people. To the contrary, he explicitly rejected a mission of broad nation-building "because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests"; he said he "refuse[d] to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests"; and even vowed to incorporate the convertible factions of the Taliban into the government.

Not only did he refrain from those manipulative appeals, he made explicitly clear that we are in Afghanistan to serve our own interests (as he perceives them), not to build a better nation for Afghans. Nation-building, he said, goes "beyond ... what we need to achieve to secure our interests" and "go beyond our responsibility." We're there to serve our interests and do nothing else. That should throw cold water on all on the preening fantasies of all but the blindest and most naive "liberal war supporters" that we're there to help the Afghan people.

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Matt Yglesias cautiously agrees with the sentiments expressed by Greenwald but points out that the situation isn't clear cut, and while the Administration may have impure motives, it would be best to listen to women on the ground :

Well, look, it's hard to see how supporting a government with Karzai's record could support a substantial gain for women's rights until you consider that the most plausible alternative is . . . the Taliban. It's like how Ben Nelson is more progressive than Mike Johanns. "Better than the Taliban" is a low bar to cross and, consequently, the coalition we're backing in Afghanistan crosses it*. If you read what groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation or the Funders Network for Afghan Women or Human Rights Watch are saying, none of them are cheerleading for Obama's policies, but none of them are calling for the withdrawal of international military forces either. Instead, they're generally calling for a more ambitious approach.

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Can Obama balance our national security initiatives with the realities of fighting an unpopular war? Perhaps. But there will be no easy answers.


Today's Qs for O's WH – 12/2/2009 [ABC News]
What the Surge Means for Women [The Daily Beast]
Feminists 'disappointed' by Afghanistan speech [Politico]
The commendably missing element from Obama's speech [Salon]
The Surge and Afghan Women [Think Progress]

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