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The problem with using soldiers to advance women’s rights

8 October 2011

1:26 PM

8 October 2011

1:26 PM

Mariella Frostrup, fresh from interviewing Nick Clegg in
Cheltenham, writes about women’s rights in Afghanistan in The Times (£). Her pithily-titled piece —
"Women’s rights in, before troops out" — makes the case that British forces cannot withdraw from, and the government should give no development assistance to, a country where the
plight of women is so terrible and declining.

It is hard not to sympathise with Frostrup’s point. During my own time in Kabul I witnessed plenty of examples of female subjugation, and was glad the West was present to help address some of these
problems. Western policymakers were, at the time, eager to portray the entire mission as a morally good, progress-guaranteeing task.


It’s just that the stabilisation of Afghanistan now seems to be beyond our means and our will. And it may no longer be in our national interest, which is why David Cameron has called a halt to the
mission before it has achieved its aims. What will follow is an ugly civil war where the West will seek to safeguard its minimum interests, perhaps through drone strikes and support —
military or otherwise — to perceived allies. The Cold War produced plenty of similar situations.

One of the reasons for our failure hitherto was that we probably helped progressive forces push too hard and too fast against the ultra-conservative grain of Afghan society. That, in turn, allowed
the Taliban to portray our mission as not just against them and Al Qaeda, but also against the Afghan way of life. They shaped a narrative — much as they did about the Soviets — which,
along with indiscriminate violence, overwhelmed us.

So the way we helped focus on women’s rights — just and proper in itself — may actually have been part of the mission’s problems. And it seems, at this stage, not only beyond our
capabilities, but also a difficult thing to tell bereaved parents of a soldier that this is what their child died for.


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