This week’s announcement that US troops will leave Afghanistan by September has unleashed a flood of dubious objections, ranging from "it's still just too soon" to "we don't actually have that many soldiers there anymore." But one argument deserves special attention, given its emotional power among liberal audiences: the idea that we must stay in Afghanistan to protect women's rights.
In a column for the Washington Post, Max Boot makes the case that our departure will allow the Taliban to take over the entire country in short order, reversing any progress Afghanistan has seen in women's rights over the past two decades. "Think of all the girls going to school, all the women in the workforce," Boot writes. And he's not alone: Liberal outlets like the New York Times and CNN have published articles in the same vein.
This has been a popular talking point ever since 2001, when Laura Bush said the invasion was a "fight for the rights and dignity of women." And it contains some truth: Afghan women have indeed seen modest gains in rights over the last twenty years, and if a US withdrawal does lead to a Taliban takeover, things will in some ways get worse for many women for at least some period of time.
But to view America’s intervention and continued presence in Afghanistan as a durable solution to the problems facing Afghan women is absurd. After two decades of US occupation, Afghanistan is still among the worst places in the world to be a woman, according to a 2019 report from Georgetown. Moreover, Gallup polling indicates that Afghan men and women alike have less hope about their future than the people of any other country. And a recent survey from the Asia Foundation found that a majority of Afghan women support any post-war government—even if the Taliban is a part of it.
There’s a group of Afghan women who seldom appear in columns like Boot’s: the thousands who are dead and would be alive if it weren’t for the American intervention in their country. Or, we should say, interventions—including the proxy intervention that began four decades ago and helped create the atmosphere of violence and chaos without which the Taliban might never have come to power in the first place.
The fact is that the interventionist policies long favored by Max Boot and his fellow neoconservatives (some of whom, along with Boot, used the Trump era to rebrand as liberal-friendly #Resistance fighters) are as responsible as any other single factor for the decades-long suffering of Afghan men and women alike. There’s no clear way to bring those policies to an end in Afghanistan gracefully—just as there was no clear way for American troops to leave Vietnam gracefully. And, as in Vietnam, people in Afghanistan—certainly including women—stand to suffer in the short term as a result. But, also as in Vietnam, the only plausible path to an era of peace and stability begins with the US getting out. And there’s no realistically foreseeable day when the Max Boots of the world would favor that.
This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.
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