An Apology to the Woman Without a Nose on the Cover of Time Magazine:
Aisha, the 18 year-old Afghan woman on the cover of last week's Time magazine who had her nose and ears cut off as punishment by the Taliban for running away from her abusive husband's house, deserves all our sympathy, as does every victim of the particularly horrific violence committed against women by the savage and backwards men of places like the Congo, Somalia, and Pakistan. But, to Aisha and the women of Afghanistan, we owe an apology.
Time's editor Richard Stengel can say, as he does in his masturbatory little commentary on the photo, that "We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it." But the very cover itself demonstrates what a lie that is. "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan," it reads, implying very directly that more violence like what happened to Aisha will occur to more women. And if that isn't a clear enough endorsement of the war, the caption on the photo says that "the reality it shows in Afghanistan is something from which we cannot turn away." The story itself is more complex, but the overall thrust is that the United States must stay. Or women will be mutilated. Even if Aisha was cut up while we were there. Even if our nine years at war haven't changed much at all for women.
We owe Aisha an apology because we have fucked up the Afghanistan war so badly for us and for the Afghans that the only meaningful thing we can do now is get out. And even if that means more violence against women and more repression, we have to do it. For we are now in Afghanistan in a vain attempt to transform a society that won't transform. And it's horrible and there are injustices and it's agonizing to see them happen. But we're not the nation we were back when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan in 1997 by conquering our corrupt puppets, the mujahideen. And the Rude Pundit remembers protesting and donating money to help the women of Afghanistan then. He remembers discussing whether or not the military should attempt to go into Afghanistan to achieve their re-liberation. He remembers hearing that that would be madness.
Still, progress was being made, slowly, as progress often goes, with women testing and stretching the severe and awful limits the Taliban government put on women. By 2000, negotiations between the U.N. and the Taliban had allowed some loosening of the restrictions. Why? Because the country needed to be rebuilt. And the U.N. is supposed to be the entity to deal with things like the mistreatment of populations, even if it fails at that task constantly. Of course, in every respect, reality was so much more complicated, involving the endless civil war, Russia arming the Taliban's opposition, and the attempts by the United States under Clinton and Bush II to get Osama bin Laden turned over. Then 9/11 happened, and, fuck, all bets were off.
We screwed it up, Aisha. First George W. Bush did by making Afghanistan into the Junior Pep Squad version of the misbegotten Iraq conflict. Now Barack Obama is screwing it up by thinking he can unscrew it. He can't. And now, Aisha, we can't. We have to leave. It's just that simple. We have to leave because things are so fucked up here, because we can't afford it anymore. The wars were the luxury of an empire bloated with cash and hubris. Now we have hubris and no cash. And every day we stay is another day that life will not get better for the women of your country, and we're sorry we promised that it would. Yes, there are ways we can make it better, but not this one. For what we are attempting to do, despite every effort to win hearts and minds, is bomb a culture into change. That ain't gonna happen. It didn't work even back in the 1990s.
Let's be honest here, too. For women outside of Kabul (and a couple of other places), things sucked pretty badly before the Taliban in Afghanistan. Here, in the United States, Aisha, the Rude Pundit personally knows women who say that their families will kill them if they stray from arranged marriages to get jobs or assert any independence. One says that her male relatives will kill her and make it look like she just disappeared. Are we supposed to bomb Brooklyn to change this?
So, yes, we would like to be the conquering heroes, the knights riding in to save the damsels in distress, God, how we ache to be that, but such fairy tales are not real. Killing dragons would be easier. What's real is an effort that will take decades to achieve, but one that can only begin in earnest once we are gone. We're sorry, Aisha. Most of us can't imagine your pain, your life, your fear. But when you're in a plane that's plunging out of the sky, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help anyone else put on theirs.
(Note: we're never leaving Afghanistan.)