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Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

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Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban ought to be hoping for the revival of the communists.

By Stephen Gowans

While worries are expressed about “women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan … seeping away” [1] there was a time when the rights of Afghan women were much stronger, and stronger still among the people who shared a common culture with Afghans but lived in Soviet Central Asia. While US journalists draw attention to worry that a US troop withdrawal, and the possible return of the Taliban to government, will imperil the few rights women have gained, US establishment journalism expressed few concerns about the loss of women’s rights when Washington backed the misogynist Mujahedeen in its fight against a progressive government in Kabul that sought to free Afghan women from the grip of traditional Islamic practices.

Here’s New York Times’ reporter Alissa J. Rubin.

Women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan have begun seeping away. Girls’ schools are closing; working women are threatened; advocates are attacked; and terrified families are increasingly confining their daughters to home. As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. [2]

Rubin’s report is part of a propaganda offensive being played out in US newspapers and magazines to drum up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its NATO allies. The campaign is perhaps most blatantly revealed in the July 29 issue of Time, whose cover, to quote the newsmagazine’s editors,

is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.

What happens if we leave Afghanistan? asks Time magazine. The news magazine’s editors would have shown a greater sense of history had they asked: Would this have happened had we not backed the Mujahedeen in the 1980s? Washington supported Islamic reaction in Afghanistan, recruiting and bankrolling tens of thousands of jihadists to overthrow a government that sought to liberate women from the misogyny of traditional Islam.

There is nothing good to be said about the prospect of a Taliban revival. The conditions for women will indeed sink to a barbaric level if the Islamic extremists return to power. But the idea that US foreign policy makers care one whit about the condition of women in Afghanistan, or that the surest way to guarantee the rights of Afghan women is to keep US troops firmly in place, ignores the history of US foreign policy in the region, and also ignores a point Rubin herself makes: that Washington is exploring reconciliation with the Taliban.

Rubin’s use of the word “reconciliation” is apt. Washington had a working relationship with the Taliban going back to 1995, when it funded and advised the nascent movement through the CIA, in partnership with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and Saudi Arabia. [3] Washington had no qualms then about the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women, and for reasons explained below, probably has no qualms today either. The State Department maintained friendly relations with the Sunni extremists right up to 1999, when every Taliban official was on the US government payroll. [4]

That there are concerns far more senior to decision-makers in Washington than the conditions of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies is evidenced by the enormous support oil-rich Saudi Arabia receives from the US government. The kingdom is a key strategic ally for Washington and a source of colossal profits for US oil firms and US investment banks, through which the Saudis recycle their petrodollars. And while little is ever said in the United States about the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women are subjected to practices as barbaric and benighted as any the Taliban have inflicted on the women of Afghanistan. But the Saudis, owing to their cooperation with America’s corporate rich in building Himalayas of oil profits every year, get away with backward practices that leave the Western world sputtering in indignation when carried out by the Taliban, whose practices toward women only received the scrutiny they deserved when the Islamic fundamentalists refused to play ball with Unocal on a pipeline deal.

Here’s how the Saudis – one of Washington’s partners in the Middle East – treat women. Women are not allowed to vote, drive cars, or leave the house without a male chaperon, and when they do leave they must avoid men and cover most of their bodies. If they want to marry, divorce, travel, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, they need the approval of a male relative. A woman’s place is in the home, and a woman’s role is to raise children and care for the household. In a court of law, the testimony of two women is worth the testimony of one man. The sexes are strictly segregated, with separate men’s and women’s entrances to most houses and public buildings and segregated areas in public places. US restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks collude in the oppression of women by maintaining separate areas for the sexes in their restaurants. Girls go to all-girls’ schools where the teachers are less well-qualified and textbooks updated less frequently than in boys’ schools. Fathers can marry off their daughters at any age, and girls as young as nine have been married. In one case a 10 year old girl was forced into a marriage with an 80 year old man. With its separate and unequal legal rights and schools, and its restrictions on the movement of women, the Saudis practice a form of apartheid no different from that once practiced in southern Africa. The only difference is that the victims are defined by their possession of uteruses, not the color of their skin. [5]

Saudi women are not allowed to vote, drive cars, or leave the house without a male chaperon, and when they do leave they must avoid men and cover most of their bodies. If they want to marry, divorce, travel, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, they need the approval of a male relative. A US troop presence in the Arabian Peninsula hasn’t put an end to these barbaric practices.

Further evidence of Washington’s supreme indifference to the rights of women abroad is evidenced by the role it played in undermining a progressive government in Afghanistan that sought to release women from the grip of traditional Islamic anti-women practices. In the 1980s, Kabul was “a cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city’s university. Afghan women held government jobs.” [5] There were female members of parliament, and women drove cars, and travelled and went on dates, without needing to ask a male guardian for permission. That this is no longer true is largely due to a secret decision made in the summer of 1979 by then US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to draw “the Russians into the Afghan trap” and give “to the USSR its Vietnam War” by bankrolling and organizing Islamic terrorists to fight a new government in Kabul led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. [6]

The goal of the PDPA was to liberate Afghanistan from its backwardness. In the 1970s, only 12 percent of adults were literate. Life expectancy was 42 years and infant mortality the highest in the world. Half the population suffered from TB and one-quarter from malaria.

Most of the population lived in the countryside, which was ruled by landlords and wealthy Mullahs. Women – subjected to traditional Islamic practices of forced marriage, bride price, child marriage, female seclusion, subordination to males, and the veil – lived particularly barbaric existences. [7]

US president Ronald Reagan fetes Mujahedeen “freedom fighters” at the White House. The State Department maintained friendly relations with the Taliban right up to 1999, when every Taliban official was on the US government payroll. Despite Washington’s alliances with religious zealots who enforced – and continue in Saudi Arabia to enforce – a barbaric patriarchal rule over women, the US media promote the contradictory idea that women’s liberation in Afghanistan can be entrusted to the United States.

In stark contrast, the Bolsheviks had raised the living standards of the Afghans’ Tajik, Turkman and Uzbeck brethren in Soviet Central Asia and liberated women from the misogyny of traditional Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. [8]

In 1978 the government of Mohammed Daoud, who the PDPA had backed but had increasingly grown disenchanted with, killed a popular member of the party. This sparked mass demonstrations, which Daoud met with orders to arrest the PDPA leaders. However, before the order could be executed, the PDPA ordered its supporters in the army to overthrow the government. The rebellion was successful, and Noor Mohammed Taraki, leader of a hard-line wing of the party, was brought to power. The Saur (April) Revolution was a spontaneous reaction to the Daoud government’s plans to arrest the PDPA leaders and suppress the left, not the realization of a plan worked out with Moscow’s connivance to seize power. While the new government was pro-Soviet and the Soviets would soon intervene military at its request in an effort to suppress US-supported Islamic reaction in the countryside, Moscow was not behind the seizure of power. [9]

The new government immediately announced a series of reforms. The debts of poor peasants would be cancelled and an Agricultural Development Bank would be established to provide low-interest loans to peasants, in an effort to root out the usurious lending practices of moneylenders and landlords. Land ownership was to be limited to 15 acres and large estates broken up and redistributed to landless farmers. [10]

Unlike Washington, which is willing to collude in the oppression of women if it benefits US enterprises, the Bolsheviks liberated the women of Soviet Central Asia from the grip of what they deemed to be barbaric traditional Islamic practices. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, and veiling were outlawed and women were expected to work outside the home to earn incomes to achieve independence from men.

At the same time women would be liberated from the constraints of traditional Islam. Bride price – the treating of marriageable women as chattel to be exchanged in commercial transactions – was severely limited. The age of consent for girls to marry was raised to 16. And students from the cities were dispatched to the countryside to teach both men and women to read and write. [11]

While some gains were achieved, especially in Kabul where PDPA support was strongest, the reforms never took root in the countryside, where the government pressed ahead too quickly, arousing a determined opposition by the rich landlords and Mullahs it lacked the military power to suppress. [12] Washington’s recruiting of tens of thousands of mujahedeen from Muslim countries to jihad, including the Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, eventually contributed to the Soviet decision to withdraw its military forces and to the eventual overthrow of the PDPA government, which hung on for a few years after the Soviets quit the country. Soon the Taliban, backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had returned Afghanistan once again firmly to the Middle Ages, after the country had taken a few determined steps toward modernity under the leadership of the PDPA. Significantly, it was the Bolsheviks in Soviet Central Asia, and the Marxist-Leninist-inspired PDPA in Afghanistan, that acted to improve the conditions of women, while the United States allied itself with religious zealots who enforced – and continue in Saudi Arabia to enforce – a barbaric patriarchal rule over women.

For Washington, profits stand above women’s rights. The communists, by contrasts, were inspired by the aims of liberating peasants from feudal backwardness and breaking the grip of traditional Islam on the lot of women. The latter acted as paladins of human progress and women’s rights; the former, as captives of the logic of imperialism. Liberation of women from the misogyny of the Taliban and Saudis will not come about through the agency of Washington. Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban and the consequent loss of the few gains Afghan women have eked out under a puppet government backed by the Pentagon, ought to hope, instead, for the revival of the communists. They have a track record in the service of women’s liberation; Washington’s record, by contrast, is not one to inspire confidence.

1. Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghan women fear the loss of modest gains”, The New York Times of July 30, 2010.

2. Rubin.

3. Michael Parenti, “Afghanistan, Another Untold Story”, Michael Parenti Political Archives, December, 2008, updated in 2009. http://www.michaelparenti.org/afghanistan%20story%20untold.html

4. Parenti.

5. “Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia
San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2001. Cited in Parenti.

6. From an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998, translated by William Blum, available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BRZ110A.html

Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs ["From the Shadows"], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.

7. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland: With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984a.

8. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, London, 1984b.

9. Szymanski, 1984a.

10. Szymanksi, 1984a.

11. Szymanksi, 1984a.

12. Irwin Silber, Afghanistan – The Battle Line is Drawn, Line of March Publications, 1980.

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August 9, 2010 at 10:27 pm

U.S. imperialism: Hidden in plain sight

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By Stephen Gowans

The dominant U.S. approach to exercising influence over people in foreign countries is to operate through locals who are committed to U.S. imperialist values or fiercely oppose U.S. enemies. Locals, whether rulers, politicians, military officers, journalists, scholars or activists, are provided with opportunities, funding, training, equipment and support in exchange for assuming leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests or against U.S. targets. The sine qua non of the paradigm is the appearance of independence. While locals may express admiration and support for U.S. positions, their own pro-U.S. stances, or opposition to U.S. enemies, are to be understood to have been arrived at independently. And, in many, if not most, cases, this is true. Locals who assume leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests are often educated or trained in the United States, where they have absorbed pro-imperialist values. At the same time, the ubiquitous U.S. mass media convey pro-imperialist values to locals who haven’t been educated in the imperial nerve center. And some may, for their own (often class) reasons, be passionate opponents of individuals, groups or movements the United States government would like to eliminate. What matters is not how pro-U.S. positions, or anti-U.S.-enemy passions, are arrived at, only that some locals have them and that U.S. funding and support provide them with a platform to influence the political, military and informational landscape of their home country.

A recent example of how this paradigm operates is provided in an August 16, 2009 New York Times article by Thom Shanker (“U.S. turns to radio stations and cellphones to counter Taliban’s propaganda.”)

Shanker quotes Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. proconsul in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who acknowledges that the United States is losing the information war to the Taliban. In this, Holbrooke reminds us that war is multi-faceted, comprising not only military action, but other elements, as well. Warfare may be waged concurrently with or independently of military action: through economic means (trade sanctions, blockades and financial isolation); through non-violent warfare (destabilization); through sabotage; through cyber attacks; and through what concerns Holbrooke, information. Information warfare is “variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.” In plain language, it’s propaganda, a term invariably applied to the other side’s public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations, but propaganda all the same.

U.S. officials say they’re losing the information war because their “efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.” The other reasons, unacknowledged by Holbrooke, are that the U.S. military has created considerable hardship, fear, and bloodshed in its efforts to quell opposition to its attempted conquest of Afghanistan and because, as the New York Times reported on July 28, 2009, the Taliban has bolstered its popularity by pursuing “a strategy intended to foment a class struggle,” rewarding “landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords,” the Taliban has ousted. To counter the Taliban’s growing popularity, Washington plans to “amplify the (anti-Taliban) voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis” by spending up to $150 million per year to “step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters, and CDs denigrating militants and their message.” By operating through locals, Washington hopes to conceal the “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ stamped on the programming.”

There’s little new here. For decades the C.I.A amplified the voices of citizens talking to citizens by funding anyone who had anything negative to say about the Soviet Union and Communism. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today. Just as Shanker reports that U.S. officials say they’ll amplify the voices of Pakistanis and Afghans who “denigrate the enemy”, so too did the C.I.A amplify the voices of Westerners who denigrated the Soviet Union and Communism. Since social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists were already fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union, and being leftists could be presented as credible critics of Soviet Communism, they received the bulk of covert funding from the U.S. state, funding whose origins many were unaware of or chose to turn a blind eye to. Their mission: denigrate the U.S.S.R and Communism. This they were already doing, but C.I.A funding allowed them to do it more visibly, to a wider audience, and therefore more effectively. By doing so they justified U.S. engagement in the Cold War and, acting knowingly or unwittingly as U.S. agents, used Uncle Sam’s money to denigrate a shared enemy. Today, the common understanding of the Soviet Union and Communism carries over from the C.I.A amplifying the voices of Communism’s, the U.S.S.R’s, and Stalin’s political enemies. The amplification of categorically critical voices so thoroughly polluted scholarly histories of the U.S.S.R that historians have had to discard what was produced in the Cold War period and start afresh. It’s time too that Western leftists did the same. The fear of British historian E.H. Carr — that only the worst aspects of the Soviet experiment with socialism would be remembered, while the astonishing achievements would be forgotten – has been realized, thanks in no small part to the C.I.A and the anti-Communist leftists whose voices it amplified. Advances in human progress as significant as those achieved by the Soviet Union (full employment, free health care and education through university, no inflation, gender equality, mild and shrinking income inequality, low-cost housing and transportation, worker participation in enterprise management, support for national liberation movements, industrialization of underdeveloped regions) should no longer remain concealed behind the muck of C.I.A-backed Cold War propaganda.

While the paradigm is a long-standing one, what’s different today, from when the C.I.A covertly channelled funds to voices that served Washington’s interests, is that funding is no longer provided covertly. Washington learned a lesson when C.I.A support for anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-national liberation movements came to light. Washington’s revealed hidden hand immediately undermined the legitimacy of these movements, setting back U.S. efforts to counter opposition to the unchecked spread of U.S. financial, military and corporate domination. From that point, greater openness was injected into funding individuals, groups and movements working against U.S. enemies. Rather than concealing Washington’s hand, Washington’s objectives would be concealed behind a rhetorical screen. Funding would be targeted at democracy promotion, international development, and public diplomacy – carried out openly, so that no one could say the hidden hand of U.S. imperialism was involved (though the overt hand of U.S. imperialism certainly was.) By dressing up U.S. imperialism in clothing that appealed to the sartorial preferences of the non-Communist left, the overt hand of U.S. imperialism was concealed behind honeyed phrases. Social democrats didn’t see imperialism; they saw humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. Anarchists and Trotskyites didn’t see U.S. efforts to dominate other countries on Wall Street’s behalf; they saw the fight against tyrants, dictators and Stalinists.

And so it is that U.S. imperialism is concealed in plain sight. Washington’s funding of fifth columns, quislings, phoney ‘independent’ journalists and overthrow movements may be on the public record, but few know it, and even fewer are prepared to spend the time to make it widely known. Those who do are dismissed by social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists – unwilling to rock the boat of U.S. imperialism under its humanitarian, anti-despot guise – as revealing nothing of significance. The money, training, equipment and support that flow in cataracts from the hands of Western governments, wealthy financiers and corporate foundations make no difference, they counter weakly. In this milieu, U.S. officials are now able to openly talk in the pages of the New York Times about how they plan to win the information war against the Taliban by enlisting locals as their mouthpieces – and openly acknowledge they are doing so to conceal the “Made in the U.S.A” stamped on the programming – without fear the exercise will be seen as illegitimate.

Written by what's left

August 21, 2009 at 7:32 pm

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