On his excellent blog for our magazine, Peter Berger has clearly laid out the impassioned moral argument for why we ought to think twice about pulling out of Afghanistan. He starts by highlighting a brutal stoning of an adulterous couple recently sanctioned by the Taliban in the north. He admits that it may very well be in our national interest to come to terms with these barbaric thugs and leave, but then proceeds to draw the ethical parallels to America abandoning the South Vietnamese to the depredations of the Communist North.
The price exacted for giving up the insurgency by the co-opted Taliban leaders will almost certainly be an extension of the reach and character of Islamic law. The major victims would be women—not only threatened with barbaric punishments for behavior deemed acceptable in most democracies, but legally subjugated to men (fathers, brothers, husbands), barred from education and public life, and forced to stagger around in disabling and demeaning garments.
As I somewhat obliquely argued in my previous post on the matter, I’m not sure we’ll have many options outside of compromise given the nature of Afghanistan, its culture, religion and history. The goal of preventing rural regions from practicing their own kind of stone-age Islam amounts to a massive project of modernization. The tragic state that Afghanistan finds itself in today can at least in part be read as the result of an almost century-long fight between urban modernizers and a rural backwater resistant to both outside governance and change in general. To think that we might be able to do better than the Afghans themselves is hubristic.
But Professor Berger’s nightmare scenario need not play out as he describes. The main bulwark against it happening is that since the defeat of the Taliban, Afghanistan has adopted a relatively modern written constitution which, among other things, explicitly enshrines equal rights for women. It’s not likely that the West would openly preside over the dismantling of the constitution’s most liberal provisions—at least not while our soldiers are guaranteeing security in Kabul. So the only way that accommodation with the rural conservatives could be had is if the central government signals that it will allow a substantial amount of autonomy on the local level.
There is an important precedent for this approach: the Musahiban dynasty which successfully ruled Afghanistan from 1929 to 1978. With the ambitious and ultimately disastrous reforms of King Amanullah fresh in their minds, the Musahibans’ rule can best be summarized as “hands off the provinces”. Relying on foreign aid to facilitate a gradual process of economic development, the regime avoided antagonizing the rural conservatives with far-reaching social programs. Instead, social reforms were first introduced in the more secular, urban environment of Kabul and gently encouraged outwards as much as made sense. The supposition was that as the subsistence economies of the countryside were dragged out of the middle ages, their mores were sure to follow.
The great tragedy of recent Afghan history is that this measured urban-centered development policy eventually led to the regime’s destruction. The radical communist PDPA was largely made up of the beneficiaries of the Musahiban modernization—the educated young urban college graduates. Heady with Marxist orthodoxy and seeing themselves as the children of Amanullah, they felt that the reforms of the previous regime were woefully insufficient. Upon deposing Daud Khan in 1978, they set about correcting the errors of their predecessors by implementing a vast program of social engineering. By March of 1979, a bloody revolt had sprung up in Herat in reaction to these programs, a revolt so massive that it soon threatened to bring down the PDPA. The Soviet Union of course could not let this happen, and they invaded shortly thereafter. The rest, as they say, is history.
So the precedent for a functional, decentralized state with ample autonomy for the local governments is strong, as is the negative precedent of trying to impose reforms prematurely. Of course, letting the conservative countryside handle its women as it pleases does a certain amount of violence to the concept of “rights” as enshrined in the constitution. After all, can a selectively enforced right be really called a right at all? But refusing to accept that these rights may be unenforceable in some regions is to willfully ignore recent history, much like the PDPA did more than 30 years ago.
And worse than that, it’s to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Though uncivilized beastliness like Professor Berger highlights is likely to continue outside the cities, compromising over social reforms may very well lead to a better situation for all of Afghanistan’s women in the near future. More so than at the end of the Musahiban period, Afghanistan’s life today centers on the cities, with many of the refugees of the recent wars foregoing the impoverished and war-torn villages of their birth and returning to Kabul and other urban centers instead. An urban-focused development program which ensures that jobs are at least more plentiful than in the countryside is only likely to tip the balance further in this direction. Ensuring that the civilized parts of the country act as a sort of beacon of progress, prosperity and decency for the benighted hinterland is the best legacy we can hope to leave behind.
Listening to General Petraeus talk about what we’re trying to achieve in Afghanistan during his recent media blitz, you can get hopeful that this sort of gradual, decentralized approach is what we’re driving for. After all, the good General never speaks of human rights and social transformation as goals of our policy, and he frequently talks about reconciling with the Taliban that are amenable to it. But a visible focus on centralizing authority in Kabul, and in the person of Hamid Karzai, somewhat belies the General’s words. It’s equally possible that the he envisions reconciliation as local authorities laying down their weapons and accepting the letter of the Afghan law. If so, we may be in for a long and grinding conflict, at the end of which we up and quit. It needn’t happen this way.