The Bush Administration and Afghan Women

When President George W. Bush pronounced on December 12, 2001 that the U.S. was  dedicated to reversing the cruel and oppressive laws and restrictions that the Taliban had imposed upon women in Afghanistan, he gravely underestimated the enormity of the task he was undertaking.  The Bush administration genuinely wished to fight for women’s rights and freedoms in Afghanistan, correctly interpreting that objective as requisite for the promotion of democracy in that war-torn land. The administration’s intention was to include women in the process of rebuilding Afghanistan; by their participation they would contribute to solution of their nation’s problems and thereby gain rights with their own authority.

The Bush administration initially painted an enthusiastic and optimistic picture of their efforts and results on behalf of women, reporting formally to the Congress and to the public.  By 2003, however, other independent sources began to question the objectives and coherence of the administration’s strategy, the adequacy of its resources, the effectiveness of the Afghan government, and the lack of overall progress. Continued large-scale security issues undermined efforts aimed to improve the status of women in Afghanistan.  Simply put, the sobering realities of the reconstruction effort  ran into a wall.  More schools and hospitals had been built and a variety of women’s organizations had been established, but few concluded that Afghan women were really substantially more free. What led the Bush administration to be so optimistic about its ability to improve the status of women in Afghanistan, when even a cursory analysis would have clearly identified the vastness of the challenges it would face?

There is little doubt about the genuineness of Bush administration’s wish to help Afghan women.  For purely humanitarian reasons, the administration wanted to liberate women from a history of oppression. Abandoning its neoconservative principles, the administration undertook an overly ambitious social engineering nation-building project.  However, it does not seem that the administration thought through the potential risks of untoward consequences in case such project fails to  advance as desired.

Indeed, one of the main aims of the administration was to establish democracy in Afghanistan by building stable institutions and a secure environment for its people that would also be inhospitable to terrorist groups. The administration recognized that legitimate democracy could not exist when half of the population was treated as second class citizens. Thus democracy and women’s issues were defined as interdependent; one cannot exist without the other.

The administration clearly underestimated the strength of the resistance to women’s promotion by the masculine tribal societies. One can establish and develop social institutions, but the tribal culture is not something that changes easily or quickly. The Bush administration did not seem to account for this problem and didn’t have any solutions. Perhaps they supposed that a strong national leader, such as Hamid Karzai, could bring the nation together.  Karzai understood he could gain support from the U.S. by addressing women’s issues, but to do so would cause him to lose legitimacy from the tribal leaders in his own country. The low status of women in the society has been ingrained in generations of Afghan men’s views and cultural practices.  To many Afghan males, women’s status is established by cultural and religious laws that cannot be changed, and any attempt to change would be considered contrary to Islam. In this context, Afghan tribal societies labeled initiatives aimed at improving women’s rights as inherent Westernization, and in fear pushed back. As Alissa Rubin has observed, ”Efforts guided by the best intentions to redress violence against women here [in Afghanistan] run up against the limits of change in a society where cultural practices are so powerful that few can resist them, not even the president.”

Did the Bush administration consider these entrenched attitudes towards women? Where they perhaps naïve about their abilities to change culture?

The administration should have anticipated the unintended consequences that could result from a failed policy; such concerns are fundamental to the making of policy and strategy.  If the administration, in the end, was to be unsuccessful in promoting women’s rights, then Afghan women might be in a worse position they were under the Taliban. It is very likely that they would be the targets for revenge against American influence. The culture would see women’s rights as not native, but rather something that was imposed by the western societies. Women’s position in Afghanistan would certainly regress from what it previously was.  When putting it in terms of human lives that stand behind policy’s success or failure, the Bush administration can, perhaps harshly, be criticized for unsubstantiated logic. This rational makes the Bush administration’s overly ambitious, optimistic, carelessly conceived and under-resourced policy and strategy for improving the status of women in Afghanistan even more problematic.

From a broader perspective, the Bush administration’s efforts in support of Afghan women demonstrate the inherent tension that exists between concerns for human rights and strategic interests and realities.  When other priorities such as Iraq became paramount, they pushed initiatives concerning Afghan women to the bottom of the agenda, where they languished starved for attention and resources. Torn between the two conflicts, the main priorities of the administration in Afghanistan shifted to promoting political stability and absence of armed conflict in the region. These were necessary preconditions for any policy leading to lasting improvements for women in Afghanistan, but these were also goals whose intricacy the administration underestimated and soon abandoned when its attention shifted to Iraq.

The problem of the oppression of women is neither simply a humanitarian problem nor could it be solved by building institutions. It is a multifaceted issue that lies within Afghan culture and identity. From the reports to Congress on the advancement of reconstruction process in Afghanistan, it is obvious that the administration identifies these problems, but did not  understand them. None of the policies take into consideration how to handle the Afghan tribal influence. Indeed, the administration’s approach to women’s issues here might even be called careless and almost hubristic. In the case of Afghanistan, success cannot be measure in the number of schools built. Policies have to be implemented and enforced on a local level. Success has to be measured from region to region and tribe to tribe.

The Bush administration’s policies for improving the role of women in Afghanistan were ambitious, altruistic, naïve and ultimately stillborn.  This case study will add to our understanding of the political, social, cultural and bureaucratic factors inhibiting the development and execution of postwar reconstruction policy specifically in relation to the tension between improving human rights (in this case specifically, women’s rights) and other strategic interests in nations with patriarchal societal structures.

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