The front page news out of Afghanistan this week is, of course, the firing by President Obama of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who apparently missed the class at West Point where cadets were taught about civilian authority over the military. Regardless of who is in charge of U.S. forces in that country, the inside story remains the same: this is a society dominated by a toxic mixture of tribal thuggery and radical Islam, both of them based on repression of women. It is a society where women cannot sit in public parks in the capital city without being assaulted by men and must therefore plead for the right to lift their faces to the sun, in an all-female garden that could not exist without heavy steel gates and police protection. It is a society in which, whatever generals and how many troops we send, the Kabul Women’s Garden will undoubtedly be trashed within days of an inevitable U.S. withdrawal. You can be sure that no helicopters will arrive to rescue the women who have risked their lives for a patch of personal liberty. Like the Vietnamese left behind on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, they will be left to suffer for America’s delusions about its ability to transform a country far from our realistic sphere of influence.
The women’s garden, thought by some to date from the 16th century, is being restored with a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and CARE International. Karima Salik, the garden’s manager, described the space as it was during her girlhood in the 1970s in an interview with New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland, “The trees covered everything. There was laughter and chatter and music.” She was recalling the late part of the decade–the worst of times in one respect, because the country was occupied by the Soviets in 1978. But this era was in some respects one of the best of times for Afghan women, many of whom were allowed access to education for the first time. When the Soviets were driven out by the Taliban, the garden was trashed, along with the right of women to go to school and work outside their homes.
The unutterably sad part of this story is how hard women must fight to enjoy–within such limited confines–the fundamental human right to walk freely in the open air. Behind the garden walls, women can shed their burqas and exercise. They can also manage their own small businesses, providing modest services from hair care to sewing. In the bazaars of Kabul, women are not permitted to own businesses. The garden also serves as a temporary refuge for battered women, who have virtually no recourse under Islamic law as it is interpreted by local mullahs and warlords. None of these “privileges” for women sit well with a neighboring mullah, who organizes demonstrations designed to destroy the peace of the refuge. “I don’t care what the hell they do,” the mullah told the Times correspondent. “But inside the garden they get all dressed up and do their makeup and have other intentions.”
A former warlord has taken over an adjacent site and is putting up a 13-story building so that men can leer and jeer at the women in the garden. Of course there are much, much worse things happening to women than being deprived of the right to exercise without attracting prurient attention. Thirteen-year-olds are being flogged for fleeing arranged marriages–something the world knows because the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission (a non-governmental organization) released a smuggled video of the event. How brave all of these women are to fight for a small amount of freedom against such overwhelming odds, and their hopes will certainly be destroyed if and when the country returns to the total control of fanatical, violent men.
And it is really a matter of “when,” not “if.” I think about these women when I think about the inevitable departure of American troops from this country–on whatever timetable and whoever is president at the time. Our so-called ally, President Hamid Karzai, knows which way the wind is blowing. That is why he has already negotiated away women’s rights–even the right to leave the house without a husband’s permission– in areas controlled by the Taliban and other local warlords.
I don’t think Americans can change any of this. If the Soviets, with much shorter supply lines could not succeed in their objectives, there is no way that the United States will be able to do so. When Salik, with the help of international aid and the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, started trying to revive the garden three years ago, the women hauled away 45 truckloads of trash because the Taliban had turned the refuge into a public dump. That is how radical Islam regards women. People must first possess the will to be free before outside liberators can help them, and those who do possess that will in Afghanistan–including a minority of both women and men–are and always have been outnumbered by the forces of unreason and violence. It is all a sickening spectacle, and there is nothing more sickening than the spectacle of our government making promises, both implicit and explicit, that it cannot possibly keep. The magazine Rolling Stone got a foolish, arrogant general fired–years after he should have been fired for organizing the cover-up in the Pat Tillman affair. Quite a coup for our free press. Too bad that won’t help little girls fleeing rapists and women who want to smell flowers. I wish there were an organization collecting money to airlift every woman who wants to leave Afghanistan and pay for her schooling so that she could begin a new life.