The other day, in a post titled Taliban Justice, I noted a Time Magazine story with a rather disturbing cover photo. The story was basically a human-interest piece about the fate of an Afghan girl named Aisha who had been horribly mutilated by the Taliban for fleeing an abusive, arranged marriage.
One commenter (known only as "b") wrote:
The girl was mutilated a year ago. At that time there were some 100,000 NATO troops in country plus lots of contractors. So if a 100,000 troops can't prevent such, what are they doing there? And how would that change with 200,000 troops? Just asking ...
A fair question, but here's the thing: no matter how many troops we have here, Western forces cannot ever put a stop to this sort of thing. The marginalization, diminution and sometimes abuse of women is part and parcel of Afghan culture. Western military force will never put an end to that. Only Afghans can end that, if they so choose.
I've been here nearly 18 months, working closely everyday with a large number of Afghans. In all that time, not once have I met the wives of any of my people, except for The Rug Merchant, and that was in Dubai and only briefly. Even modern-minded, relatively progressive Afghans like the men I work with keep "their" women sequestered. They may object to the depredations of the Taliban, but that doesn't extend to breaking ancient social taboos about women and public life.
So, once we accept that the social structure of this country is not something that can be adjusted by force, the real question becomes two-fold, "Can/should the social structure of this country be changed to a more progressive, modern approach, and if so, what (if anything) can Westerners do to assist that transformation?"
To me, the answer to the first part is fairly obvious. If Afghanistan is ever to be peaceful, prosperous and stable, then some of fundamental underlying principles of Afghan society will have to be cast aside. I'm not saying that will be easy, or even likely, but it is a cold, hard fact. Analysts and pundits like to make long-winded arguments about the Great Game, the Cold War, "strategic depth," etc., all intended to absolve Afghans of responsibility for their plight, but the basic truth is that Afghanistan is the way it is partly because of the atavistic elements present in Afghan culture.
The second part of the question is considerably more difficult. I'm not convinced that there is all that much that Westerners can do to promote the sort of "social adjustment" that I feel is necessary here. People everywhere are notoriously resistant to cultural change, especially when they feel that it is being imposed from outside. That said, I see some small signs of hope among the slowly-emerging Afghan middle class. Thus far, they are concentrated in the major cities, and greatly overshadowed by the oligarchs, warlords, and narco-terrorists who rule much of the countryside. But they do exist, albeit in small numbers, and they almost unanimously desire a society that affords the opportunities that Westerners tend to take for granted. Jobs, security, education, a government that is more protective than predatory, these are the things that this Afghan middle-class desires.
They're not about to give up their cultural identity, nor will they cease being devout Muslims, but they are willing to cast a critical eye on some of the traditions and structures that have given this country over thirty years of war.
And that, I think, is what ISAF can accomplish here: buy the Afghan middle-class the time necessary to make their own changes, and find their own, better way of doing things.
If that's "nation-building" then so be it.