In Afghanistan, there's one fight our troops can't win

November 15, 2010|Susan Reimer

Those of us who read Khaled Hosseini's novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" were certain that the unendurable trials of the women at the center of that book were more fact than fiction. The writing of the author, an Afghan-born American doctor, had the unmistakable ring of truth.

As if to confirm the dark suspicion that Afghan women did indeed live lives of terrible abuse at the hands of their own parents as well as at the hands of the husbands chosen for them, Alissa Rubin of The New York Times wrote last week that Afghan women are setting themselves on fire in a desperate attempt to escape their fates.

They are choosing this horrible method of suicide because cooking oil and matches are the most available means out of this world.

Ms. Rubin's story is a horror.

Some of the women have been burned by family members, and it has been made to look like suicide. Others have been taunted by in-laws who sneer that they do not have the courage to burn themselves as they should. Still others are beaten into unconsciousness by husbands or mothers-in-law and regain consciousness in hospitals to find that they have been shoved in ovens or set on fire.

In this story rests the impossibility of our mission in Afghanistan: to change an ancient culture at the point of a gun.

The United States has a role to play in regions or countries where racial, ethnic or religious bigotry is causing people to kill each other with impunity: Bosnia, Rwanda, Ireland, the Middle East. If nothing else, we can separate and subdue the two sides until coexistence can be negotiated or enforced.

But what if the brutality is within families, as it is in Afghanistan? Husband against wife, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. Indeed, parents who use their own daughters as chattel or bargaining chips.

It is not just that Afghanistan's culture does not value women. It is that Afghan families do not value their women.

It is difficult enough to protect Afghan girls from the retribution of the roving Taliban, which would douse them with acid or burn them alive in their schools rather than allow them to learn. How do we protect girls who are, at 12 or 13, routinely bartered into a life of servitude and abuse by their own parents?

The only hope of these women lies in the nearly impossible: education and self-sufficiency. And there are anecdotal stories of women and girls overcoming much to take command of their own lives.

Is it for those few women and that little bit of opportunity that we continue to pursue a war against an elusive enemy? In part, yes. One of our goals in this war was to make life incrementally better for Afghan women.

But it is clear from stories such as Ms. Rubin's that accomplishing that would not require nation-building — a dubious purpose at best for soldiers. That would require family-building — something for which our soldiers are completely ill-equipped.

Is there a more foul offense for which the Taliban should be pursued than this terrorizing of women and daughters? No. But are our troops going to go house to house and kick in doors to see if daughters have been allowed to go to school today, or if wives bear the scars of abuse?

Ms. Rubin's story drives home the awful futility of not only war against an enemy, but war against a culture.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is

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