President Trump has doubled down on the Afghanistan war, flip-flopping on his campaign pledge to pull out of that country. It was reported that national security adviser H. R. McMaster convinced Trump to stay in Afghanistan by showing him an old black-and-white photo from 1972 of Afghan women in mini-skirts. If so, McMaster demonstrated again the cogency of Indian literary theorist and feminist critic Gayatri Spivak’s observation that much European colonialism justified itself as white men saving brown women from brown men.

According to The Washington Post, McMaster is said to have argued that Afghans can be like us if given a chance and are not doomed to the backwardness of a Taliban culture.

This conversation eerily repeated debates in 19th century French colonial thought. After France occupied Algeria in 1830, its administrators and thinkers debated whether Algerians, as “Semites,” were capable of calm, rational thought and could be “evolved” toward civilization, or whether they were racially incapable of anything but an impulsive emotionalism that alternated with lethargy. McMaster, if the report of the conversation is correct, was arguing for an American civilizing mission.

Afghanistan, one of the poorer countries in the world, is still largely agricultural and has high infant mortality rates. Farming families tend to protect the virginity of girls and marry them off young in order to realize clan alliances and consolidate property. The urban, elite women in McMaster’s photo represented less than 1 percent of Afghan women. Even today, only a quarter of the country is urban.

A larger objection is the notion that the mini-skirt stands for civilization for a Republican administration, the base of which despises “Hollywood values.” GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten had to resign not so long ago when she lambasted Sasha and Malia Obama for the length of their skirts, advising them to “try showing a little class.” So which is it: Are mini-skirts the epitome of the civilizing mission or a sign of classlessness? Many Republicans are on the same side as Afghanistan’s Muslim conservatives on this issue.

Further, the actual policy of the United States since the beginning of the Cold War has been to promote Muslim fundamentalism to combat the left and anti-colonial nationalism. In a famous 1966 speech, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser made fun of the then-tiny Muslim Brotherhood for demanding that he make all of Egypt’s women cover up. At that time, the United States secretly allied with the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, too, did U.S. client Anwar el-Sadat, who promoted fundamentalist movements on college campuses in Egypt. Under the pressure of a rising religious conservatism, Egypt permanently moved to the right and repudiated the Soviet Union. Egyptian women gradually were made to cover up. When I first went to Egypt in the early 1970s, only peasant women wore a head covering. Today, only Christians and a few upper-middle-class Muslim women would go out of the house bareheaded. U.S. policy was deeply implicated in shifting Egypt to the religious right.

Likewise, for all its stain of foreign occupation and brutal authoritarianism, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, from 1978 to 1992, was the most progressive on women’s issues of any Afghan government in history. The number of women students and teachers substantially increased, women were trained and hired as physicians, and there were even armed women in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan cadres firing back at Ronald Reagan’s fundamentalist jihadi fighters.

Had the United States left Afghanistan alone, it may have just become another post-Soviet state like Tajikistan with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Instead, Reagan was ultimately spending $5 billion a year on a fundamentalist insurgency, matched after his arm-twisting by Saudi Arabia, much of it passed through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which funneled it to sinister figures such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (still around as one of the country’s major oppressors of women). The U.S.-backed Mujahedeen came to power in 1992, and let us say that the mini-skirt did not thrive thereafter, and neither did women’s education or health care or basic rights.

The Reagan administration sacrificed Afghan women on the altar of anti-communism. After the Mujahedeen split and a section of them became the Taliban, backed by U.S. ally Pakistan, they banned women from any education at all and put most of them under house arrest. Elements of the Clinton administration considered doing an oil pipeline deal with them. The opposition of progressive women in the Democratic caucus, spearheaded by Mavis Leno, the wife of the comedian, helped deter them.

The 2001 Bush administration war on Afghanistan depended crucially on an alliance with the old Mujahedeen, grouped as the “Northern Alliance.” They had been lifelong fundamentalists, many of them members of the Jamiat-e Islami, the Afghanistan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. They simply were not as extreme as the Taliban. Under Bush’s patronage, they created the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and many of the clerics prominent under the Taliban retained their influence. Bush grandstanded by bringing a handful of urban, educated Afghan women to sit in the balcony during his State of the Union speeches. On the ground, warlords continued to repress women. Schooling, including for girls, expanded, but it was hardly the vehicle for modernity that Washington seems to have imagined.

Sixteen years after the U.S. military occupied Afghanistan, the majority of women in provinces such as Herat wear the confining black burqa or complete veil. The more daring make do with an Iranian-style chador that allows the face to show. For women’s rights to have improved since the Taliban is a low bar. But the U.S. military is not in the country to promote feminism, and has no say on policy toward women. A Taliban comeback would be deleterious for women, but it is not as if the fundamentalist or conservative warlords backed by Washington are paragons of women’s advancement.

In short, McMaster’s “civilizing mission” is a canard. The mini-skirt and women’s liberation have nothing to do with the Republican Party, which blocked an Equal Rights Amendment for American women. There are only three women on Trump’s cabinet, and many women around him have felt the discomfort of his unwanted advances. The U.S. has assiduously destroyed the left in the Muslim world since the late 1940s, and helped push its culture to the religious right. The rest of the world has had 400 years of people of northern European heritage dictating social policy to them, and most people in South Asia are weary of it.

There may be an argument for keeping the Taliban from taking Kabul and reestablishing their Emirate, but McMaster’s photo is not it. U.S. policy has promoted the economic and religious right. The idea that it has been good for women in the Global South is ludicrous.


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