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TIME’s Epic Distortion of the Plight of Women in Afghanistan

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Following the overthrow of the Taliban, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq managed to get himself appointed as a vice chair of the interim government and as Minister of Planning. During the 2002 loya jirga that set the basic shape of the new government, Hezb-e Wahdat was named by Human Rights Watch as one of the groups that used threats and intimidation against other delegates. Through their use of these thuggish tactics, Mohaqiq’s militia helped corrupt a process which many hoped would lead to greater civilian control relative to the warlords, but which led instead to the warlords’ solidifying their power. Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, of course, retained his positions of power.

But here’s the real kicker: once legitimized, Mohaqiq was one of the masterminds of the widely condemned 2007 legislation that granted warlords amnesty for their war crimes during the civil war. The UN sharply condemned the amnesty law, declaring “No one has the right to forgive those responsible for human rights violations other than the victims themselves.” Thanks to outcry from the United Nations and human rights advocates (but pointedly, not from the U.S., UK, or the EU, who did not speak out against the law), the law was tabled.

But then came the absolutely corrupted 2009 election: Karzai promised to carve out a new province for Mohaqiq in exchange for his support in the election. Karzai "won," and President Obama declared the government "legitimate." Then, in January 2010, Karzai quietly slipped the Amnesty Law into effect, immunizing Mohaqiq for his crimes against women. Mohaqiq has since publicly decried Karzai's moves toward negotiations with the Taliban, but even though he doesn't support it, his handiwork is a malignant shaper of the process with regards to the rights of women.

Here's HRW's summary of the law:

The Amnesty Law states that all those who were engaged in armed conflict before the formation of Afghanistan’s Interim Administration in December 2001 shall “enjoy all their legal rights and shall not be prosecuted.” It also says that those engaged in current hostilities will be granted immunity if they agree to reconciliation with the government, effectively providing amnesty for future crimes. The law thus provides immunity from prosecution for members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, as well as pro-government warlords, who have committed war crimes.

All through this process, the U.S. was either silent or supportive of these developments, and now the Amnesty Law stands as one of the threats most identified by Afghan women's advocates to the progress of their political agenda during the reconciliation process. Those most dangerous to the women of Afghanistan--powerful fundamentalist warlords with a history of serious war crimes against women and girls--may find their way into influential negotiating positions where they can link up with their anti-women brethren already inside the Kabul government. The solution posited by Human Rights Watch and by women parliamentarians is to repeal the Amnesty Law and institute strong vetting processes that exclude the worst war criminals from the ballot or from political appointment while still allowing participation of their home tribes or groups. This solution goes hand in hand with that discovered last year by UK's DFID to be preferred by those in insurgency-prone areas: a new "black list" standard for what crimes disqualify one from election or appointment, applied to everyone, including Taliban, other insurgents, or pro-Kabul-government figures.

As the reader can tell, the issue is far more complex than the farcical "stay or leave" choice framed up on TIME's shameful propaganda cover art. The U.S.'s massive troop presence and the escalating instability is strengthening the hand of the political forces that want to roll back women's political equality, so the longer we stay, the worse off women will be as they attempt to navigate the eventual political settlement of the conflict. Yet, U.S. inattention to (or outright malignant influence on) the factors shaping the field for that political struggle are affirmatively hurting the struggle for women's political equality. We will leave the combat field, and we have to do it soon, and while we leave, we have to do our best to help shape a political field supportive of the Afghan women's struggle to liberate themselves.