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Saving Afghan Women from the "Liberators"

Lasting change must come at the hands of Afghan women themselves -- and Afghan men.

Feminists everywhere are justifiably enraged at the suffering of Afghan women. Following the Taliban’s fall, there was a rush to alleviate the plight of Afghan women and girls, backed by millions of dollars in aid. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Afghanistan has been overrun by hundreds of organizations trying to help. Unfortunately, most are not very successful.

Although the Obama Administration is continuing the past policy of supporting Afghan women (and Congress recently approved $150 million for women’s health, education and capacity-building), this policy also includes war and a large supplement to fund it. Thus, anti-war feminists are at odds on how to continue their support. The Feminist Majority Foundation has no intention of abandoning the Afghan women’s cause regardless of hostilities, while Code Pink is questioning the motive of United States support for Afghan women, stating, "Congress is hiding behind the skirts of women to fund the war."

Each organization has a point, but both miss the much larger problem surrounding this mission.

I do not support the current Obama initiative to bring in more troops, nor do I believe the international community should walk away. Although I am not anti-war, neither do I think that anyone can "save" Afghanistan. I do believe, however, that the international community’s massive intervention must be reviewed and revised in a comprehensive manner. Failing that, everyone should just go home.

Afghanistan is the benefactor of the largest collective international intervention in history. Billions have already been donated or pledged to support the war and the country’s internal development.

A variety of players are competing for money and resources, but only 10 percent of it goes to actual development. Forty percent finds its way back home while another chunk is siphoned off by corruption.

Currently, there is little to no coordination of development efforts and no basic plan on how to apply whatever funds are obtained. Everyone is dancing to their own fiddler, watching tons of money pour down countless drains.

During my first trip to Afghanistan, I couldn’t believe how anything got done. We were all locked down behind the barricades. When I was finally able to leave, I visited the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, where the first words from the minister’s mouth were, "Please help me organize these donors. I have no idea who is doing what, and they are everywhere."

She wasn’t kidding. Everywhere, there were groups involved in "saving women" without even asking what the Ministry needed.

For its part, the Obama Administration doesn’t seem concerned that this chaos might have contributed to the massive failure in policy over the last eight years. In fact, this "new policy," which includes adding 38,000 additional troops by the end of 2009 while simultaneously increasing civilian support in Provincial Reconstruction Teams has mayhem written all over it.

I’m reminded of the movie My Cousin Vinny, when Joe Pesci turns to Marisa Tomei and says, "Let me see, what else can we pile on? Is there any more S--- we can pile on to the top of the outcome of this case? Is it possible?"

The bottom line is that the international community must better manage its efforts to ensure that they positively impact and empower Afghan women. Donors are so keen on seeing themselves as liberators of these "poor women" that they too often fail to see that this is not just about the Taliban.

President Karzai has supported women simply through rhetoric. He has promised repeatedly to appoint more women ministers and nominate them to the Supreme Court, but has reneged on both. Worse, he signed the " women’s law," which essentially legalized rather than criminalizing abuse.

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