U.S. and Afghanistan: The cynical abuse of ‘women’s rights’

This article, originally published in 2007 in Workers World’s “Lavender & Red” series, exposes an Islamophobic argument hidden under the cloak of “human rights” and “women’s rights” as propaganda used by imperialists to justify military aggression. Under a deal signed with the Taliban by the Trump administration last year, the U.S. promised to pull all its troops out of Afghanistan by May 1. President Biden now implies the U.S. may not meet that deadline, and the false argument of “women’s rights” is again being revived to justify U.S. occupation. See Feinberg’s entire historic series on the deep interconnections between socialism and LGBTQ liberation at workers.org/lavender-red/.

The U.S. did not unleash war on Afghanistan in 2001 to “liberate” women. But pro-war spin doctors — embedded with the corporate media — went into overdrive to create that impression after 9/11. Public relations campaigns “sold” as liberation a high-tech imperialist war against an impoverished country with no air force.

This was designed to obscure the fact that imperialism had no right to violate Afghanistan’s self-determination and sovereignty.

The New York Times offered a more candid geopolitical view as early as Jan. 18, 1996, in an article entitled “The New Great Game in Asia” — referring to the 19th-century struggle among capitalist powers to control the Eurasian landmass and the warm-water ports of the Persian Gulf.

The Times explained, “While few have noticed, Central Asia has again emerged as a murky battleground among big powers engaged in an old and rough geopolitical game. Western experts believe that the largely untapped oil and natural gas riches of the Caspian Sea countries could make that region the Persian Gulf of the next century. The object of the revived game is to befriend leaders of the former Soviet republics controlling the oil, while neutralizing Russian suspicions and devising secure alternative pipeline routes to world markets.”

After overturning the bloc of workers’ states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, U.S. finance capital schemed to secure ownership of trillions of dollars worth of buried oil and gas treasure in the Caspian Sea region, which had for decades been collectively owned by the workers and peoples of the region.

Transnational energy giants like Unocal and Enron saw Afghanistan as the best path to pipe oil and gas from Central Asia to the world market.

The Bush neo-cons, Pentagon brass and the military-industrial complex worked overtime to frame this as a campaign for women’s rights.

Laura Bush delivered the presidential radio address on Nov. 16, 2001 — a month after the Pentagon assault on Afghanistan began. Her speech focused on women’s rights in that country: “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” It was a total lie.

Afghan Revolution advanced women’s rights

An article in Workers World on Oct. 10, 1996, by Deirdre Griswold showed how a progressive revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 had taken measures to liberate women and challenge centuries of landlordism. In response, the U.S. pulled together an army of pro-feudal elements to crush that revolutionary government, forcing it to call on the USSR for support.

The WW article quoted from a 1986 Department of Defense publication titled “Afghanistan — a Country Study.” Even this Pentagon book had to admit that the 1978 revolution brought many gains to Afghan women and girls.

Women were organized in the Democratic Women’s Organization of Afghanistan. The national group was founded in 1965 by Dr. Anahita Ratebzada. Her companion Babrak Karmal, who founded the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan the same year, later became the country’s president.

One of the first actions of the revolution was to end “bride-price” and allow women to make marriage choices. Punishment of women who had sex outside of marriage was prohibited. Women could choose to wear or not to wear the veil, travel in public, get an education and work at a job. Women of all classes — not just the well-to-do — were trained as doctors, teachers and lawyers.

Brigades of women and other young Afghans brought medical care to rural peasants.

The revolution impacted the life of one-third of the rural population — landless peasants, sharecroppers and tenants held in virtual bondage to landlords and moneylenders.

Before the revolution, 5 percent of the landlords claimed ownership of more than 45 percent of the country’s arable land. “When the PDPA took power,” the Pentagon report noted, “it quickly moved to remove both landownership inequalities and usury.” One of the revolutionary land reforms was the cancellation of mortgage debt for agricultural laborers, tenants and small landowners.

On the eve of the revolution, 96.3 percent of the women of Afghanistan were illiterate; rural illiteracy for all the sexes was 90.5 percent. The progressive government created massive literacy programs and printed textbooks in Dari, Pashtu, Uzbek, Turkic and Baluchi.

The 1986 Pentagon report stated, “The government trained many more teachers, built additional schools and kindergartens, and instituted nurseries for orphans.”

The Washington Post admitted that Afghan women were the strongest supporters of the 1978 revolution.

But this revolution was crushed by a well-funded, well-armed counterrevolution in which U.S. imperialism made common cause with feudal patriarchs. Women were then bought and sold as property once again.

National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director Robert M. Gates later publicly bragged that, beginning in early 1979, the CIA had funneled money and arms to counterrevolutionary groups, many of them members of militias loyal to local landowners.

Democrats and Republicans had approved at least $8 billion for this counterrevolutionary effort that hired, armed and trained the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and other forces.

CIA historian John Ranelagh recalls that then President Jimmy Carter OK’d “more secret operations than Reagan later did.” Carter later admitted in his memoirs that his administration actually considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the progressive developments in Afghanistan.

U.S. set women’s rights back centuries

By 1992 the Soviet Union was overturned and the progressive government in Afghanistan was defeated by imperialism. After four years of internecine struggle among different Afghan factions, the Taliban came to power.

Michael Meacher, a senior Labor Party member of Parliament who had been a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, observed in a Sept. 6, 2003, article in the Guardian of London: “Until July 2001 the U.S. government saw the Taliban regime as a source of stability in Central Asia that would enable the construction of hydrocarbon pipelines from the oil and gas fields in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Indian Ocean.

“But confronted with the Taliban’s refusal to accept U.S. conditions, the U.S. representatives told them ‘either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.’”

Washington then took advantage of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to launch an invasion of Afghanistan.

U.S. occupiers appointed former Unocal advisors to be both the titular president of Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador to the country.

The continuing imperialist blitzkrieg has destroyed the land’s infrastructure — including potable water, sewage and electricity — worsening hunger and disease. Soviet-built public urban housing complexes and schools lie in ruins.

These conditions create suffering for all sexes, genders and sexualities in Afghanistan, particularly for women. [According to the World Health Organization,] in 2004, some provinces reported 1,120 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. (tinyurl.com/yus8cdm9)

Pentagon Special Forces commandos can kick in the door of a home at any hour of the day or night, body search Afghan women and their loved ones, and drag them all off in hoods to torture chambers.

That’s imperialist-style “liberation.”

Research by Minnie Bruce Pratt contributed to the original article.

The late Leslie Feinberg was a managing editor of Workers World newspaper and the first theorist to advance a Marxist concept of trans liberation in the groundbreaking “Transgender Warriors: Making History.” (Beacon Press, 1996) Feinberg also authored the now-classic novel, “Stone Butch Blues” (1993), available as free digital download at www.lesliefeinberg.net.

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