As US troops begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, reports of Taliban violence are on the rise. The Taliban have reclaimed substantial areas of land previously held by a diminishing US military presence on the ground, threatening to reinstate oppressive policies that deny fundamental rights to various citizen groups. In response, the familiar argument that we need an expanded military presence to protect women and girls is experiencing a resurgence.
Rob Clark, of the Henry Jackson Society, says that female empowerment is “one of the key human rights advances that the West have made in Afghanistan”. George Bush himself declared the withdrawal to be a “mistake”, adding that it “breaks my heart” that “the progress made for young women and girls in Afghanistan” may be reversed.
Of course, the threat of a resurgent Taliban to women’s rights should be condemned. Yet so too should instrumentalising women’s rights for military expansion. Such was Bush’s approach for invading Afghanistan in 2001, offering the promise of a compassionate military project focussed upon humanitarian concerns. But the US did not bring peace to Afghanistan. They occupied Afghanistan for almost 20 years, bringing arms, bombs and destruction to the homes of countless innocent people – including the women and girls Bush ostensibly set out to protect, whose deaths and sexual assaults at the hands of US soldiers have incited an International Criminal Court investigation into US war crimes in Afghanistan. War is legitimated on humanitarian premises, meaning that opposing war also requires resisting the narratives of compassionate militarism that go along with it.
20 years on, the Taliban occupies more territory than when the US invaded. An estimated 400,000 civilians have died in the fighting, at the cost of approximately $700 billion in US defence spending. Such figures should be a testament to how militarism is unsuited as a long-term strategy for peace, rather than be retrospectively portrayed as a worthwhile humanitarian exercise.
So, Western onlookers are right to draw attention to harms that an emboldened Taliban are likely to impose. But framing the US occupation as a peaceful alternative to Taliban rule is to rewrite the course of history, and to ignore the bloodshed and destruction brought upon Afghanistan by its foreign occupiers.