“I’ve been clear,” President Joe Biden told the American people on Monday, “that human rights must be the centre of our foreign policy, not the periphery. But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments. It’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools, and rallying the world to join us.”
As I listened to those words, I found myself admiring the political skill of Biden’s speechwriters — and despising their utter callousness. I wanted to shout at the TV: But what about the 19 million women now sentenced by American foreign policy to a life of darkness under the Taliban? Surely they deserve human rights, too?
Do you seriously expect anyone to believe that American diplomacy will make the Taliban treat women fairly? Is “rallying the world” remotely likely to keep Afghan girls in schools, or allow women to walk down the streets of Kabul with their faces uncovered? Do you take us all for fools?
The Biden administration’s cool, calculated and yet incompetent abandonment of the Afghan people stems from two core problems.
The first is a failure of imagination. Biden claimed to have planned for every contingency. So did he not consider evacuating the Afghans who qualified for special immigrant visas and their families (an estimated 80,0000 individuals) before withdrawing all US special forces? Was the pandemonium at the airport so very hard to foresee?
On a larger scale, there was a massive failure to imagine what American interests in the region are, how to protect them and what the repercussions of ignoring them could be. To Biden, America’s “only vital national interest in Afghanistan … [is] preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland”. This is short-sighted.
In reality, this chaotic, humiliating withdrawal significantly increases the risk of a terror attack on the US homeland. Aside from revealing a dysfunctional American foreign policy apparatus, in intelligence terms Afghanistan is now a black hole. Even if we are able to extricate some of our Afghan intelligence assets, the US has lost a key source of information on jihadist activity.
A little bit more imagination would also have revealed how China, Iran and other current adversaries will likely use the Afghan fiasco to their advantage. Did the President not consider how his actions in Afghanistan could embolden Xi Jinping’s dream of a “reunification” with Taiwan? Is the US now in a stronger or weaker negotiating position with regard to the Iranian regime? Did the President project enough power this week to convince his Russian counterpart to crack down on the ransomware attacks that appear to emanate from his territory?
And what about our allies? Will India trust the US as the leading partner of the Quad (along with Australia and Japan) designed to check the growing power of China? How about our European partners and the transatlantic alliance?
The second problem informing Biden’s approach concerns the moral decay of Western civilisation. When a fish decays, the head rots first. The same can be said for the West. We’ve become so focused on microaggressions in America that we have lost sight of the macroaggressions happening to women around the world.
In my latest book, Prey, I argue that the modern-day feminist movement in the West does not take seriously the concerns of women in working-class communities, many of whom have immigrant backgrounds, and who face a steady rise of sexual harassment and assault on the streets of their own neighbourhoods.
In today’s perverse American culture, however, more attention is devoted to the use of preferred gender pronouns than to the plight of women whose most basic rights — to education, personal autonomy, the right to be present in a public space — are either removed or under serious threat.
What we’ve witnessed this week in Afghanistan is a watershed moment in Western decline. American culture today tells us not to be proud of our country; not to believe in the superiority of American values; not to promote the rights we are afforded by our Constitution so that they can be enjoyed by people around the world.
When rights are promoted, they tend to be “progressive” interpretations. We’ve reached a point where we proudly flew the LGBT flag from our embassy in Kabul when the going was good, but have now abandoned Afghanistan’s gay population to the Taliban. Meanwhile, the US Navy’s reading list now includes books such as Sexual Minorities and Politics and How to be an Antiracist, both of which paint a bleak picture of the United States, its history and its identity.
How, then, can we hope to defend the basic rights of women and minorities elsewhere? American self-confidence has morphed into nihilism; we’re all talk and no action beyond retreat. That is why women’s rights activists, interpreters and anyone who has worked with the American people have been forced to hide in Afghanistan while the Taliban go door-to-door looking for them.
What will now happen to the women of Afghanistan? When asked if women’s rights will be respected, the Taliban governor of the Andar district in Ghazni province, Mawlavey Kamiil, said: “We assure this to people all over the world, especially the people of Afghanistan: Islam has given rights to everyone equally. Women have their own rights. How much Islam has given rights to women, we will give them that much.” Similarly, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, Enamullah Samangani, has promised that women “should be in the government structure according to Sharia law”.
This caveat is important: women will only have the rights afforded to them by Islam. Under orthodox Sharia law, women can inherit property but not at the same level as men (generally half as much); women can testify in court but their testimony is not equal to a man’s word; women have a right to divorce under specific circumstances but not a unilateral right (as men have); a male guardian is essential for a woman; a woman can have one husband whereas a man can have up to four wives.
Yet the texts of Sharia law do not fully capture the brutal reality of daily life for women under a regime like the Taliban’s. In the last period of Taliban rule, which ended with the invasion of 2001, women were forced to wear the burka when outside, if they were allowed to leave the house at all. They were not educated in any meaningful sense (other than, in some cases, the most basic religious education). They were forced into marriages (often as young girls) with men who used them as chattels. Brutal punishments for small transgressions made women little better than slaves.
We must not forget Bibi Aisha, who was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2010. As a young woman, she attempted to escape from her abusive husband (whom she had been forced to marry), but when the Taliban caught her, they had her ears and nose chopped off. Or Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in 2012 by a Taliban fighter because she dared to advocate for girl’s education.
Now, the Taliban are claiming that women and girls will be able to continue their education, as long as they wear full burkas. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen explained that the “policy is that women can have access to education and to work”. However, the reality for Afghan women seems rather different; they are now, for example, barely to be seen on the streets of Afghan cities.
Yes, the “modernised” Taliban has done some media training, but we should not be fooled. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be governed by the same draconian Sharia law as the Taliban regime of the past. Reports are already emerging of girls being taken as child brides, with the Taliban “ordering local religious leaders to give them a list of girls over 15 years of age and widows under 45” to marry their fighters.
Women’s faces are being whitewashed from billboards throughout Kabul. Women in Kandahar have been told not to return to their jobs at Azizi Bank, and that instead “male relatives could take their place”. In a small village in the Faryan province, the Taliban knocked on doors and demanded to be fed. If women protested, they were beaten and even killed. This is just the beginning.
Over the last several days, I’ve wept bitter tears for the women and girls whose futures are now blighted through no fault of their own. I have felt an overwhelming sense of impotence, even as I have personally tried to help get vulnerable people out of Kabul. But this sense of impotence is now giving way to a feeling of anger and of renewed purpose.
We have to do better. We have to solve this disease of moral decay within our own society and improve our imaginative skills. American decline is not inevitable. It is a choice. Standing by our allies is a choice. Standing up for human rights is a choice.
Having blundered into this wholly predictable mess, Biden has no option but to fight until every American is safely out of Afghanistan. But he can’t stop there. He should throw his weight behind saving every Afghan who has risked life and limb for America. He needs to get women’s rights activists and leaders out of the country.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan may be the future for Afghanistan. But it can’t be the future for the brave people who risked their lives to fight barbarity.