A Winters Express op-ed column
By Richard Kleeberg Special to the Express As the Taliban continue their rapid takeover of Afghanistan, very few Americans are giving any thought to what is about to happen to the 20 million women and girls who live in that country. I have been thinking about it. For nearly two decades, I have wanted the United States to withdraw all of our troops from Afghanistan. But I have now reconsidered. And I realize I was wrong to call for us to leave Afghanistan entirely. By removing our last few thousand troops, we have enabled the Taliban to strip away freedom, dignity, and hope from millions of Afghan women. We could have chosen to maintain a few thousand troops in Afghanistan. But we did not. We stayed in Afghanistan for two decades because we arrogantly believed we could transform Afghanistan into a stable, modern, western democracy – ignoring the cold facts that the country was not stable, not modern, not Western, and that the people had no concept of democracy. History told us that a military victory in Afghanistan was highly unlikely. Afghan fighters defeated the British military in the 19th century, and defeated the Russian military in the 20th century. Winning this war was never a logical outcome. But our military presence did have a completely unplanned and unexpected positive influence on the country For these past 20 years, many women in Afghanistan, particularly those in the more urban areas, such as the capital Kabul have enjoyed a lifestyle that has previously been impossible for them to experience. For the first time in their history, many Afghan women have been allowed to remove the all-encompassing burka, and show their faces. For the first time, they have been allowed to leave their homes and go out in public, without a male family member accompanying them. For the first time Afghan women have been allowed to initiate a conversation with a man, instead of being required to remain silent unless spoken to. And for the first time ever, Afghan women have been able to choose their husband, instead of being forced to submit to a husband selected for them by their male relatives. For the first time, women have been encouraged to go to school, and even allowed to go to college to prepare for professional careers. For the first time, women have been permitted to create and own businesses, and control their own bank accounts. And for the very first time, women have been allowed to hold positions of power and authority in both local and country-wide government. Most of the Afghan women and girls under 25 years old, living in cities and other urban areas, simply have no memory of what life was always like for women, for centuries of Afghan history. Afghan women now face a lifetime of virtual imprisonment – a life where they are required to be covered with the burka, from head to toe, a life where they cannot speak, cannot leave their house alone, and are forced to marry any man selected for them by their father. How difficult would it have been to keep 4,000 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, some in Kabul, and some at Bagram Air Force Base, our largest base in the region? With American troops in the capital city, and air power on call at Bagram, the Taliban in the major cities would most likely be hesitant to compel women to comply with their horrific rules and oppressive conditions, especially in Kabul, where more than 2 million women live. Could we have protected the remarkable progress urban women in Afghanistan have made in the past 20 years, by maintaining a small but active military presence in Afghanistan? It seems likely – certainly the Taliban would be less likely to impose their tyranny against women in the presence of American troops – and far less willing to damage and destroy city buildings and infrastructure that could risk wounding or killing American troops. Keeping 4,000 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan doesn’t seem like much compared to how many troops we currently station around the world. We have 38,000 troops in South Korea. We have 35,000 troops in Germany, and 55,000 American troops are still in Japan. In addition, there are 24,000 American troops in England, 11,000 in Italy, 8,000 in Spain, 4,000 in Australia, 3,000 in Saudi Arabia and 3,000 in Iraq. And don’t forget we also have 15,000 troops at our 29 military bases in Africa. You might wonder how our nation can be so silent, so coldly cavalier about the devastating fate of women in Afghanistan. But it is really not too hard to understand. Even in this country, women have had to battle for 200 years for rights and freedoms men have always had. Women’s rights and freedom have rarely been issues American men have been willing to fight for. Ask yourself this question: if 20 million Afghan MEN were about to be subjected to such punitive, archaic, and inhumane rules as the Afghan women will soon see, would we stand by, would we permit it to occur? Or would we take immediate and necessary action to stop it from happening? You bet we would take action. A long, long night of darkness has begun to envelop Afghanistan, and it may be a long, long time before Afghan women once again see the light of hope and freedom.