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We Who Are About to Bug Out Salute You

The liberal habit of sanctimonious betrayal, from Reconstruction to Afghanistan.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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"Perhaps I’m being overly cynical,” wrote a well-known realist and conspiracy theorist on April 23, “but the new ‘strategic partnership’ agreement between the United States and Afghanistan strikes me as little more than a fig leaf designed to make a U.S. withdrawal (which I support) look like a mutually agreed-upon ‘victory.’ It is already being spun as a signal to the Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan that the United States remains committed, and the agreement will undoubtedly be used as ‘evidence’ that the 2009 surge is a success and that’s now ok for the US to bring its forces home.” But Harvard’s Stephen Walt​—​for it is he​—​avows that the agreement is just a cosmetic gesture that “facilitates doing the right thing,” which Walt, together with Vice President Joe Biden and many others, thinks is to bring the Taliban back into power in some sort of alliance with the elements of Kabul’s government most hostile to the West and least sympathetic to the idea of democracy and women’s rights.

Photo of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Afghan women at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

AFP / Kevin Lamarque

You don’t have to be a realist to agree that Walt is right about the Obama administration’s desire to bug out of Afghanistan. But only true realists can forget that the Taliban have been beaten again and again on the battlefield by the Northern Alliance, NATO, and our own military forces, with the overwhelming approval of the Afghan people. Only card-carrying realists can explain (though they never bother to do so) how it might be in our national interest to hand over a country in the neighborhood of several troublesome and often hostile powers​—​Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan​—​to a groupuscule of racial and sectarian supremacists controlled by Pakistan, which even realists admit is our biggest problem. Or how it is realistic to threaten the security of allies like India and raise the risk of nuclear confrontation in every possible direction.

The intellectual and practical defects of our Afghanistan policy are bizarre and difficult to understand. But our pro-Taliban policy has a more obvious moral defect (you are excused from the discussion here, Professor Walt), which has evinced a nearly unanimous lack of interest on the part of our own media and political elites. It seems like only yesterday that we applauded the emergence of Kabul’s women and girls from the shadow of Taliban rule; it was only yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed never to let that era return. But our normally stalwart and reliable humanitarian community, and our even more predictable feminists, seem completely to have forgotten the fate of Afghanistan and its women as Obama has gradually revealed his intention to negotiate with Taliban officials.

In last month’s Commentary, Jamie Fly reminded us that the ghastly plight of Afghanistan’s women under Taliban rule was once a fashionable cause. For five years before 9/11, feminists and human rights activists demanded action against the Taliban regime, and for good reason. In 1996, when the Taliban finished off its rivals (and with them over half the 2 million people of Kabul), a new chapter of horrors was to begin. A Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded group that combines Sunni fundamentalism with Pashtun racial nationalism, the Taliban was the entry of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, in the sweepstakes to control Afghanistan after the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah fell in 1992. According to Terry Glavin, the Canadian socialist who is Afghanistan’s most clear-eyed supporter in the West, the ISI was trying to find a force it could control capable of ruling Afghanistan, and they did well. Under Mullah Omar, with whom the Obama administration hopes to begin talks soon, the Taliban put into place a crudely literalist version of a Saudi-Wahhabist regime, which was so flamboyantly cruel in its treatment of women and girls that even the Muslim Brotherhood objected.

In 1997, Eleanor Smeal, the most entrepreneurial, politically agile, and intellectually curious of the ’70s generation of feminists, branched out into foreign policy. Her Feminist Majority Foundation formed a unit called “The Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan,” named Mavis Leno, wife of Jay Leno, as its chair, and began to push (as Fly wrote) “an extensive U.S. campaign to delegitimize the Taliban until the rights of female Afghans were recognized.” Liberal celebrities, feminist veterans, and Democratic politicians supported the cause. Human Rights Watch meticulously documented the thousands of political murders and ethno-religious massacres Mullah Omar ordered.

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