In the eleven months I’ve posted to this blog, I’ve thus far managed to avoid political topics. But now I’m going to tread the line, because while the topic is definitely political, I feel like this should really be a humanitarian issue first.
On the cover of TIME Magazine’s August 9th issue is a picture of an 18-year-old Afghan girl named Aisha. She was treated like a slave by her husband and his family, and suffered horrible abuse and beatings at their hands. Last year, she ran away… and soon after, the Taliban came knocking on her door, demanding that she be punished for doing so.
The judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved by her story of abuse so severe that she feared for her life. Perhaps he didn’t even let her speak, but regardless, he certainly didn’t care. So while her brother-in-law held her down, her husband took a knife and proceeded to cut off her ears and nose.
Now her face is on the cover of TIME, and Aisha has become a pawn for both sides in the ongoing debate about the war.
-The pro-war camp claims that this illustrates why we need to stay in Afghanistan and continue combating religious extremism.
-The anti-war camp claims that this illustrates how little has changed despite almost 10 years of American soldiers fighting and dying half a world away.
To me, the TIME magazine cover drives home a different point: if we had wanted to win the war on terror, we should have focused on helping people like Aisha in the first place.
The breed of religious extremism which led to Aisha’s mutilation is the exact same breed which led to airplanes being flown into buildings on 9/11. But we don’t see it. Maybe it’s because Aisha is just a poor woman from Afghanistan. Maybe it’s that she isn’t one of us. But even when confronted with her picture, we tell ourselves it’s not our job to protect her– we’re over there to protect Americans. Afghan women have suffered for generations. They suffered before we got there, and they’ll still be suffering after we leave. It’s not the jobs of American soldiers to solve her problem. We’re here to fight terrorism.
But terrorism is an idea, not a person, and all the weapons in the world won’t kill it. To combat terrorism, you have to combat the conditions that allow it to thrive: you have to combat the hate, the ignorance, and the extremism in which it takes root. And if we had engaged the local population, if we had treated them like human beings worthy of our help, instead of treating them as inconvenient obstacles on our way to hunt down Osama bin Laden, I believe we would be much further along in alleviating the causes of both suffering like Aisha’s, as well as the suffering which came to our shores on 9/11.
We should have focused much more on helping the Afghans build schools, medical clinics, and improved water systems. Above all, by far, the schools. We should have focused on educating children, especially girls, who form the backbone of families, and who will be largely responsible for raising the next generation of Afghans.
To make a long story short: we should have built less predator drones, and more classrooms.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times’ most recent column explains it thus:
Over all, education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism. And the trade-offs are staggering: For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there. Hawks retort that it’s impossible to run schools in Afghanistan unless there are American troops to protect them. But that’s incorrect.
CARE, a humanitarian organization, operates 300 schools in Afghanistan, and not one has been burned by the Taliban. Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame, has overseen the building of 145 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and operates dozens more in tents or rented buildings — and he says that not one has been destroyed by the Taliban either.
Aid groups show that it is quite possible to run schools so long as there is respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them. And my hunch is that CARE and Mr. Mortenson are doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.
It seems to me like Greg Mortenson (link) is one of the few people who’s figured out how to win the war on terrorism: by engaging with the people. And his schools are not seen as instruments of foreign oppression, because they are built and owned by the local community, and because all the schools are built with the blessing of the local elders. Mortenson’s model works, and that’s because at its root it’s about treating people with respect, not dehumanizing them in the name of war or conquest, as is so often done.
Whenever we’re fighting a war, we always dehumanize the other side. Even in a war where we’re ostensibly trying to help the local people, there’s still a tendency to pull back, to not treat them as entirely human, especially amongst those of us who view the war from afar. That’s why the only statistic we hear with any regularity is the number of American soldiers dead, as if it’s the only true measure of the war’s cost. The number of civilians killed is less important, almost an afterthought, especially to the pro-war camp. And the number of children who get to go to school, or the number of people with access to medical care, or clean water, or simply the opportunity to build better lives, does not even enter it to it.
I’ve said in previous blog entries that one of my favorite things about stories is that they help us relate to people who aren’t like us, and help us empathize with people who we might otherwise ignore. Aisha is a great example of this. I find myself interested in her personal story, and the causes of it, and what we can learn from it. I don’t want to lose track of it in the rush to just spin her story as propaganda for one side or the other– but of course that’s what happened amongst the political commentators, both left and right.
It’s unfortunate. We may dehumanize the other side in war, but in the war on terror, “the other side” is mostly just the people we should have been helping from the beginning.