Certain lies have staying power, and the one Americans told themselves about liberating Afghan women through invasion and occupation is one of them. The myth is likely to live on even though the United States and NATO formally ended their combat mission in the country this week.
On Dec. 18 the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a body tasked with policing government agencies rebuilding the devastated country, issued a report finding that none of the U.S. agencies tasked with implementing and executing programs for Afghan women could readily track, identify or assess the effectiveness of the initiatives they undertook.
“The Department of Defense, State and USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] reported spending at least $64.9 million on 682 projects” from 2011 through 2013, and “State and USAID reported spending an additional $850.5 million on 17 projects,” the report said. None of them, however, could say with any degree of specificity or accuracy how any of this money had benefited Afghan women, making it, in the words of the report, “difficult or impossible” to determine if the money was reaching the women.
It is no surprise that the report’s findings did not receive much attention in the U.S. media. Even as the occupation of Afghanistan takes its last fitful breaths, the conflation of a war project with a feminist one continues. The arrival of these statistics from SIGAR, even ones confirming that the ostensible task of saving Afghan women has not been realized, similarly poses no threat to the savior myth now so deeply entrenched in the American psyche.
As anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod pointed out in her book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?,” the liberation lie that positions Americans as the saviors of Afghan women is nurtured widely. It allows white liberal feminists a superior perch from which to help their downtrodden Afghan sisters, popularizing all the while an elsewhere-focused feminism that looks at gender-based violence as something found only in faraway lands. Among public commentators and journalists, it facilitates blindness about both U.S. foreign policy and the problems women face in the developing world.
The official call for America to save Afghan women was sounded by Laura Bush in her oft-quoted speech at the inauguration of the “war on terrorism” nearly 13 years ago, when “civilized people everywhere” were called on to join its ranks. It was branded a success in November 2013 by then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, “We are well aware this is a serious turning point for all the people of Afghanistan … in particular for the hard-fought gains that women and girls have been able to enjoy.”
With the aid of the Washington establishment, the Afghan-women rescue fantasy continues to perpetuate itself. Just one month before SIGAR noted that USAID could not account for how hundreds of millions of its expenditures had helped Afghan women, feminist groups were continuing to tout the agency’s efforts.
In November the Feminist Majority Foundation featured on its blog the triumphant news that Promote, the “largest USAID women’s empowerment program in the world,” was launched in Afghanistan to devote up to $416 million toward the cause. “It’s about a commitment to doing everything we can to help the Afghan government continue to build momentum for women and especially the next generation of women leaders,” said Catherine Russell, the U.S. ambassador at large for global women’s issues. The same day, USAID announced another $110 million in projects promoting health and nutrition for Afghan women.
If the conclusion of the SIGAR report is to be believed, however, there is no way to track whether any of these funds will actually help Afghan women.
It is possible that groups such as the Feminist Majority believe that throwing money at Afghan women will somehow provide substance to the American project of saving them. The danger of this premise is not simply its racist genesis, one that sees other women from other — and specifically Muslim — cultures in need of rescue, but that it imagines gender violence as unconnected to and not exacerbated by American interventions.
Locating the problem always and forever in Afghan traditions or culture, these groups imagine the persistence of U.S. presence as a means to safeguard women, failing to note how the continued conflict, in which the United States is a party, is itself a reason for social problems faced by Afghan women. A United Nations report published days later said that in 2014, Afghanistan saw nearly 10,000 civilian casualties, making it the deadliest year since 2009. War, however, is never to blame; officials at USAID and the Department of Defense told interviewers from SIGAR that it was “deep rooted cultural norms” in Afghanistan that were to blame for their own inefficiencies.
Finally, no discussion of the Afghan-women savior complex would be complete without tackling the something-must-be-done boogeyman. According to this argument, the situation faced by Afghan women is so dire that any effort to help them is justified, even if relief agencies fail to account for the money spent or assess the effectiveness of their programs. The lethality of this premise is its failure to consider how the creation of a war economy — the pumping of hundreds of millions of dollars into a country that has almost no independent GDP — affects communities, including women, as a whole.
The dangers of this were laid out long ago. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said in 2011 that “misspent foreign aid can result in corruption, alter markets and undercut the ability of the Kabul government to control its resources” and that Afghanistan was so pumped up with aid dollars, the country could suffer a “severe economic depression” in 2014. Nobody listened then, and no one listens now; aid disbursements continue, stubbornly blind to how the American presence has provided windfalls to those who can access the aid economy and excluded others who do not wish to promote or participate in the occupation.
The truth again is in the numbers. In one section the SIGAR report quotes the independent Afghan Human Rights Commission report that said violence against women in Afghanistan increased by 25 percent from 2012 to 2013 (PDF). The number should give pause, coming as it does in the shadow of listings of millions of dollars of empowerment expenditure. But like the other findings of the SIGAR report, it will not.
Instead, the United States, its media, its politicians and, worst of all, many of its feminists will continue to nurse the lie that the war in Afghanistan was about saving its women, that the artificial and corrosive war economy perpetuated by the U.S. presence was somehow a blessing for Afghans and that a continued perpetuation of it is required into the future. All this to perpetuate the cherished lie of liberation, which posits culture and tradition, instead of war and occupation, as responsible for the conditions Afghanistan faces today.