by Evin Maria Phoenix, AIDemocracy Regional Coordinator

Not that we ever left. Indeed, the United States has been entrenched in the brutal landscape of Afghanistan for nearly a decade, becoming America’s longest war (USA Today). We’ve also poured somewhere between a conservative estimate of $32 Billion (not including Iraq) and a staggering $3 Trillion (including Iraq) into our military campaigns and infrastructural projects, sometimes going completely down the drain as an “outrageous waste of taxpayer money.”

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One would think we have a lot to show for it. Also, one would certainly hope that we’re safer as a nation. While back-and-forth debate endlessly circulates amongst us all, one issue almost always goes without address. In fact, it was used as partial justification for the invasion: the plight of women.

In fact, before the Wikileaks non-crisis, it seemed like everyone forgot all about Afghanistan. Lindsay Lohan dominated the CNN headlines and Twitter trending topics whilst “the plight of Afghanistan’s women” took a backseat on a long bus ride to nowhere. It’s time for a second look at what originally warranted the Bush-led pied-piper clarion call.

With all the lives lost, money spent, and time elapsed, women ought to at least be somewhat elevated by the military presence. But as the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan put it, women have gone from “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Afghan women are still largely powerless (Afghanistan Online), and most female officials are simply figureheads to make Karzai look good. Indeed, doubts about his commitment to women’s equality solidified when he signed a bill (Telegraph UK) making it legal for a husband to rape his wife. As if justice would ever be served if it was illegal anyway. Sorry, but- how is that different from the Taliban again?

Speaking of whom, they’re on their way right back to where they were before we got there, with the help of our Pakistani allies (Wikileaks)! So what exactly are we doing over there?

Make no mistake, the situation is dire, and yet we’re still there. In fact, reports of U.S.-based ‘liberation’ of Afghan women (Reuters) are largely exaggerated. Infinite arguments examine whether Afghan women were better off before the invasion or now, with suggestions (Huffington Post) that it’s currently even more perplexing and challenging because the land is ruled by spiteful, aggressive tribal warlords, instead of a collective entity with a prime directive (not that the Taliban was any more worthwhile, but it was a little less complex of a system).

Anyone who’s taken an introductory college class on gender knows all about the importance of checking your inevitable ethnocentric perspective. Ultra-zealous Western feminists from the global North (such as myself) always want to “rescue” oppressed women in third-world countries, but usually without critiquing one’s own society first. It’s fine to want to help people; there’s nothing wrong with that. But when dealing with external societies, the priority must be to assist and listen to the existing domestic social movements.

We didn’t exactly ask women of Afghanistan (as if they have Gallup polls over there) if they wanted us to invade and gun down the Taliban. Even if we somehow were able to, however, they probably would have different feelings by now. But we can still listen to the voices that are reaching us and not dismiss them.

I don’t presume to know what Afghan women want, except for peace, justice, freedom, and equality. How they define that may be different – but they should have the ability to go to school without being attacked by acid. “To each their own” only holds up until somebody gets hurt.

Regardless of how we got there, the damage has been done, and we have to make it right. Either General David Petraeus shifts the military focus from “kill ‘em all!” to having a few hundred cups of tea and building 20 schools for every deployed troop, or we outright up and leave.

“Staying the course” is either maintaining an oppressive socio-political climate for women, or it’s making it worse. We helped Afghanistan institute some semblance of a democracy, and they “elected” Karzai in a sham, Iran-style. Then he legalizes domestic violence and rape, and continues to downplay the participation of women in Parliament. It doesn’t look good for Operation Same-old-same-old. If only Greg Mortensen was tapped to replace Gen. McChrystal!

In the words of Hamid Karzai himself, “What is more important, protecting the right of a girl to go to school or saving her life?” What if going to school is what saves her life? — Unless the current negotiations for an exit strategy involve reconciling with the Taliban. Then, girls will definitely not have the right to go to school, and their lives and livelihoods will be in further jeopardy. So we removed the Taliban in 2001, and then will essentially reinstate them in 2011…Mission Accomplished, we ‘liberated’ Afghan women for about five seconds.

In the spirit of “Returning to Afghanistan,” on August 8, Time Magazine will release its new issue, featuring Afghan 18-year-old Aisha on the cover, accompanied by the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?” She wasn’t chosen at random; her nose and ears were cut off by her husband and family by Taliban decree for running away from her abusive marriage.

While Time Magazine’s current cover might be merely seen as a cheap attempt to connect failure and tragedy with withdrawal (which it is), or to grab attention (which it does), I have to praise them for reaching so deeply to determine what kind of effect the photo would have. They researched its impact on children with psychologists and made sure Aisha was going to be in protective custody with a women’s nonprofit and a security detail indefinitely. She is also going to receive reconstructive surgery as a donation for her willingness to pose for the magazine. A far cry from Nat Geo’s “Afghan girl.” They didn’t even bother to learn her name.

In addition, I applaud them for re-examining the role of gender as the keystone element to any positive outcomes in Afghanistan. In fact, it isn’t really them saying so – it’s the women of Afghanistan they interview.

Time just ratcheted the dialogue up a notch with such a cover choice, and I’m happy to see that it’s working. But please don’t assume that “women will have their noses cut off by the Taliban if we leave,” because that’s grossly oversimplified. It’s going to happen if we leave tomorrow or if we stay and do the same things for the next nine or ten years.

The article isn’t released yet, so I don’t know what it will say. However, I hope it recognizes that without a major overhaul of the U.S. involvement there, and without a massive paradigm shift within Afghan Realpolitik, women there are as good as dead, regardless of if we stay or if we go. In case you haven’t noticed, more of the same ain’t cuttin’ it. Something that Petraeus doesn’t appear to understand – or President Obama.

In sum, our occupation of Afghanistan has lasted almost nine years and we have spent an ungodly amount of taxpayer dollars and human capital to make something happen, even while neglecting affairs at home. Reconciliation or no reconciliation with the Taliban, leaving on these terms in 2011 is a betrayal to the women who we used as a justification to invade – as well as everyone who sacrificed and paid for the war. Either we cut and run or we do what is necessary and wildly change our approach.

For an excellent examination of the plight of women in Afghanistan (and our involvement there), and what it will take to achieve some measure of success and ‘victory,’ read this article from Foreign Policy Magazine. Also note the comments. Interesting how no-one got the point. Not even Gen. David Petraeus. Maybe you will. But you aren’t running Afghanistan.