Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’


June 14, 2015

This post was originally published on “Reflections on War & Society.” *

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.  (U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.
(U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

A couple of articles I read recently got me thinking about the long reach of war and how we define casualties. The first is a New York Times article about disabled Afghan veterans struggling against corruption and red tape to get pensions and other government assistance. Some of the men featured in the article needed prosthetic limbs and costly physical therapy that they could not afford without disability payments. One such veteran was Saheb, who lost his left leg to a Taliban land mine and could not pay for a prosthesis on his own. Desperate after learning he did not qualify for a pension because he had served in the Afghan Local Police rather than the national police or army, Saheb sold his 11-year-old daughter, Noor Bibi, into a marriage for the $3,000 he needed to pay for a leg.[1]

The second piece, a commentary on, addresses the debate over whether the world has become more peaceful since the end of World War II. The dispute dates back to the 2011, when psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was published. Pinker argues that the period since 1945 has been the most peaceful era in human history, and he focuses on statistics indicating that the number of deaths from war has reach a record low. Pinker’s critics have countered that looking solely at recorded casualty numbers is misleading. There are consequences of war that we cannot measure with “big-picture numbers,” as Zack Beauchamp, the author of the Vox piece, notes.[2]

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

Big-picture statistics don’t count victims like child bride Noor Bibi, a casualty of a long-running civil war in a country where the sale of a prepubescent girl into marriage is an option for a wounded veteran who needs money to pay for a prosthesis because his government won’t help him. Her father, Saheb, might be counted in a casualty list that includes the dead and the wounded, but such statistics fail to recognize the other ways in which war wounds people by transforming life options and paths and forcing families to make decisions that could inflict emotional or physical harm to some members. We don’t hear Noor Bibi’s voice in the New York Times article, but Saheb said she didn’t want to be sold into marriage. She had no choice, Saheb explained, because “in Pashtun society, when the father wants something, the daughter has to give it, even if she is not happy.”[3] The story of Noor Bibi reflects the long reach of war – how it upended the life of an 11-year-old girl who was neither a soldier nor a civilian casualty in the usual sense of the word. Body counts don’t reveal all the indirect casualties of war.

Such casualties take many forms. Last month, I ended my “World Civilizations Since 1500” course with a slide juxtaposing a photograph of ISIS militants with an image of Syrian refugee children. I asked my students to ponder whether the children, hamming it up for the photographer who took their picture, would end up being the next generation of angry, disillusioned, impoverished recruits for ISIS or a similar group. Like Noor Bibi, refugees are casualties of war, and neglected refugee crises can feed back into a conflict, perpetuating a cycle of violence and fighting. Envisioning a world where parts of it are continually at war, where war’s long reach keeps producing casualties of all sorts, makes it difficult to buy Pinker’s argument that we are living in a time of unprecedented peace.

[1] Rod Nordland, “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected,” New York Times, May 2, 2015,

[2] Zack Beauchamp, “This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace,”, May 21, 2015,

[3] “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected.”



November 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about women and war lately — partly because I’m teaching a course on the subject in the spring, but also because these photos caught my eye as I searched online for pictures of women in Afghanistan:

Images of war-torn Afghanistan and stories about violence and discrimination against women make it difficult to believe that the Afghanistan in these photographs ever actually existed. Earlier this week, Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament and a women’s rights activist, survived an assassination attempt after a suicide bomber detonated explosives near her vehicle. Barakzai, who has been an MP for 10 years, has repeatedly received death threats. She is an outspoken critic of the Taliban, and she once operated a secret girls school during the Taliban’s reign. The assassination attempt on Barakzai made international headlines because of her political status, but the threat of violence in various forms is part of Afghan women’s daily lives.

It may come as a surprise to some readers that throughout much of the 20th century, Afghan leaders enacted numerous laws advancing women’s freedom. In 1919, Amir Amanullah Khan authorized women’s suffrage — a year before American women received the right to vote — and abolished dress codes for women as part of his national modernization program. His wife, Queen Soraya, opened a girls’ school in Kabul in 1921 and appeared unveiled in public. Subsequent Afghan leaders continued promoting the education of women and girls, raised the legal age of marriage, and abolished polygamy and state-enforced veiling. Progressive legislation regarding women’s rights was not without its critics, who tended to be in the more conservative, tradition-bound rural areas. Certain rulings, such as the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s banning of the burqa in 1978, fueled armed revolts in the countryside. Political unrest culminated in war with the Soviet Union, which lasted for nearly a decade and was followed by a civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban in 1996.

The Taliban reversed progressive gender legislation and forbade women from working outside the home, going out in public without a male relative, going to school after the age of eight, and being treated by a male doctor. Taliban law also required women to be fully covered in public, allowed child marriage, and authorized corporal punishment such as whipping and stoning to be used against women. Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International UK, believes that 35 years of militarization and war is to blame for the status of women in Afghanistan today. She remembers her mother in miniskirts and her aunt as a college student in the 1970s, but, she says in an interview with Amnesty UK, the Soviet war along with U.S. and CIA support of the mujahideen, created the conditions that allowed the Taliban to seize power. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, stories about Afghan women’s lives have been part of the broader narrative about U.S. and NATO efforts to modernize Afghanistan.

Yet linking the modernization of Afghan women’s lives to Western intervention misses much of 20th century Afghan history. In 2013, the New York Times asked Afghans, via Facebook, to offer their thoughts about Western involvement in Afghanistan over the past decade, and several respondents pointed out that Afghan leaders had written women’s civil rights into law in the early 1920s, in the 1964 Constitution, and in the 1977 Civil Code. The concept of Afghan women’s rights is not a “Western” thing. Before war began tearing Afghanistan apart in the 1980s, Afghan women earned university degrees, had careers, and enjoyed personal freedoms. Class determined which Afghan women had access to certain opportunities, and urban elite women were the primary beneficiaries of Afghan modernization efforts, but the potential for the expansion of women’s rights was there. The sharp contrasts in images of Afghan women then and now show just how drastically war has transformed Afghan women’s lives. Twentieth-century Afghan history reveals that the conflict over women’s rights specifically and modernization more generally is not one that necessarily pits Afghanistan against the West but rather pits conservative Afghan elements against Afghans with a progressive vision for the future and, in some cases, a memory of Afghanistan’s modern past.

Further reading:

Remembering Afghanistan’s Golden Age. New York Times:

Afghans Share Their Views on the West’s Influence. New York Times:

Timeline of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. PBS:

Women in Afghanistan: The Backstory. Amnesty International UK:

Scott Levi, The Long, Long Struggle for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective:

Female Afghan MP survives suicide attack. Al Jazeera English:

Maryam Zar, For women and girls in Afghanistan, not silence:—for-women-and_b_6187788.html

Afghanistan’s untold story: Stability, tourists, miniskirts. CNN:

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