What Happens Even When We’re In Afghanistan

Time editor Richard Stengel spent a fair amount of time gauging his journalistic responsibility to “illuminate what is actually happening on the ground [in Afghanistan]” when he decided on the magazine’s upcoming August 9th cover story. The wrenching portrait is of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban when she fled her abusive in-laws’ home. I actually don’t have a problem with the image. I realize that journalists are meant to depict and report the harsh realities of war and that this photo reflects the ongoing reality of Taliban-sanctioned violence. (Out of curiosity, I’d like to know whether Time has shown, up-front-and-center, the other realities of this war: wounded and dying American soldiers; dozens of civilians dying in blasts?)

As Stengel says here, he consulted with child psychologists about the effect of the graphic Time cover, he made sure that Aisha was being heavily protected in Afghanistan, and then he gave the go-ahead. But he forgot perhaps his largest responsibility: that to tell the most accurate story. Because though the cover itself is only as problematic as the disturbing and sad reality it portrays, its juxtaposition against the headline–“What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”–is misleading to the point of irresponsibility. The implication that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would lead to more cases like Aisha’s, or that it is exclusively the U.S. military presence in the country that prevents these egregious human rights abuses, is specious at best (especially because Aisha’s “punishment” was meted out last year, while significant strides were being made for Afghan women–not prior to U.S. involvement in 2001). So not even our presence in the bruised nation entirely prevented the violence that the cover suggests would continue if we withdrew. And while I don’t know anyone who denies that U.S. military control of Afghanistan contributed to an improved standard of living for women there, the 90,000 WikiLeaks documents and their revelation of continued Pakistani links with the Taliban proves that billions in military aid just don’t work the way they used to. Instead, as Nick Kristof suggested yesterday, we should focus our dollars and efforts on diplomacy and education–tactics that have proven solid and beneficial for cultural exchange and a revival of the civil sector.

Jezebel said it perfectly:

Such stories are obscene, not at all uncommon, and need to be told. But there is an elision here between these women’s oppression and what the U.S. military presence can and should do about it, which in turn simplifies the complexities of the debate and turns it into, “Well, do you want to help Aisha or not?”

While Aryn Baker’s story features the voices of many Afghan women who worry that the likely compromise with the Taliban vis a vis a possible U.S. exit will curtail their new freedoms, it doesn’t actually forcefully make the case that American military presence is the only solution to their problems.

And, with Obama requesting a 6% increase in military spending, we literally can’t afford to assume it is.

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