In response to:
Afghanistan: On the Brink from the June 22, 2006 issue
To the Editors:
As an admirer of Ahmed Rashid’s journalism and books, I’m pleased that he returned the compliment by admiring my evocation of aspects of Afghanistan [“Afghanistan: On the Brink,” NYR, June 22]. But I must try to put right one mistaken impression. Apparently troubled by my “feminist anger,” Mr. Rashid rebukes me for writing “a diatribe” against what he mistakenly says I see as “the warlike, misogynist character of Afghan society,” which is to say, men. In fact, as indicated by the very lines Mr. Rashid quotes, I merely cite descriptions of the fierce character ascribed to Afghan warriors by British historians attempting to explain the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the most notorious military defeat in British history. My book Kabul in Winter, most of which concerns life in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is peopled with ordinary Afghan men who don’t fit that mythic description at all, and I take some trouble to describe the character of Afghan men in far less simplistic terms. Witness this passage which follows soon after:
I don’t know if Afghans are any better or worse than any other guerrilla soldiers anywhere. I don’t know whether they’re any more fierce or more ruthless, more courageous or more relentless than any other men under any circumstances fighting for their lives. I do know that the Afghan men I knew, many of whom had fought with the mujahidin—men I taught, men I employed or worked with or worked for, or met in passing—were polite, soft spoken, solicitous of their families, considerate, and kind. To a man, they were hungry for peace.
My quarrel lies with Western (male) journalists, as Mr. Rashid correctly says, but not simply because they “failed to criticize” the martial stereotype. Rather, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, they enthusiastically revived and embraced it, as Robert D. Kaplan (who was one of them) acknowledges in another passage Mr. Rashid quotes from my pages. Their reportage glorified the Afghan mujahidin, who served as America’s surrogate soldiers, and romanticized our then-secret proxy war against the Soviet Union fought on Afghan territory, a war that utterly devastated the country and its people, particularly noncombatant women and children, and the mujahidin themselves. My point is about politics and my argument directed at wrongheaded American foreign policy (from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Bush Two) that caused unspeakable suffering and led to such unintended consequences as September 11, the rise of militant Islamism, and now the impending collapse, once again, of Afghanistan. One needn’t be a feminist to be angry about such things. But being a feminist may help one see war from the standpoint of the women who are its collateral damage and assess America’s faux cowboy foreign policy accordingly.