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Blaspheming Human Rights: Why Afghanistan Is the Wrong War

Barack Obama Is Staking American Blood and Capital on a Graveyard of Rights

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Afghanistan human rights

An Afghan woman begs along a busy Kabul street in February 2009. As Barack Obama escalates American involvement in Afghanistan, human rights and civil rights there collapse, begging the question: what are western soldiers dying for?

(Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Propaganda has its noble moments. In World War II, Hollywood was happy to prove it, softening up soldiers with movies like "Casablanca" so they'd be willing to leave their girlfriends to kill Nazis ("where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of"), and toughening them up with movies like "Sahara" so they'd get a whiff of the heroics they could tell their girlfriends about when they came back. Along the way, Humphrey Bogart defeated fascism and Hollywood produced a few classics still worth watching in a 21st century rich in sleepless nights.

Bogart would have a harder time priming soldiers for killing Islamists these days. It's not that the heroic narrative of Americans saving Iraqis or Afghans from themselves would be unconvincing in light of the state-sponsored horror shows of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret prisons and torture as policy. Assume, hopefully, that these things will never happen again, that the fight in the Middle East is being conducted with clean hands. The question remains: What, precisely, are American soldiers still dying for over there -- in Afghanistan especially, where President Barack Obama, borrowing a page from his predecessor's book of follies, ordered close to a doubling of U.S. troops, from 38,000 to 68,000?

Legalizing Spousal Rape

The question is especially pertinent in light of the latest scandal of what passes for Afghan “customs” western soldiers are being called on to defend: a new law, rushed through the Afghan parliament by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an attempt to appease religious fundamentalists, that takes women’s rights for the country’s Shiite monority back to the stone age. “In a massive blow for women's rights,” London’s Independent wrote, “the new Shia Family Law negates the need for sexual consent between married couples, tacitly approves child marriage and restricts a woman's right to leave the home, according to UN papers seen by The Independent. […] The law regulates personal matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and sexual relations among Afghanistan's minority Shia community.” It’s not the first, but the latest, such instance of a nation conceding in law what the Taliban no longer needs to impose by force. The list is long and disheartening.

If You Question Islamic Law

Take the story of Perwiz Kambakhsh. Here was a young Afghan studying journalism and earning his keep as a reporter. In 2007, Kambakhsh downloaded an article by an Iranian scholar questioning Islamic law, such as why men could have four wives but women couldn't have four husbands. Kambakhsh distributed copies of the article.

He was arrested, charged with blasphemy, tried in secret, without a lawyer, and sentenced to death. A Kabul court "reduced" his sentence to 20 years in prison. Afghanistan's Supreme Court just upheld the sentence. Karzai, whose personal protection has cost you and me a few tens of millions of our tax dollars since 2001, could pardon the man. He won't, because he's weak, corrupt and owes what power he has left to an odd regency of mullahs and American guns. That's what American soldiers are dying for?

Blaspheming Liberty

Kambakhsh's case is outrageous. There's worse. In more regressive societies -- Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan among them -- it's a capital offense to translate the Koran from its "original" Arabic. No such prohibition exists in the Koran, itself the all-too human translation of a stirring imagination. But more zealous clerics believe it's God's words, so translating them would alter them, therefore blaspheming God. Two Afghans translated the book into their own language. Mullahs called for their execution. A court sentenced them to 20 years in prison, and sentenced the man who printed the book to 15 months. That's what American soldiers are dying for.

There was the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who chose to convert from Islam to Christianity in 2005. He was arrested and sentenced to death -- and spared only because the pope intervened, and Italy granted him asylum.

There was the case of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, an Islamic scholar, a Shiite, and a former refugee in Iran, whose "Women's Rights" monthly published in Kabul was supposed to be proof of progress. Except that Nasab ran articles questioning the stoning to death of women found guilty of adultery. He was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison, no appeal allowed. That's the kind of regime American soldiers are dying for.

A Taliban Wonderland

These are a few of the cases that got some press. The State Department's annual report on human and religious rights has its own list of documented brutality, including, in its own words, "extrajudicial killings; torture; poor prison conditions; official impunity violence and societal discrimination against women; restrictions on religious conversions; abuses against minorities; sexual abuse of children; trafficking in persons; abuse of worker rights; and child labor."

Is it any wonder the Taliban control 70 percent of Afghanistan? It has got fans all over the place -- and kindred soullessness at the heart of the very regime we're spending billions and wasting lives to defend.

The only way to keep up the fight in Afghanistan is to peddle the ignoble kind of propaganda -- the kind that pretends there's something to save and protect, when not even Afghans themselves are ready to play the part in that fantasy. I'm all for respecting local norms. But not when those norms are the product of barbarians who think wearing a turban and invoking God empowers them to spit on human rights and play fascism with people's fate. Al-Qaida can be contained, with good intelligence, fat bribes and special operations. But without having to occupy a graveyard of enlightenment like Afghanistan. Never winnable militarily, that war is now lost at a more fundamental level: as a just cause.

A version of this article appeared in the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal.

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