Time magazine has generated some controversy with its cover, an image of a young Afghan woman disfigured under Taliban orders for fleeing her in-laws, alongside the coverline "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan." Putting aside the debate over Time's editorial decision, what about the underlying argument about the role of the international war in Afghanistan as a means of improving the welfare of women? Before it was toppled in 2001, the Taliban had instituted one of the most violently repressive regimes against women in the world. Now that they're gone, are we doing any good for women? Will leaving really make their situation worse?

  • Withdrawal Would Be Awful for Women  Time's Aryn Baker writes, "As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined. ... The Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women's rights. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. ... For Afghanistan's women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous."
  • War Policy Never Mentions Women  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias points out, "It’s extremely disingenuous to act as if continued American military engagement in Afghanistan is the key to preventing further cases of girls like Aisha from being maimed for violations of retrograde notions of gender norms." None of the U.S. leaders of the war in the Bush or Obama administrations calls the treatment of women a core goal. "Actually altering social conditions in southern and eastern Afghanistan isn’t on the list of war aims. And that makes sense. ... You go to war for reasons of national security. Those reasons either stand up to scrutiny or they don’t." The Washington Post's Ezra Klein agrees, "I support making the improvement of global living condition's a more central element of our foreign policy. But that's not what we're doing in Afghanistan, and it's not how we should be thinking about what we're doing in Afghanistan."
  • Would War Be the Best Way to Help Afghan Women?  The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof points out, "For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there. Hawks retort that it’s impossible to run schools in Afghanistan unless there are American troops to protect them. But that’s incorrect. CARE, a humanitarian organization, operates 300 schools in Afghanistan, and not one has been burned by the Taliban." Liberal blogger Duncan 'Atrios' Black proposes another use for the war budget: "If We Cared About The Women And Children Of The World: It would be far better to spend $100 billion per year granting them political asylum and paying for their transport and relocation to the US than invading their countries and caressing them with our freedom bombs."
  • Is Post-Taliban Afghanistan Much Better?  Many observers have pointed out that the Afghan woman on the cover of Time was mutilated long after the Taliban's removal from power. In 2009, The Huffington Post's Anand Gopal wrote a lengthy column arguing that Afghanistan had not gotten that much better without the Taliban.
Just as the world's eyes are turning towards Afghanistan once again, a few conservative Afghan lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would, amongst other things, legalize marital rape, prohibit women from leaving the home without permission, deny them the right of inheritance, force a woman to "preen for her husband as and when he desires," and set the minimum female marital age to sixteen.
 
...Most Afghan women have never heard of it. This is because the majority of Afghans are rural, living without electricity or a connection to the happenings in Kabul. Afghan women suffer from the lowest literacy rate in the world, at 13 percent. And the ones that are familiar with it mostly shrug their shoulders, because the conditions that the law imposes are no different than those that already exist in their everyday lives. The typical woman from the country's south or east, for example, cannot leave her home without a male guardian. She must wear the burqa in public at all times, and in some villages she must even don one in private. Marital rape is the norm in a society where sex is a man's right, not a woman's.

According to the UK-based NGO Womankind, anywhere between sixty and eighty percent of marriages are forced, 57 percent of brides are under the age of 16, and 87 percent complain of domestic violence. UNIFEM says that 65 percent of widows in Kabul see suicide as their only option to "get rid of their miseries and desolation." Thousands of women turn to self-immolation every year. There are no reliable stats on rape, as most women will never report it. This is because women can be convicted of zina, extramarital sex, if knowledge of the rape becomes public. In most of the country, even a woman just found outside of her home without the permission of her male guardian will be thrown in jail and tried as an adulterer.