There's nearly nothing Afghanistan expert James Fergusson agrees with about that Time magazine cover showing a mutilated Afghan girl. The heading was "What happens if we leave Afghanistan." Yet gruesome abuses such as these are "happening anyway, while we are still there." What's more, contends Fergusson in The Guardian, here breaking with current consensus on the topic, our facile categorization of the Taliban as women's oppressors is simply unhelpful.

I am certain, after 14 years of encounters with the Taliban, that they are not beyond redemption. It seems a paradox, but in the 1990s the Taliban leadership did not see themselves as oppressors of women but as their defenders. Westerners forget the historical context in which the Taliban emerged in 1994, although no Afghan ever will. The Taliban's first purpose was to bring law and order to a country that had been devastated by five years of vicious civil war and in those areas that came under their control, they succeeded brilliantly. ... To many Afghans, including many Afghan women, oppression was a small price to pay in exchange for an end to the wholesale rape and slaughter of the preceding years. The Taliban appeared the lesser of two evils, and--in a year when 1,250 civilians have so far been killed in the fighting with Nato--to many they still do.

Furthermore, continues Fergusson, in a point guaranteed to raise the dander of any American conservatives reading, though "the west views gender equality as an absolute human right ... no country ... has yet managed unequivocally to establish a right at home." The west's own progress has been "recent," and the "struggle" has been "hard." Asks Fergusson: "With such a track record, is it not presumptuous to insist that a proud, patriarchal society that has survived for 3,000 years should now instantly mirror us?" His conclusion: "social change will come eventually to Afghanistan, but it must come from within, and at its own pace. Our soldiers shouldn't die for it."