Malala Yousufzai and the war in Afghanistan


As a baby boomer, war has always been pretty cut-and-dried with me. Vietnam does that to people.

It’s not real hard to see issues of war that aren’t hard to figure out in the first place. When people are putting lawn signs out to “liberate Iraq,” the message is pretty clear: If significant foreign policy decisions are going to be based on lawn signs and bumper stickers, sending people off to war might be something you want to think about a little longer.

The most powerful blog post I’ve read today comes from Erin Kotecki Vest, who writes as Queen of Spain. Today, she writes about the morning ritual in her house, waking her 7-year-old up for school and encountering a 7-year-old who doesn’t want to get up and go to school.

So she told her daughter, instead, to “get up for Malala,” the young Pakistani girl targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan for wanting girls to get an education.

And I held her face in my hands, and I looked into her eyes.

Do you understand why you need to go to school today? And every single day?

And with a resolve I see ONLY in my daughter, especially when she’s angry, she nodded.

We then went about our usual morning. Breakfast. Shoes. Backpacking grabbing…and we headed out the door.

As we left in the car I caught her in my review mirror. She was looking out the window.

Honey, are you ok?

I’m fine Mom. I’m mad.

I’m mad too.

Being a girl shouldn’t be hard.

No, it shouldn’t.

Years before we had a reason to go to war in Afghanistan, human rights advocates were trying to tell us what was happening to girls there, and for the most part, nobody much cared.

Then 9/11 happened and we all know the rest.

And we’re justifiably tired of a war that doesn’t seem to have any end, and seems intent on bankrupting the nation, as it did the the Soviet Union before us.

During last week’s vice presidential debate, I thought of that as I heard both candidates try to claim the high ground in their fight, by talking about the 2014 deadline for leaving Afghanistan. Both sides, basically, favor leaving. I favor leaving, too. War stinks and it’s easy to run against it most when it’s lasted for 10 years.

But there’s something about this war that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to easy answers, and debates on the subject are closer to lawn signs and bumper stickers rather than well-considered complexities of foreign policy.

The fact is, sadly, Malala Yousufzai wasn’t the first girl to be punished for wanting an education.

The Taliban, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, will stop at nothing to prevent it from happening.

“People are crazy,” Razia Jan, founder of a girls’ school outside Kabul, told CNN last month. “The day we opened the school, (on) the other side of town, they threw hand grenades in a girls’ school, and 100 girls were killed.

Few people are mentioning this on the rare occasion when the war comes up in the presidential debate. Staying guarantees the deaths of more U.S. soldiers. Leaving probably increases the likelihood of more Malalas.

When is war worth fighting? What is the cost-benefit analysis of protecting girls anywhere from those who would deny them something as basic as an education? Is it our problem?

For many people, perhaps, the answer is as easy as figuring out which side “their guy” is on. But as people who watched last week’s debate figured out, “their guy” doesn’t seem to have an easy answer.

And I know exactly how they feel, although I’ll actually say the words they won’t: I don’t know.

  • Jim Shapiro

    There is no good foreign policy option for this place. If I was Benevolent Dictator of the World?:

    Evacuate the women and children, wall it off, and leave the men to their own devices for 20 years. Then sell what’s left to China.

  • davidz

    If our presence there were clearly focused on helping the people, that might help. But the locals need to want to be helped. Our actions aren’t doing a whole lot to convince the locals that we either really want to help or that we can help in meaningful ways.

    Such a convoluted sentence comes out of a crazy, mixed up set of policies.

    Lobbing missiles from drones at wedding parties isn’t a clear sign that we’re here to help get little girls to school.

    The official U.S. policies have completely dropped the ball in making it clear what we are there for.

    Keeping little girls safe on the way to school. Nope.

    Effectively training the Afghans to protect themselves from the Taleban. Nope.

    Keeping terrorism from spreading beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Nope.

    Keeping India safe by distracting the Pakistani I.S.I. from Kashmir? Maybe, but I don’t think that’s a stated goal of the operations.

    I’m utterly perplexed as to what we could be doing these days in South Central Asia. Whatever we’re doing now isn’t working. I don’t see a clear goal that we’re moving towards.

    Jim’s right. There are no good options for this place, as far as the U.S. policies go.

    Given that, I think we (and the world) would be better off if we got out of there sooner rather than later.

  • BJ

    Leaving Afghanistan alone is what got us into this mess in the first place.

    These are the people the democratically elected the Taliban. Jim Shapiro’s idea might be the best solution.

  • Bob Collins

    Just so we’re clear, there were a bunch of questions near the end of the post. Do I have it that the answer herein is “it’s not our problem?”

  • davidz

    > When is war worth fighting?

    Very situational. I don’t have an answer to this that’s short enough to not take a week just to cover the bases.

    > What is the cost-benefit analysis of protecting girls anywhere from those who would deny them something as basic as an education? Is it our problem?

    As much as I would like to say that we do have a stake here in this respect, I’m not sure that we really do.

    Promoting human rights is The Right Thing To Do. Doing so at the barrel of a gun is an awfully expensive way to do it, and doesn’t necessarily get the job done. What would make a little girl in Afghanistan more important than one in Darfur? Or Somalia? Or Detroit? Or Detroit Lakes?

    It’s in the world’s best interests to educate as many people as possible. It’s in our interests as well, but the cost-benefit ratio of an organization like the Peace Corps. is a lot better than the Department of Defense when it comes to providing education and other resources for development.

    If it’s not safe to send in the Peace Corp, or USAID, or MSF (aka Doctors w/o Borders), then perhaps it might be suitable to send in the military. But in that case, send them in to do their job. Their job is not to provide the education to the locals. It’s to protect the locals from the other locals who are being obstructionist. It’s going to be a messy job, and expensive. We have to have a clear way to get the job done, and then expend what it takes to do it. (The Powell doctrine, more or less).

    This country has decided that it doesn’t want to pay for foreign operations. (I’m not saying that I agree with this, but it seems to be the consensus). If we’re not going to pay for them, then we ought to stop doing them. TANSTAAFL.

    So without the resources to do a military job, and if the locale isn’t safe enough for NGO’s, well, I don’t know.

    Yeah, doing nothing sort of got us to this point, but that was after a period where we were very active in the region. We can’t turn tail and become utter isolationists — that doesn’t work anymore because the seas are no longer effective protection. But occupation isn’t right either.

    It’s our problem. But not ours as the United States. Ours as members of humanity.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton, wrote a book about the problem: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

    Afghani men of course don’t think that they’re being brutal. They are upholding their honor by keeping women in their place. If their place means dead, so be it.

    Appiah says that social mores transfor when a status quo behavior changes from being seen as honorable to being seen as logically counterproductive or morally wrong.

    We are attempting to change our own societal mores around the issue of bullying.

    But a major difference is that bullies aren’t planting IEDs.

    Yes, change is always possible. In fact, it’s inevitable.

    We simply have to decide what cost we’re willing to pay.

    Which parents are we going to ask to sacrifice their children so that females in Afghanistan might be treated with human decency two generations from now?

  • BJ

    >When is war worth fighting?

    What is the cost-benefit analysis of protecting girls anywhere from those who would deny them something as basic as an education?

    Is it our problem?