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Afghan Women: Then and Now

Afghan Woman 1985
Afghan Woman 2010

Since iconic pictures are in the news, I thought I would resurrect two Afghan pictures that have not been featured lately.


The picture of this green-eyed Afghan girl took the world by storm when it appeared back in 1985. The world was different then. The United States remained locked in a Cold War against the Evil Empire. Little did we know that the Soviet Union soon would be consigned to the dustbin of history as a failed effort in the 20th century to be the wave of the future.

At that time, the Soviet Union was seeking to assert its power in Central Asia in a brutal crackdown in Afghanistan. American sympathies were with the valiant Afghan people who were struggling as best they could to thwart that effort and free the land of a foreign oppressor.

That effort increasingly relied on the participation of Moslems. These religious believers fought the godless Communist invaders. AND WE HELPED THEM. How could we not support a people of religion against a people of none? Little did we know how that would turn out.

The cover picture of this haunting green-eyed girl captured the moment. “Refugee” was not a term of opprobrium then. The picture invited us to take her side in the battle. How could anyone mistreat her?


The answer to the question of how anyone could mistreat her appeared on the cover of Time Magazine a mere 25 years later. Here is how the magazine described the new situation for women under not the Soviet Union but under the rule of the Afghan Taliban.

The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband’s house. They dragged her to a mountain clearing near her village in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, ignoring her protests that her in-laws had been abusive, that she had no choice but to escape. Shivering in the cold air and blinded by the flashlights trained on her by her husband’s family, she faced her spouse and accuser. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn’t run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Later, he would tell Aisha’s uncle that she had to be made an example of lest other girls in the village try to do the same thing. The commander gave his verdict, and men moved in to deliver the punishment. Aisha’s brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose. Aisha passed out from the pain but awoke soon after, choking on her own blood. The men had left her on the mountainside to die.

How quickly times had the changed. The heroes of the war against Soviet imperialism had become the people who wreaked monstrous havoc on their fellow Afghan people.

The article is a fascinating “time capsule” in a world only 11 years ago. The issues covered then are some of the same ones being addressed today. There was frustration among Americans about how little it had to show for the billions of dollars poured into the Afghan military. There was the concern of what an American pullout would mean. One wondered what the treatment of women would be once the protective America umbrella was removed. How could there be any peaceful negotiation with a people who could do this to this woman? How could the Afghan people live together in peace when one group remembered the comparative innocence of life in the capital city a few decades earlier and the other side was steeped in a fanatical form of Islam that did not even exist until recently?

The debate held in 2010 seems eerie now in 2021. In one sense our worst nightmares have come true. In 2010 there was an Afghan government. Now what is there? In 2010 the debate was over some kind of partnership or sharing or power within Afghanistan. Now there is no one to partner with. The question has shifted to what will the Taliban do now that it is in power? Does it really want to be part of the community of nations or will it be like ISIS that seeks to destroy that community?


In my previous blog (Afghans Are Not Kurds: Will They Become Vietnam?), I wrote that it is premature to judge history by a single photograph. The iconic Vietnam image of the rising helicopter has little meaning for the relationship today. Even as I wrote those words the Vice President of the United States was in Hanoi calling on Vietnam to join with us against Chinese bullying. Kamala Harris did not arrive emptyhanded in Hanoi either. She came bearing gifts. She even laid flowers at the monument where John McCain’s plane had been shot down in 1967. Times change.

Iranian Women (

Similarly for the Taliban. In their case the enemy now is not China but ISIS-K. Look how quickly the Taliban and the United States began to work together. Who knows how long it will last? Who knows how far it will extend? Who knows what female image will become the next iconic one in the story of the country? The more they want to be part of the community of nations and the more ISIS-K fights that objective, the more willing the Taliban will be to seek assistance in that struggle. Think of the women in Moslem Iran and the clothes they wear. How much time and effort does the Taliban want to spend on erasing that American past while simultaneously fighting ISIS-K?


There are some odd twists and turns to the current situation. In this conflict between the United States and the Taliban, we are the outsiders. We are the foreigners. We are the ones who sought to insert our values into the Afghan society. We sought a modern version of the Indian Schools. We helped build them in Afghanistan. Afghans would be taught our values on freedom, our values on education of women, and our values on clothing. The fact that many Afghans seemed to welcome such cultural changes does not change the fact that those values were not indigenous ones but from a dominant outsider.

So should the triumph of the Taliban be hailed by the Woke as a victory of the Indigenous over the white American imperialist? I will leave that to others to decide. I note as I have said before that anti-American vocabulary concocted in elitist American academic laboratories does not travel well once removed from its point of origin. Strangely enough there are some rightwing groups who cheer the religious Taliban victory over liberal America. Undoubtedly there are more twist and turns to come.

Afghans Are Not Kurds: Will They Become Vietnam?

"July 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. Once enemies, the two countries have now become strategic and economic partners. Amid the US – China trade tensions since mid-2018, Vietnam’s importance to the US’s economy has been rising, especially as an alternative for supply from China."

Vietnam is back in the news. As the American withdrawal from Afghanistan nears its end, images from Vietnam flood the media. Again and again, people compare and contrast what is occurring today with what happened 46 years ago.

On some level such comparisons are natural. It is easy to compare similar scenes of American planes and desperate locals seeking to escape in the two countries decades apart. While a picture is worth one thousand words it still may not tell the full story. One hopes that at some point we go beyond the gotcha games of the politicians and the media seeking political advantage from what is unfolding before their eyes. We should not confuse the moment in time of snap shot with the story in time of a movie.

VIETNAM 1975-2021  

Since Vietnam is cited so frequently, let’s begin with it. The Vietnam War was a one of great destruction and costs in Vietnam, through Southeast Asia, and in the United States. In some ways this country is still paying the price for the divisions which exploded across the American cultural landscape. They continue to divide us.

Putting our cultural issues aside, Vietnam routinely is considered a lost war. After years of brutal effort, the attempt to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnam failed. In response, we fled the country. End of story.

Not quite. Where is Vietnam today? Back then, the country was caught up in the Cold War. Our view of the events there were seen through the prism of that conflict. Now the Cold War is over. We won that war, a far more important war than the one in Vietnam. But while the Soviet Union no longer is a threat, Russia is. In other words, once the Communist prism was removed, the country of Russia remained. Our conflict with Russia today is not based on ideology. It springs from good old-fashioned national rivalries.

Similarly, once the Communist prism was removed from Vietnam, we began to see it as a country rather than as part of some global foe. Vietnam as a country has its own history. The country has no interest in being a vassal of China. It has no interest in being part of the Chinese Empire. It is quite open to partnering with the United States in manufacturing. Technically, Vietnam may not be an official ally like Germany and Japan, but certainly in the scheme of things our relations with the country are good.

Consider then what happened in the lifetime of John McCain. He was held captive in North Vietnam and beaten for years. He lived the rest of his life with the partially broken body North Vietnam had created. Then Vietnam became a tourist destination for Americans. How was that possible? Vietnam no longer was a foe. Times changed. The iconic photograph from 1975 fails to tell the story of what has happened since then.


Nation building is not easy. As we prepare to celebrate the 250th anniversary of our own birth as a country we should keep our own experience in mind. Our first attempt in the Articles of Confederation failed. There were rebellions which required the leadership of George Washington to quell. For decades people then talked about nullification and succession. Then it happened in a terrible Civil War. We know that we are not a unified country now. I will not go into the details of that division here except to note that nation building is a work in progress as the Founding Fathers of this country well knew.

We have the right to point with pride at the successes of England and Germany post-WWII and South Korea post-Korean War. Certainly we do not deserve all the credit but we can claim to have contributed to their successes. One thing all three countries have in common is that “there was a there there.” We were not starting from scratch. After all, in 1776, some of the colonies here already had over a century of experience in self-government.

The more there is a “there there,” the easier it is to nation build. The Kurds, for example, possess a strong sense of identity and cohesiveness. One practical result is that funding is less subject to the level of corruption as in nations that exist only on paper. The Kurds choose for practical reasons not to declare their independence from Iraq. However such deference should not obscure the facts on the ground of them operating much like an independent country.

The same cannot be said for Iraq, or for Libya and Syria. All three were colonial creations. They had no prior existence as countries except as lines on a map for administrative purposes. In this regard they are similar to many African countries such as in Sudan/South Sudan/Eritrea/Ethiopia. In America, all these people from all these countries are lumped together as people of color. That hardly is a useful description. Many peoples of different ethnicities, religions, and races are involved. What held these Arab countries together was brute force. Once that force was removed, it was Krakatoa, east of Java. The problem with putting these Humpties together again is that they were never together in the first place.

Afghanistan with its multiple ethnicities leans more towards these models than towards Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the Kurds. I am not knowledgeable to speak about Afghan history prior to separate from the British, the Russian, and the American involvement in the country. Suffice it to say there was a person called a king who emerged from tribal assemblies as the ruler. At this point that probably is not much of starting point for building a country.


The Taliban have decisions to make. There is no way to know what they will be now or in the years to go. The Taliban are like the proverbial dog running after a car. The chase is over. Now what?

On an immediate level, there are questions of food, water, electricity, finance, cell phone and internet access, and health care especially given the coronavirus.

The Taliban like Vietnam will have to make a decision about China. China wants to include Afghanistan in its global transportation and trade network. It also does not want Moslem militancy to spread into China. How willing will the Taliban be to be subservient to China and to abandon its values?

What of ISIS? It already is in conflict with this “purer” Moslem group. How much of a conflict will it become?

What about Iran, India, Pakistan and the other “Stans”?

How much are the Taliban a Pashtun-based entity?

Will Pakistan remain a single country?

I raise these questions simply to point out that now that the war is over, other issues will come to the fore. How they will be resolved or even addressed remains to be seen. Just as communism no longer defines our relationship with Vietnam so 9/11 will not continue to define our relationship with the Taliban. The current withdrawal by the United States is a phase in a story that is not yet over just as it was not over in 1975 in Vietnam.