The Two Talibans

Afghanistan is a country about the size of Texas. Within one 24-hour period, between August 31 and September 1, the Taliban rose to power in both.

Sima Samar, Afghan former Deputy President and Minister of Affairs, and the 17-year Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, warned that “Sustainable peace will not be possible without full and meaningful participation of women as half of the population. Without peace in Afghanistan, the problem will reach other countries as well, as history has shown.”

History isn’t waiting, it’s already on display.

I’m not going to descend into wrangling over President Biden’s decision to end America’s longest, 20-year war. I understand, so far as my knowledge of the facts extends, the terrible ironies inherent in his decision, and the rage and grief of some American veterans who are being reassured that their sacrifice was for something other than corporate and political power.

It was. Though not for what anyone has been led to think.

I say this because I also believe in The Responsibility to Protect (R2P or RtoP), the global political commitment endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit, in order to address the key U.N. concerns: to prevent genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The doctrine is regarded as a unanimous and well-established international norm over the past two decades. The principle of the Responsibility to Protect is based on the underlying premise that sovereignty entails a responsibility to protect all populations from ethnic cleansing and human rights violations, and is based on a respect for the norms and principles of international law, especially the underlying principles of law relating to sovereignty, peace and security, human rights, and armed conflict. All of which, simplistically and erroneously, got misnamed “nation-building” in Afghanistan.

It got misnamed because women remained invisible in the vocabulary.

The U.S. never went into Afghanistan because of gender apartheid, although the agony of women already was in palpable evidence there; we went in after September 11, 2001, to get Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Once we had done so, we could have left. We didn’t leave.

But in those intervening years, U.S. forces did foster the creation of a civil society. In the first press conference held by Taliban spokesmen after they seized Kabul, an independent Afghan journalist stood up and, replying to the statement that Afghans should trust the Taliban, he dared ask “Why, given your past behavior?” And on this last September 6, down the streets of Kabul in broad daylight, women marched, crying out for freedom. The sacrifice was not for nothing; it was for the Real Thing.

United States and Coalition troops birthed an independent media, multiple democratic elections, the peaceful transfer of power, and most crucially, the education of girls. Almost 40 percent of Afghan girls can now read. Some of this progress can never be undone. Executions in stadiums, public floggings and amputations, the stoning of women who dare literally show their faces: these hideous acts ceased. This civil society and R2P (however unwittingly performed) is actually worthy of the sacrifice paid by American troops, far worthier than what’s been won in other wars this country has fought, to win gold or oil or land. The cost was indeed severe: 47,000 civilians dead, over 2400 U.S. military, almost 4000 U.S. contractors. (Plus $83 billion spent on training and arming the Afghan military, and another $2 trillion just to pay for the healthcare and disability of veterans, costs that might not peak until 2048. And that’s just “treasure.”) Yet it is impossible to seriously conceive of any better use for military power than this: fighting power-hungry, ignorant men who are fanatically religion-driven, rabidly anti-democratic, viciously punitive, and saturated in the hatred and fear of women.

Which brings us to Texas.

Nothing against Texans personally, you understand. On the contrary, I firmly believe that given demographic changes as well as good grassroots organizing, Texas will likely turn blue in the next 5 to 10 years. This, despite those people who wear T-shirts blaring “My Body My Choice,” who refuse to get vaccinated or even wear masks in the pandemic, all the while screaming their support of so-called fetal heartbeat bills. I refer, of course, to SB8, the ban that Texas passed into law after the Supreme Court refused to intervene. In case you possibly haven’t heard, this ban makes it illegal to get an abortion starting at six weeks of pregnancy, which is so early that most women don’t even know they’re pregnant. What’s more, the ban comes with a uniquely vicious twist that cruelly deputizes and even incentivizes antiabortion ideologues across the country to seek out and punish providers in Texas, as well as any individuals who help patients get care through financial support or transportation. Vigilantes. Just like those who tracked, hunted down, and turned in enslaved people running toward freedom. And this is accompanied by rewards—bounties, to boot. For turning in anyone who helps a woman terminate her pregnancy in Texas, the vigilante gets $10,000, plus legal fees. Does this naturally set a precedent for vigilantism and bounty hunting on any other issue? You bet it does.

This is appalling.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the ban—now Texas law—is beyond appalling. In her fiery dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called it “a breathtaking act of defiance,” and pointed out “The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.” Even Chief Justice Roberts, with Justices Breyer and Kagan joining, dissented: “The statutory scheme before the Court is not only unusual, but unprecedented,” especially in that the case never even bothered to make its way up through the courts, where it would have been repeatedly challenged or dismissed outright. Roberts pointedly reserved the right to severely question its unconstitutionality. This unconstitutionality has now been confirmed by President Biden and sued by the Department of Justice. Nevertheless, five arch-conservative Justices based their decision on what they claimed was their pitiable “inability” to rule on “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions” presented by the challengers to the law, even while they did grudgingly acknowledge the “serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue.” Ya think?

Madison, Jefferson, and the other Framers of the Constitution must not merely be spinning in their graves; they must be ready to rise and walk. I hope they’re armed with muskets when they do.

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, while defending signing this ban into law, which is already being eyed enviously by other states South of the Mason-Dixon line, whined that Gee, a girl still had a full six weeks (thus ignoring female biology). Moreover, in replying to questions about why there were no exceptions even for rape or incest victims, Abbott ignored incest entirely but proclaimed that rape was a crime and he would get rapists off all Texas streets (also ignoring the reality that most rapists are not strangers wandering the streets but are familiar to their victims). It’s the kind of breathtakingly willful ignorance reminiscent of, say, Mullah Omar who, you may remember, once declared that when a woman ate a cucumber or a banana she was visually performing an immoral act punishable by stoning.

So into the breach again: The Afghan Taliban and the Texas Taliban; America’s two longest wars. Because the religious forces of the right wing have never stopped their assault since Roe was first decided, in their relentless attempts to erode and destroy a woman’s basic human right over her own body. It was Texas back in 1973 whose ban on abortion was the basis for Roe v. Wade in the first place, a ban that was declared unconstitutional when Roe was first passed, and Texas will have to be taught the same lesson again.

But the contemporary Women’s Movement is markedly different from what it was in its infancy in 1973, both at home here and around the world. This time it’s powerful. This time nobody is withdrawing. This time nobody is settling.

There will be marches, to be sure: a major march for women’s reproductive lives is scheduled for October 2. But it won’t stop there. There will be massive demonstrations; if necessary, mass acts of civil disobedience. There will be new legislation enshrining this right in the Constitution. There will be public protests until the Equal Rights Amendment is finally passed. There will be campaigns nationwide to impeach some Justices who should never should have been appointed or confirmed in the first place. We will stop at nothing this time.

Because an issue larger even than this specific, basic right is at stake: the final, unequivocal, truly democratic inclusion of women and women’s rights in the vocabulary. That vocabulary sings in the Constitution. That vocabulary sings in democracy itself. That vocabulary is one we share here in the United States with women in Afghanistan and around the world.

Our homegrown Taliban yearn to return us to the Stone Age to join their Afghan brothers, and they believe that they are nearing the triumphant end of their long campaign to do so. Yet Afghan women took to the streets, faces stripped of niqabs and burkas, wearing the audacity of their courage. Can we do less?

Oh, no. We have only just begun.