I have been trying to save just one woman in Afghanistan. It is proving to be an unimaginably arduous task, one that has taken up nearly all my time, night and day, for more than a week; one in which I've involved at least 14 others in this one rescue mission.
My woman in Kabul is eminently qualified for a seat on an American military plane out of Taliban terrorist Hell. She has worked for an American university, and for a number of European NGOS and international agencies on behalf of women's health and women's rights. She has a degree in medical science and has lectured all over the country. She is known. Over there, she is a target; here, she will no doubt become a productive and assimilated Afghan-American.
Sadly, our departure from Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again.
We know what will happen next – it is already happening. There will be countless massacres, executions, Sharia-mandated amputations, and stonings. Girls and women will be permanently imprisoned at home under burqa and in purdah.
A 21-year-old woman reportedly was killed last Wednesday for wearing clothes that were considered too tight and because she was outside the home without a male chaperone.
The Taliban perpetrated a suicide attack last week on the Kabul home of Afghanistan's acting defense minister, General Bismillah Khan Mohammedi, a former muhajideen commander "with a long record of fighting the Taliban." He was not at home at the time, but eight civilians, including women and children, were killed and 20 people were wounded.
The United States unwisely continued to trust promises made by the Taliban, and thus, forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners—who swiftly overturned their agreement and returned to fighting the government. At stake are the poppy fields in southern Afghanistan which provide the Taliban with a great opium cash crop. At stake is control of the country.
When will American diplomats learn that such promises can never be trusted? That fundamentalist Muslim fighters will agree to Western-style "permanent" truces which they consider only temporary – until they can regroup and start fighting again. Even as the U.S. Congress has expanded the qualifications for visa status to include journalists, there is no plan to vet and get them out of Afghanistan and into the United States before Aug. 31. Journalists are high premium targets and the Taliban have "long conducted a campaign of threatening and killing journalists."
The Biden administration has only just now expanded the criteria for a visa for women such as the one I am trying to save, but only for 2,000 such lucky women. We may argue that we have already expended too much blood and treasure over the last 20 years, but we are still facing both a humanitarian and potentially a military crisis. Our leaving has been hastily planned and is now being poorly managed.
What happens if I cannot help free the Afghan woman? If she is lucky, and not torture-murdered, the Taliban will marry her off to a series of their fighters in order to breed and rear another generation of Islamist warriors.
The Taliban's triumph should permanently retire the West's illusions about reforming, or even negotiating with, fundamentalist Islam. Now, our task is to defend ourselves against such medieval barbarism, and from the consequences of Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and Turkish alliances with anti-Western jihadists.
We are not morally bound to do that which cannot be done, but aren't we morally obliged to rescue as many pro-Western Afghans as we deem "manageable?"
Aside from logistics and economics, there are other immense problems. For example, I fear that some of the men we are resettling in the West (including the interpreters) may not "allow" their wives and daughters to go to school, leave home, refuse to marry, or choose to marry someone of their own choosing. What do we plan to do about that, if anything? I've been told by a UK activist who is working to resettle this very population, that some of the male translators are only bringing their youngest wives and all the children borne by older wives, whom they have apparently left behind.
I understand and share the sense of overriding obligations to those Afghans, mainly men, who specifically worked with Western military forces – but there is another, far more promising, additional population to free.
I would start with the women, especially with those who are educated and who have been fighting for women's rights in Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif.
I have been on email with this one women in Kabul both day and night. I published an edited version of her letter to me July 31.
"After international forces leave Afghanistan," she wrote, "my life will be in danger so I once more kindly request you to save my life. Their withdrawing will be life threatening for all those women and girls who worked with international organizations and were social activists. I am one of those girls."
Few single, Afghan women will leave with smugglers on their own. And for good reason. Smugglers will probably rape, rob, and abandon a woman. Life in refugee camps is similarly dangerous. The only safe way an Afghan woman can leave at this point—and with her family's blessing—would be on a military transport with someone waiting to receive her, and a process in place so that she can live and work while she applies for political asylum. This is the only route which does not require the almost impossible-to-obtain special or America-related visa. If one has not worked for an American NGO or the American military directly, one cannot apply for a visa. I'm told that if an Afghan woman wants to apply for a "special" visa, she must travel to a third country and remain there for a year.
There are thousands of Afghan women who have hosted Afghan radio and television programs (as my woman in Kabul has), and who have written for Afghan newspapers. There are physicians, nurses, teachers, police officers, politicians, scientists, athletes, etc. What will become of them under Taliban rule?
Perhaps America and the West stayed "in country" too long. In 20 years, we neither found bin Laden hiding in an Afghan cave nor were we able to extinguish or moderate Taliban warlord values. They are quintessential Islamists who live to fight, kill, and die "for Allah."
But, at the same time, the presence of Western military boots on the ground allowed countless Afghan civilians, especially women, to succeed educationally and professionally. They enjoyed a taste of what Western post-Enlightenment civilization has to offer. We are now abandoning them to the Middle Ages because they did not help the United States directly. Even now, Afghans are in the streets, block by block, cheering on the government forces who are fighting the Taliban. We are abandoning them, too.
What else can we do? We cannot afford to airlift half the Afghan population and settle them in the West.
But, as I've written before: The moment the last Western military boot leaves Afghanistan, the remaining shelters for battered women and schools for girls will be torched, one by one, as will the women who dared to run these enterprises. The entire country will become a vast and desolate landscape, a dystopian, medieval setting right out of Orwell or Atwood.
And yes, the Taliban will shelter and train anti-Western terrorists from all over the world.
Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY), and the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness, and A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killings. She is a Senior IPT Fellow, and a Fellow at MEF and ISGAP.
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