Dear Laura Bush, This Is Not The Way To Help Oppressed Women

Empowering Afghan women is a great cause, but Bush could be harming it.
Former first lady Laura Bush speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace as part of a high-profile campaign to aid Afghanistan's women.
Former first lady Laura Bush speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace as part of a high-profile campaign to aid Afghanistan's women.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed

WASHINGTON -- Former first lady Laura Bush is offering a case study in how not to promote an excellent cause.

Bush is doing the media rounds to push a new book, We Are Afghan Women, about the gains that those women have made since the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2001. President George W. Bush's decision to target Afghanistan after 9/11 meant the end of a Taliban government that had drastically shrunk opportunities for women to secure education, health care or careers and mandated stoning women to death for alleged immorality.

The issue merits attention. Afghan women could lose much of what they've regained depending how peace talks between the current government and the Taliban proceed. They are still struggling to end demeaning practices like state-backed "virginity tests," while dealing with a rise in assaults.

But the way Laura Bush is speaking out for Afghan women is likely to backfire, hurting the cause among Americans who might otherwise sympathize and even endangering its proponents on the ground.

“I think we need to keep the troops there.”

- Laura Bush, referring to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan

At an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, in a Washington Post op-ed last week and in conversations with the "Today" show, Glamour, People, Politico and USA Today, Bush has pointed to America's military presence in Afghanistan as the key to women's progress in that country.

"I think we need to keep the troops there," she said at the Tuesday event in Washington. "We need to make sure that Afghanistan has the security to be able to build stability. ... Obviously, the most important thing is the security and our troops can help on that."

This isn't new rhetoric for Bush. In late 2001, she famously became the first first lady ever to take over the president's weekly radio address two months after the U.S. began working to overthrow the Taliban regime. Bush argued that the U.S. invasion would have clear benefits for oppressed women in Afghanistan, whose hardships she said she and most Americans only became aware of through media coverage after 9/11.

"Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror -- not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us," Bush said at the time. (In contrast to what her party's presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, now asserts about the inevitability of Muslim misogyny, Bush also noted that the global Muslim community condemned Taliban practices.)

The first lady made similar arguments throughout her husband's time in office, prompting Mother Jones to write in 2007 that Laura Bush had taken the lead in pushing "a tidy moral justification for [the U.S.] invasion of Afghanistan."

Women's empowerment has since become a favorite talking point for politicians on both sides of the aisle who support a U.S. role in Afghanistan. Just weeks before the NATO combat mission there ended in 2014, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) told an international symposium that the issue was "consistent with both American values and national security interests."

Instructors teach women taking a driving class how car engines work in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, on Jan. 20, 2016.
Instructors teach women taking a driving class how car engines work in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, on Jan. 20, 2016.
Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But do critical efforts to help women secure the status of full citizens really need to be tied to U.S. militarism?

Talk of sending troops overseas and the positive benefits of invasions isn't popular these days. Despite escalating global crises, Americans today are less eager to be involved abroad. The Bush administration's foreign policy, long doubted on the left, is being blasted by the man most likely to be the GOP's presidential nominee. Trump has Americans ready to embrace criticism of even longtime allies like Japan for the U.S. support they've received.

Recent high-profile military missteps in Afghanistan, like the October bombing of a hospital run by the charity Doctors Without Borders and the U.S. military's decision to ignore sexual abuse by its Afghan partners, make the prospect of keeping troops in that country even less popular.

So if supporting equality for Afghan women means maintaining a U.S. military presence there, many Americans might say they'd pass.

Meanwhile, Afghan women themselves and their local advocates actually lose out by being linked to the presence of American troops.

Sadaf Lakhani, a development expert at the consultancy firm TrustWorks Global, has written about the harm that misguided rhetoric from American politicians can do. Discussing Casey's 2014 remarks, Lakhani argued that his pledge was positive but framed the wrong way:

For example, in his speech in Oslo, Senator Casey noted that protecting Afghan women's rights is "Consistent with both American values and national security interests." This kind of language not only risks negating Afghan agency and ownership, but also plays into the hands of those who want to portray gender equality as an aim that is alien to indigenous Afghan struggles and aspirations.

Those in Afghanistan who oppose gender equality, including Taliban supporters, know just how to present empowering women as code for entrenching American control, Lakhani suggests.

In any case, what Laura Bush is advocating troop-wise has happened. President Barack Obama announced last fall that 5,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan even after he leaves office next year. (So died his campaign promise to end the American military role there.)

That's widely seen as a good call by Republican lawmakers, Democratic lawmakers, war skeptic Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the U.S.-friendly Afghan government and many experts on the country's direction. Observers note that the Taliban is more confident than ever of retaking the country and that the Islamic State group has also established a significant presence there, which the U.S. has begun to target.

But that doesn't mean that many ordinary Americans -- not the foreign policy hands who applauded Obama's move and gathered to see Bush in Washington -- have become any more sympathetic to Afghan women. To make that happen, the former first lady and other advocates should take a different tack: one that actually works with, rather than just talks about, those women.

Afghan businesswomen, including Mina Sherzoy (far right), gather in 2009 to discuss new laws in that country.
Afghan businesswomen, including Mina Sherzoy (far right), gather in 2009 to discuss new laws in that country.
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Bush understands this at some level. It's why the new book from the George W. Bush Institute features the stories of Afghan women and why she shared the stage at her event this week with noted activist Mina Sherzoy.

Sherzoy is one of many Afghans who are grateful for U.S. support and eager to keep it flowing, despite all the evidence of waste and misuse. "I thank you from my heart," she said at the end of Tuesday's event.

Hearing from these women themselves, rather than mainly seeing Laura Bush talking on TV about her husband's war, might encourage Americans to accept a moral imperative to support gender equality in Afghanistan. It might also help Afghans understand that the issue has deep local importance.

"Look for openings that local groups want to exploit. Find out where they are willing -- and not willing -- to push for change, despite resistance, and how they are willing to do it," Lakhani recommended to outsiders hoping to help in 2014. "These are the struggles we should support, rather than create our own."

Some of Casey's own Senate efforts for Afghan women, which focused on female officials in the police and other state organizations, share that focus. So does an ongoing Smithsonian exhibit, which Bush swung by on Tuesday. It highlights the work of the nonprofit Turquoise Mountain, which is training Afghan artisans in ancient skills, and invites museum visitors to interact with the artists themselves.

"Things have changed [in Afghanistan] ... and I wanted people to know that," Bush said Tuesday when asked by Stephen Hadley, chairman of the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace and her husband's former national security adviser, why she was working to bring attention to Afghan women now. "I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to tell their stories."

The key is for her to share those stories in a way that really helps.

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