The Saga of Bibi Aisha Is a Reminder of What We Owe Afghanistan, and What It Owes to Itself

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Aisha Bibi, left, in Los Angeles, October 8, 2010 and on the cover of TIME Magazine, August 9, 2010. (Photo: Left; Arun Nevader - Getty Images: Jodi Bieber for TIME)

The revelation that the only man ever arrested in connection to the brutal maiming of Afghan teen Bibi Aisha has been set freea mere six months after being taken into custody should not come as a surprise. Dismay and frustration, to be sure. But given the current state of justice in Afghanistan, not to mention official disregard for women’s rights (or human rights, for that matter), it’s a wonder anyone was picked up in the first place.

Aisha’s father-in-law, Suleiman, was accused of participating in the horrific act that saw Aisha’s husband and brother-in-law cut off her nose and ears in retaliation for running away from her abusive in-laws.  After initially confessing his role to the local police, he has now recanted, according to the Uruzgan Provincial Attorney Ghulam Farouq, as reported Monday in the New York Times. Farouq gave two reasons for the release, one that Suleiman did not cut off her nose himself (he just held her down, by her account) and that there was no one in Afghanistan to press the case, since Aisha is now in the United States awaiting reconstructive surgery.

Neither of these reasons bear any weight—Afghanistan is, after all, a signatory to international judicial conventions, and according to Esther Hyneman, New York based head of Women for Afghan Women, the NGO that is currently taking care of Aisha as she awaits surgery, Aisha could have easily have provided testimony in a deposition from New York.

More than anything it is an indication of the parlous state of the Afghan justice system. “It’s a pattern,” Manizha Naderi, the Kabul-based director of Women for Afghan Women told my colleague in Kabul.  “Corruption is rife. Anyone can bribe their way out of prison. It happens very often and it sends a bad message, not just for women’s rights but for the whole justice system.”

For Hyneman, Suleiman’s release symbolizes a “setback for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Although we are making a lot of progress at the grassroots level—women are winning cases in courts, they come to shelters on their own steam, they know they can say no to abuse—these gains are fragile. And the government has proved again and again that women’s rights are expendable when it comes to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

The problems in Afghanistan are so vast; it’s hard to know where to even start. Is it with justice? With protecting human rights? Women’s rights? Security? Afghan President Hamid Karzai once asked Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch: “What is more important, protecting the right of a girl to go to school or saving her life?” In the overwhelming scale of human tragedy that is Afghanistan today, what is the suffering of one illiterate country girl? When I wrote about the fate of Bibi Aisha (Bibi is honorific, she asks that her family name not be revealed) a year ago for a cover story about Afghan women, at least two other girls had been similarly mutilated that year, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Their cases remain unsolved. Aisha made the cover of TIME magazine. And yet, even that was not enough. Suleiman walks free, another brutish chapter in Afghanistan’s downward spiral closed.

Keeping troops in Afghanistan will not stop things like this from happening. Aisha’s nose was cut off in a mountain clearing less than a day’s walking distance from a NATO military outpost. But it’s hard to see how a precipitous withdrawal will help either, particularly if it is combined with a quick and dirty reconciliation deal with Taliban insurgents. Everything we do in Afghanistan has consequences. We cannot overlook that fundamental fact just because it is now economically and politically expedient to declare victory and go home.

If we are going to negotiate with the Taliban, if we are going to give them representation in governance or control of territory, or any of the many other ideas posited by western governments seeking an exit strategy, let’s be clear. We will not be able to pat ourselves on the back and say that we made things better for women, or for society as a whole. Compromises will be made, and those compromises will be made by Afghanistan’s women.

As I wrote last year:

In negotiations, the Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women’s rights, which they deem a Western concept that contravenes Islamic teaching. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. “You have to be realistic,” says a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.”

Those sacrifices may start with the constitutionally protected stipulation that 25 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. Or protection for a women’s right to free movement, or employment.

Under the Taliban, Robina Muqimyar Jalalai, one of Afghanistan’s first two female Olympic athletes, spent her girlhood locked behind the walls of her family compound. Now she is running for parliament and wants a sports ministry created, which she hopes to lead. “We have women boxers and women footballers,” she says. “I go running in the stadium where the Taliban used to play football with women’s heads.” But Muqimyar says she will never take these changes for granted. “If the Taliban come back, I will lose everything that I have gained over the past nine years.

By and large we have attained our newly revised goals in Afghanistan – the end of al Qaeda. But what do we owe Afghanistan? What do we owe Aisha? Or the other, unnamed, girls who were similarly maimed? Is it worth sacrificing blood and treasure for the rights of women?  Let’s not be naive. We went into Afghanistan for our own interests, and we are leaving for the same reasons. But what if our short-term self-interest—economy, elections—undermines our long-term strategy in the world? Is it worth defaulting on our moral obligations? Or do we raise the debt ceiling with more troops, aid and investment?

The final scene in the Hollywood version of Charlie Wilson’s War shows the congressman futilely seeking development funding for Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. It is foreshadowing with the darkest of ironies. It was our neglect of Afghanistan that eventually led to civil war, the rise of the Taliban, a safe haven for al Qaeda and ultimately 9/11. How will the movie version, two decades hence, of our current engagement with Afghanistan end? Will it be with the same sense of precautions not taken?