Sunday, March 25, 2012

How does bombing Afghanistan help its women?

I am about to do something that I have never done before: defend Catherine Ashton.

No sooner had the EU’s foreign policy chief used the word “Gaza” in a comment about the horrific killings of Jewish children in Toulouse than Israeli politicians were competing with each other to see who could sound the most irate.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, claimed to be upset at how Ashton had drawn a “comparison between the intentional slaughter of children and the IDF’s [Israeli Defence Force’s] surgical defensive strikes.”

Ashton should have told Netanyahu to get stuffed. For a start, all she had done was made a bland remark about the suffering of children in general, without drawing any analogy. More importantly, the idea that Israel seeks to spare non-combatants is bunkum.

Three children were murdered in Toulouse. A total of 352 children were murdered by Israel when it bombed Gaza relentlessly for three weeks in December 2008 and January 2009. And there are strong reasons to believe that Palestinian children are still dying from the effects of missiles used in that offensive. From my work with The Electronic Intifada (a news and analysis website), I learned about the death of Haneen Abu Jalala, a 17-year-old girl, in January this year. Haneen developed respiratory problems in early 2009; her family is convinced that these problems were caused by her exposure to white phosphorous, a toxic weapon that Israel dropped on Gaza’s civilian areas in contravention of international law.

Nobody who has visited Gaza and seen the destruction wrought by that offensive first-hand (as I have) could believe those deaths were accidental. Those children were slaughtered intentionally by the state of Israel.


I have no desire to defend Ashton any further. The truth is that she is frequently selective about the types of violence she professes to abhor. In August last year, Ashton rushed to “condemn unreservedly” the killing of eight Israelis in the tourist resort of Eilat. Yet she had nothing to say about how Israel murdered an infant in Gaza a few hours later.

Ashton is equally selective when dealing with Afghanistan.

In an extraordinary, if little-noticed, speech to a conference in Bonn during December last year, Ashton said: “Like many, I’ve been extremely impressed by the role of the women of Afghanistan. Not least under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s worked tirelessly for women’s rights everywhere but especially with Afghan women.”

Maybe I haven’t paid enough attention to world affairs but I have no recollection of ever reading about Hillary Clinton’s election – or even appointment – as a leader for Afghan women. To the best of my knowledge, she is a representative of the United States, the military power that is occupying Afghanistan on a spurious pretext.

According to the official narrative, the US and its allies (read: lap dogs) in NATO are waging war in Afghanistan in order to defeat al Qaeda. Yet, as George Zornick, a journalist with The Nation magazine highlighted at the beginning of this month, it is extremely rare for al Qaeda fighters to be killed in that country. The last time one was killed by US forces was in April 2011. That’s almost a year ago now.

Rising death toll

Civilians, on the other hand, die all the time in Afghanistan. UN data indicates that 3,021 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during 2011, the highest death toll since 2006. True, the Taliban has been blamed for most of these deaths (2,332) but a total of 410 civilians were killed by NATO or by the Afghan government forces the alliance is training.

A recent report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan made clear that “in 2011, women and children again increasingly bore the brunt of the armed conflict.” In total, 166 women and 306 children were killed last year.

The report underscored that air attacks carried out by “pro-government forces” (including NATO) caused the deaths of more women and children in 2011 than during the previous year. A tripling in the number of women and children killed by air attacks was recorded between July and December 2011, compared to the same period in 2010.

Under Hillary Clinton’s “leadership”, violence against Afghan women is increasing. Could she – or her number one fan, Catherine Ashton – kindly explain how blowing up Afghan women helps them achieve their rights?

In the final pages of her 1992 book “The War Against Women”, Marilyn French praised the movement to equate militarism and sexism. Drawing inspiration from the feminist protests at the keeping of nuclear weapons at Greenham Common in Britain, she declared: “After millennia of male war against them, women are fighting back on every front.”

Twenty years later, NATO is trying to spin its wars as beneficial to women. The alliance even has its own TV channel, where it has cuddly images of women learning to drive in Herat and climbing up the ranks of the Afghan army. “This is progress,” says reporter Ruth Owen.

Occupation is not progress, Ms Owen. Afghanistan is at 172 on the United Nations’ 187-place Human Development Index, suggesting that it is worse-off than other desperately poor countries like Malawi and Haiti. Regardless of what “journalists” working for NATO claim, poverty cannot be bombed out of existence.

Catherine Ashton might have convinced herself that NATO’s predominantly male generals are fighting a feminist war. Real feminists have not been deceived quite so easily.

●First published by New Europe, 25-31 March 2012.

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