Joan Smith: Women need us to wage war on ignorance

As long as girls' schools are under attack for spreading 'vulgarity', we have a role in Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

If the "war on terror" were a movie, it would have been booed out of cinemas a long time ago. It's got loads of violence and horribly realistic effects – special thanks to Dick Cheney for overseeing the torture scenes – but the good guys invaded the wrong country and the chief villain is still at large.

It's going to be a long time before "The End" appears on the screen, signalling that the egregious foreign policy blunders of George Bush's presidency are safely in the past; the cowboy president didn't get his man but he presided over two of the most expensive wars in American history, ignited an internecine Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq and allowed the Taliban to regroup on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The conflict will top Barack Obama's agenda when he takes office next month, having already pledged that his administration will focus its attention on Afghanistan. The US is due to send up to 30,000 more troops to the country by next summer; earlier this month, Gordon Brown promised to send another 300 British soldiers to Helmand, and he may come under pressure from the new administration to send more.

These decisions are unpopular and they're likely to become more so as British and American soldiers go on dying. Only four days ago, a 20-year-old Royal Marine was killed in Helmand province in Afghanistan, bringing to 99 the British toll of those killed in combat.

In both countries, influential voices are demanding to know why our troops are in Afghanistan at all, arguing that the Afghan people should be allowed to decide their own destiny. How they are supposed to do this, in a country overrun by warlords and the Taliban, is not at all clear. But the fact that Obama is prepared to countenance a troop "surge" comparable to the Bush surge in Iraq has confounded expectations among some of his supporters, who would like to see the new President put an end to foreign military interventions.

Despite the disaster in Iraq, it would be a huge moral defeat if Obama listened to them. Just because Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld got everything wrong when they responded to the 9/11 attacks doesn't mean that the rest of us have to park our judgement and principles for a generation. Bush made a lot of noise about capturing Osama bin Laden dead or alive, left the Afghan war half-finished and veered off into Iraq after Saddam Hussein, a very unpleasant dictator who nevertheless had nothing to do with al-Qa'ida or the suicide bombings on the east coast of the US.

In retrospect, the Bush administration's actions were so ill conceived and capricious that it's hard to believe they were allowed to discredit the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, yet that is what has happened. Obama has already faced calls to make a deal with the Taliban – supposedly a nicer version than before, a sort of Taliban lite – and pull out of Afghanistan.

If he is going to win that war, he will need the support of liberals in the US and the UK who can see beyond the carnage in Baghdad to a set of principles which, Bush or no Bush, remain important to uphold.

The central proposition is that democratic nations should not simply stand by as oppressive regimes wreck whole countries and cause the deaths of thousands of civilians. It can't always be done but I would be

delighted if, for instance, President Mugabe's neighbours decided to send a joint military force into Zimbabwe to put an end to his corrupt, violent rule.

Three months ago, I heard for myself about one of the most successful interventions of the past decade, when I talked to people in Sierra Leone who had watched British troops arrive in Freetown in May 2000 and drive out Foday Sankoh's rebels.

The soldiers were sent by the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and within days they'd liberated the city and captured Sankoh himself; no one I spoke to had any doubts about the rightness of British military intervention, which put an end to years of conflict in which thousands of civilians were raped, mutilated and murdered. Cook once joked with me that he'd stand for election in Freetown if he ever lost his Westminster seat, and he is still regarded there with warm affection.

Cook's views on the necessity of humanitarian intervention were shaped by his experience in opposition when John Major's government did nothing to stop the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995.

He arrived at the Foreign Office two years later with a very different agenda, and he made no apologies for pursuing it. "We have intervened to defend human rights from West Africa to the Balkans," he declared with pride in 2001. "In Sierra Leone, the role of British troops has been crucial in driving back a rebel force of unparalleled brutality and compelling them to accept a ceasefire."

Cook was dismayed when he saw the doctrine of humanitarian intervention being perverted post-9/11 by the Bush administration and he realised the pernicious consequences that would follow: not just a disastrous war in Iraq but the discrediting of something he continued to believe in passionately to the end of his life.

He would have been delighted to see the end of Bush, whom he talked about with amused contempt, and even more delighted by early signs that Obama is returning to the sound liberal principle that democracies have a duty to defend human rights.

From that standpoint, leaving Afghanistan now would be an abject surrender to extremists: only last month, 15 schoolgirls and their teachers were injured in an acid attack, the latest in a relentless series of attacks on girls' schools and teachers.

Earlier this year, Haji Abdul Kassim, director of education in Helmand, said that 18 schools had been burnt down in the province and 66 others closed because of threats. "We are talking about thousands of children being affected," he said. "We have also had eight teachers killed."

Across the border, in the tribal areas of north-western Pakistan, a Taliban leader has ordered the closure of all girls' schools in the Swat district and threatened to blow up school buildings if the order isn't obeyed by the middle of January.

"Female education is against Islamic teachings and spreads vulgarity in society," claimed Shah Dauran. The Pakistani-backed Taliban declared war on girls and women when they seized power in Kabul in 1996, and they haven't changed.

At the beginning of this month, I talked to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. He spoke eloquently about his Afghan childhood when his father was a diplomat and his mother taught in a high school in Kabul. Now 80 per cent of the female population is illiterate and families are desperate to get an education for their daughters, even though that means defying the Taliban and their Islamist allies.

If ever there was a case for humanitarian intervention, this is it. I just hope one of Obama's priorities will be rebuilding girls' schools and protecting their teachers.