A meme that accompanied a tweet issued by The Conversation accompanying a link to their article “As the Taliban returns, 20 years of progress for women looks set to disappear overnight” goes like this: “The world must not look away as the Taliban sexually enslaves women and girls.” Sad as the prospect of what the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan means to female Afghans, one has to wonder: What is it exactly one can do for them given that the planet’s mightiest nation had just abandoned its most recent colonial adventure?
As the Taliban retakes the country, Afghanistan has again become an extremely dangerous place to be a woman.
— The Conversation (@ConversationEDU) August 16, 2021
The US presence in Afghanistan briefly established an outpost of Western liberal values in a region where the notion of being “moderate” involves being merely tolerant of women’s rights (as defined by Western ideals). But as the authors of the above piece themselves point out, “[with] the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the situation for women and girls vastly improved, although these gains were partial and fragile.” It has been twenty years and the propagation and embedding of Western liberal values in Afghanistan remains a “partial and fragile” enterprise. How long did America need to be there?
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If the objective was to create an American Mini Me in Afghanistan, perhaps it might be worth a revisit of how a similar experiment in the Philippines turned out. The Philippines has 75 years of history following the American pullout from the islands in 1946 from which some lessons could be gleaned. Over three fourths of a century, the Philippines had gone from a promising beacon of American values in the Pacific to a sad caricature of The American Way that it is today — a country that is only superficially American in form and anything but in substance and in practice. Coming back to the bigger point, we are talking about a society that adores America. For a project to embed Truth, Justice, and The American Way to fail in a society that loves Uncle Sam is the lesson here.
Therefore, to be fair, it is difficult to disagree with what US President Joe Biden has to say about the Afghanistan issue; that, “an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable”. Only Afghans can save themselves. And, closer to home, only Filipinos can too, for that matter. Indeed Filipinos, for their part, do not recognise the 4th of July 1946 as their Independence Day even if that date, as a matter of fact, is the date the United States granted the Philippines its independence. Filipinos prefer to regard the 12th of June 1898 as their “real” independence day. The way Filipinos see it, America governed the Philippines as a conqueror from 1898 to 1946 (interrupted briefly by a short Japanese occupation).
“Patriotic” Filipino historians entertain themselves by imagining how the Philippines could have turned out had America not “invaded” the islands in 1898. Without the American footprint over the first half of 20th Century Philippine history, would Filipinos feel any more accountable for how their country would have turned out? To answer that question, one only need look at how personally accountable today’s Filipinos feel about how they turned out over the 75 years since America left in 1946 — or even how their lot fare today after the “evil” President Ferdinand Marcos was “ousted” in 1986 and “freedom” supposedly “restored”.
Seen from the eyes of the contemporary “thought leaders” of America’s failed Mini Me project in the Pacific, the idea of a regime that would severely restrict the lives — and rights — of women is nothing short of hellish. But then history too offers a reality check to that in the words of Manuel L. Quezon, first President of the Philippine Commonwealth who reiterated a few times, “I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by any foreigner.”
Perhaps the world should not look away from the “hell” that is about to unfold in Afghanistan. But should the world intervene? The world’s mightiest nations did and failed. So for now we can only watch in horror and mull over this interesting question: Who, after all, is the ultimate authority on what is heaven and what is hell? History does not offer a clear answer to that question. Neither does America.
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