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Irshad Manji

Tribalism triumphs in Afghanistan Add to ...

There was a time when I believed. With every fibre of my feminist Muslim being, I believed in our Afghanistan mission. No longer.

On Sunday, the Taliban assassinated another Afghan women's rights activist. It happened only days after the world learned of yet one more anti-female statute that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed into law. Critics accused him of caving in to warlords ahead of the coming elections. Only when Western voices amplified the protests of liberal Afghans did Mr. Karzai put the law "under review." Human-rights advocates called it a triumph.

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The victory, such as it is, will be short-lived. I'm increasingly convinced that Afghanistan's problem lies deeper than a recalcitrant Taliban or a gutless central government. It's a problem so profound that for the first time I have to ask: Should our troops just get out?

Make no mistake, I'm a fighter to my fired-up core. Challenged about the West's presence in Afghanistan by numerous audiences, I've been crystal clear about why humanitarian intervention deserves support.

To my fellow progressives, I've argued that Afghans themselves say they need NATO troops. Shall I pretend that the locals suffer from "false consciousness?" That they don't know their lives the way I do? Doesn't such haughtiness replicate the imperialist approach in which a distant elite lords it over the people on the ground?

To pacifists, I've said that you can be anti-war and pro-intervention at the same time. Consider Swanee Hunt, a noted champion of non-violence.

Recently, she wrote about serving as America's ambassador in Vienna during the Bosnian war and "hearing horrifying reports from embassy personnel who were interviewing the refugees pouring into Austria. The responsibility was awesome. I couldn't sleep at night. I wondered if I should resign my position to protest the fact [that]my country was not intervening." Then-president Bill Clinton finally deployed NATO troops to stop the genocide. Meanwhile, Ms. Hunt points out, "200,000 people died needlessly."

To those who don't want our uniformed women and men dying, I've said that soldiers themselves know the hazards of their chosen occupation.

For the public to go limp when some of our own come home in coffins is to tell the Taliban that we stand for nothing. Translation: We'll fall for anything.

But now I must ask: Exactly what are our soldiers falling for? Shortly after Afghanistan held its first free election, Mr. Karzai faced an elemental test of democracy: defending freedom of worship for an Afghan convert to Christianity who found himself charged with apostasy. Mullahs called for his execution and judges obliged them - hardly surprising since the constitution Afghanistan of proclaims sharia law supreme.

What shook me is that Mr. Karzai didn't publicly question their retrograde interpretation of Islam. He needed only to quote from the Koran, which states "there is no compulsion in religion." Full stop.

Ditto for the 2008 death sentence given to a 23-year-old Afghan journalism student. He'd downloaded and distributed an Internet article criticizing how the Koran treats women. The mullahs got their day in court. The student didn't even get a lawyer. He's still alive - in jail.

Since then, the suave and sophisticated Mr. Karzai has stayed mute about several more penalties inflicted in the name of tribal honour, from widespread gang rapes of women to acid attacks on schoolgirls.

Why would a president, routinely described as a "moderate," hand so much power to feudal warlords? Geopolitical strategists tell me it's because Mr. Karzai has to avoid carnage at all costs. But does violating innocents to pre-empt further violence makes sense?

Sadly, yes, and not just because the strategists say so. Culture is among the most obstinate forces anywhere. In societies influenced by Arab culture, a massive motivator of action is asabiyya or tribal solidarity.

This analysis originated with the Muslim intellectual Ibn Khaldun, sometimes known as the father of modern sociology. He studied how Muslim peoples evolve, especially in environments that are arid, remote, or, in the case of Afghanistan, mountainous. Where the land is harsh, there's virtually no division of labour. Human survival depends on bonds of kinship, and those bonds can easily degenerate into feelings of group superiority.

Now what happens when tribes compete for superiority? You get a cycle of vendetta and countervendetta. In the end, warlords could be more legitimate than any democratically elected parliament - more legitimate because they're more authentic to the Afghan experience.

No wonder a moderate president serially submits to thugs. No wonder military might has been a feeble backwater to the tide of history. No wonder I've got a sinking feeling that our troops can't adequately help the good people of Afghanistan.

Soldiers can restore stability, but when stability means cyclical violence, I'm at a loss for what it means to win.

Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project, a global leadership program with New York University and the European Foundation for Democracy.

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