The Practice of Intervention and the War of Narratives-Gender and Geopolitics
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The Practice of Intervention and the War of Narratives-Gender and Geopolitics

By Arushi Singh
Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal India

Image by Amber Clay from Pixabay

Image by Amber Clay from Pixabay

The impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan brings to the fore once again the reasons and rationalizations provided for invasion more than two decades ago. In Wars of Choice, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the most strident rationalizations provided for the invasions was the forthcoming protection and upliftment of women in both countries after the US interventions. However, more than two decades after the US intercessions, women in both countries have been subjected to brutal and systemic suppression which has been sanctioned by the US including through an agreement with the Taliban or through the long-lasting and direct results of the US invasion as well as subsequent actions in Iraq which have resulted in rampant corruption and powerful militias rather than in equal participation of women in politics and places of power.


One of the most emotive and vociferous justifications offered for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by the Bush administration was the “fight for the rights and dignity of women”. Notably, the then First Lady, Laura Bush, in her radio broadcast on 16 November 2001 solidified the perception of the pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan with her proclamation that "the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity” of women. Subsequently, the US Congress passed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001 and the US State Department published an 11-page report on the Taliban’s “War Against Women,” to cement its commitment to fighting for women’s rights and for equal participation in Afghanistan which was also conveniently in sharp contrast to practices endorsed by the Taliban leadership at the time.

Furthermore, the current Afghan government hoped to defer the US withdrawal partially based on the assessments which highlighted the imminent denial of rights to women under the Taliban. The government in Kabul believed that underscoring this fact consistently could have led to the reversal of US retrenchment. Experts have observed that the Afghan government has been staunchly against and dissatisfied with the agreement that the US has concluded with the Taliban. The Afghan government has deep apprehensions regarding the extraction of US troops which has led to the employment of legitimate concerns about women’s rights as a means to coax the US to hold off its withdrawal from the country. There have been persistent headlines in magazines such as “What happens if we leave Afghanistan” with photographs that showcase the Taliban’s brutality and legitimize the continuation of the war and ‘politics of pity’

The extent of the narrative building during the Bush Administration was such that any issue connected with women's rights has been referred to as “a sellable commodity”. Additionally, the administration adopted the gender mainstreaming approach which subsequently was discovered to be riddled with massive faults according to analysts, including triggering conceptual misunderstanding as well as aggravating ambiguous or unworkable implementation guidelines and unreliability of leaders. 

These developments appear to be a legacy of the Bush administration’s narrative agenda which put women’s rights at the fore during and before the intervention. Experts have observed that the Bush administration deftly exploited feminist language to peddle and make the US more palatable to the public as well as to reach consensus when the experiences of war are in bleak contradiction to the basic principles of feminism. Notably, in an interview posted on 14 July 2021, George W. Bush remarked that he is afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm” as the US withdraws from Afghanistan.

Even under the US, the Afghan constitution, and subsequent legislation, there has been major resistance to reforms that would make women larger shareholders in the political milieu of the country. The resistance according to scholars is exacerbated by the radicalization of the population which has been caught in the crosshairs of perpetual war. These developments have additionally been followed by laws that showed prejudice and bias against women such as the one that was passed for electoral gains under US-backed President Karzai which discriminated against Shia women in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, gender has been used to legitimize those who justify military intervention and delegitimizing those who convey criticism. Furthermore, scholars have postulated that the US through its silence on important gender issues in Afghanistan has emboldened actors opposed and hostile towards the implementation of women’s rights.

Surprisingly, after repeatedly citing the concern for the treatment of women as a motivation for intervention, the US only utilized $787.4 million since 2002 on programs centered around specifically and primarily supporting Afghan women which is equal to approximately 0.5% of the entire allotment that is 141.25 billion American dollars which were marked for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan have been further forced to rely on poppy cultivation and opium production which has been referred to as the lifeblood of the Taliban insurgency. Poppy cultivation provides women independence, access to resources, cash, and status but also fuels the insurgency. Scholars have expressed concerns that women involved in the poppy trade have set themselves in opposition to their country's new laws and are planting an illegal yield that is likely to be exterminated by the next government.


Notably, President George W. Bush once remarked at the White House that “every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed.” Even though women have been disproportionately marked by the brutality and bloodshed that has been witnessed in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Reports indicate that illiteracy along with other metrics lighting gender inequality has skyrocketed. Leaders who have emerged after Saddam Hussein together with ever-increasing conservatism have severely weakened the participation of women in public life. This dilution of participation, contribution and power in the public sphere was exemplified in one of the first legislative attempts of Iraq’s post-invasion lawmakers which included changes to the personal status law which protects women’s rights. Furthermore, experts have posited that “women were often used symbolically to reject the previous political order”.

After the invasion, women were able to acquire a quota for a quarter of seats in parliament which, however, has not resulted in lasting change and have not led to enhanced gender participation in key parliamentary committees such as oil, energy and natural resourcessecurity and defense; and reconciliation. These issues have been exacerbated by inter-sectarian disputes.

Notably, another corollary that ultimately led to gender inequality and was the result of efforts to solidify US presence after the invasion was the process of de-Baathification. The regional command of the Ba'ath Party included women’s, military, professional, and students’ bureaus. There were also professional linkages and syndicates, such as the Iraqi Women’s Association. The Ba'ath party additionally established the General Federation of Iraqi Women (GFIW) which had an influential role in the implementation of state policy, principally via its part in the operation of numerous community centers in both rural and urban areas. Furthermore, legislation passed in 1979 by the government to eradicate illiteracy led to various "literacy centers," being managed by GFIW. A ‘presumption of guilt’ approach was undertaken after the invasion and the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA) abolished the GFIW along with other Ba'ath Party related organizations, which needed Ba'ath party membership and were also the only avenue for several women to participate in the political domain.

An extremely high number of Iraqi women were employed in the education sector and reports have indicated that de-Baathification may have had a greater bearing on female government employees. There was an instance where a former employee tried to contest her dismissal and won the case in arbitration court, however, the decision was not implementable for the reason that only Higher National De-Baathification Commission (HNDC) could reinstate a person which took considerable time and effort. Subsequently, the de-Baathification process was recognized and acknowledged as a jurisdictional instrument for institutionalizing discrimination.


The US has for decades indulged in the expedient use of narratives revolving around gender and freedom to justify interventions that are undertaken for purposes derived from the pure balance of power calculations and geopolitical permutations and computations. The results of these interventions have adversely impacted locally initiated women’s organizations, gender roles, and ideologies. Paradoxically, the withdrawal of US forces is likely to lead to even more deterioration and erosion of women's rights in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, the silences and omissions clustered around the gender narratives and geopolitics necessities that comprise essential facets of interventions reveal much about their ultimate evolution into the forever wars.

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