From the Herald http://www.theherald.co.uk
Occupation or liberation? The next time a British soldier is killed in Afghanistan and you ask why we remain there, get hold of Siddiq Barmak's powerful and profoundly sad film, Osama.
The title does not refer directly to the al Qaeda leader. Osama is in fact a little girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to get a job in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Made by an Afghan director with Iranian support, it offers a desperate insight into life as a female in a state ruled by misogyny and the lash.
The girl's widowed mother, like all women, is banned from working and even venturing out in public. Since she lacks the protection of a man, she is a prisoner in her own hovel. Only by chopping off her daughter's long hair and dressing her in boys' clothes can the family hope to eat. But "Osama" is forced to join a religious school and is soon exposed - with terrible consequences.
Real life for women under the Taliban was even worse than Osama's fictional fate. Those who violated the impossibly strict moral code were publicly executed. If an already burqa-bound female raised her voice or laughed in public, she risked being beaten for corrupting the male. (Men, as we all know, are fragile creatures and must be protected from the shrieking, predatory female at all times). Girls were denied an education. An entire gender was made invisible.
Women's liberation was not the reason Afghanistan was invaded by the United Nations-backed American coalition in 2001. The real purpose of the invasion was the capture of the other Osama. The brutality with which the coalition set about failing to find bin Laden made many people wince. Remember the daisy-cutter bombs, the B52s, the unforgettable face of a little baby puckered with shrapnel? But Kabul was liberated few days after photographs of the mutilated infant appeared in this newspaper and were pasted on to the placards of anti-war protesters. A new set of images came to symbolise Afghanistan: the faces of women who had shyly pulled back their burkas and reclaimed their identity.
So, after the blanket bombs came hope. Even those who opposed the war had to admit the outcome was good news for at least half the population - the female half. It is tempting to compare the invasion to Vietnam's overthrow of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the 1970s. Vietnam might have been the aggressor - and was actually condemned for its action. But millions were saved from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Though motivated by quite different ideology, the similarities between the two regimes are striking. Both were hostile to all learning and progress, and fanatical in their narrow interpretation of their creed.
Now, five years after being deposed from power in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban are back. Some say they never went away. They are strong in Helmand province, where the British attempt to keep them at bay, and neighbouring Kandahar, which is patrolled by the Canadians. Next year some Poles will join them, but, as we know, the rest of the Nato alliance is not exactly queueing up to lend support.
Our presence in Afghanistan is now regularly cited as an example of the "War Against Islam". It hardly matters whether you believe such a war is taking place. It matters little that £20m of aid has been allocated to Helmand province alone, that five million more children - boys and girls - go to school than in 2001, that painstaking efforts are made to build the apparatus of democratic government. Afghanistan is still perceived to be part of a War Against Islam by a great many people, many of them Muslim. It is mentioned in the videos of suicide bombers - alongside Iraq, Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine. It is held up as an example of American imperialism by elements of the anti-war movement. It's not hard to see how such accusations would resonate. The troops can no longer be called peace-keepers, given that they are fighting the Taliban. It hardly helps that all are white Europeans who can naturally be labelled as Christian.
The easy option would be to pull out. Why risk more soldiers' lives for more bad publicity? That would mean the escalation of the War Against Women. I have been a vociferous opponent of our Prime Minister's Middle East policy. But I cannot support those who give succour to the sort of "insurgents" who murder teachers for daring to educate girls. Southern Afghanistan has seen a wave of such atrocities over the last year or so, well documented by the country's leading feminist organisation, RAWA. Fifty schools were set on fire last year, and another 300 have been closed out of fear. At least one high-school teacher has been beheaded, while another was dragged from his classroom and shot. Last May, three young Afghan women were raped and murdered for the "crime" of working for a charity that provides small loans to impoverished widows. A note was pinned to one body warning others against working for foreign organisations - yet the dead were employed by a charity based in Muslim Bangladesh.
NGO activity in Afghanistan is extensive. Considerable effort is made to devolve development to community level. Wells have been dug, roads built. But corruption and war makes progress painfully slow. Afghanistan was never going to be an easy state to reconstruct. But with determination, money and good will, things could have been so different. The war in Iraq has diverted troops and money to the Gulf.
While Britain does its bit, only half the international aid pledged to the country has materialised. As a result, there is no effective, centralised Afghan army to tackle the Taliban. Hamid Karzai's government is weak. The president's leadership skills do not match his natty dress sense. He has pandered to the hated warlords who turned the country into one big shell hole after the Russians pulled out. The corrupt tribal butchers of that period hold the sinecures of office. No wonder the Taliban have managed to build a power base in some regions.
The double standards which define the War on Terror have further fuelled the fanatics. Where do the Taliban get finance for their renewed assault of the country they once ruled so ruthlessly? Opium poppies help - but is there also an element of overseas support? Many Afghans point over the border to Pakistan. It's worth remembering that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries to officially recognise the Taliban regime. They were - and remain - close friends of the Bush and Blair governments. The first two are themselves partial to punishment of disobedient women. How can we credibly insist on equal rights in Kabul while we happily sell weapons to a Saudi regime that refuses to let females drive?
In Afghanistan we once occupied the moral high ground. Now it is easy to portray us as invaders and hypocrites. The losers are our soldiers - and little girls like Osama.