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Betraying Afghan women

THE BUSH administration should not be encouraging the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to court what he and US officials have been calling moderate Taliban elements.


With an Afghan presidential election scheduled for June, it may be tempting to try splitting some Taliban figures away from the main body of the fundamentalist movement. Part of the calculation behind such a move by Karzai may be to solidify support among his fellow Pashtuns, a majority of the country. Moreover, it is within Afghan traditions to coax one's enemies to change sides.

Nevertheless, this tactic should be dropped both on moral grounds and because it is unlikely to be effective politically.

Particularly for the women and girls of Afghanistan, the spectacle of Taliban figures being released from detention at the US air base at Bagram -- or being allowed to escape from a jail in Kandahar, as some Afghan officials allege -- represents a frightening sign of regression and betrayal.

Some of the Taliban freed from imprisonment on the Bagram base were apparently conscripted foot soldiers or young boys sent to serve as Taliban cannon fodder by village clerics. Others, however, were hardened, indoctrinated fighters and Taliban commanders who will rejoin their old comrades and return to the ways of the holy warrior.

Because fundamentalist warlords now rule areas of the country like their personal fiefdoms, the situation of women and girls in parts of Afghanistan today remains a continuing crime against humanity. In three western provinces ruled by the warlord Ismail Khan, any female unaccompanied by a husband or male relative in public may be seized by virtue vigilantes and subjected to humiliating examinations to determine whether she recently had sexual intercourse.

To court so-called moderate Taliban, to encourage them to participate in political life, is equivalent to warning Afghan women that their human rights will have to be postponed indefinitely for the sake of a dubious political strategem. The premise of an overture to moderate Taliban is that they might persuade others to cooperate with the central government. But when the Americans let a former Taliban foreign minister out of detention, hoping to use him as a go-between, he was branded a traitor by his old comrades.

The Taliban have to be defeated, not coopted. Warlords emulating the Taliban's totalitarian ways must be intimidated by US and NATO forces into ceding their absolute powers and accepting the writ of the central government. It would also be best to put off the June election until there is better security and more voters are registered. The electoral concerns of President Bush and those of Karzai are not sufficient reasons to betray Afghan women or the cause of human rights.

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