Richard Stengel at Time:
Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival. (See pictures of Afghan women and the return of the Taliban.)
I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort. (Watch TIME’s video on photographing Aisha for the cover.)
I’m acutely aware that this image will be seen by children, who will undoubtedly find it distressing. We have consulted with a number of child psychologists about its potential impact. Some think children are so used to seeing violence in the media that the image will have little effect, but others believe that children will find it very scary and distressing — that they will see it, as Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, said, as “a symbol of bad things that can happen to people.” I showed it to my two young sons, 9 and 12, who both immediately felt sorry for Aisha and asked why anyone would have done such harm to her. I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image’s impact. (Comment on this cover.)
But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.
Meenal Vamburkar at Mediaite:
This reasoning follows what many might agree is the definition and purpose of good journalism. The things that are hard to look at are often the things that are most necessary to look at. Whether readers think the cover is bold or too graphic, the shock value cannot be denied. Without diminishing the value of telling a difficult story about a seemingly endless war, it’s hard not to wonder how the shock value will translate in terms of newsstand sales.
Mark Finkelstein at Newsbusters:
The risk that Afghanistan might once again become a staging ground for al Qaeda attacks on the US? Meh.
The danger of cross-border raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan that could lead to nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists? Yawn.
But a US withdrawal from Afghanistan that would lead to a setback for women’s liberation there? Now you’ve got the liberal media concerned! Rick Stengel of Time gave a perfect illustration of the phenomenon on today’s Morning Joe. As is his Friday wont, he unveiled the new Time cover, which portrays the heart-rending image of a young Afghani woman who had her nose and ears cut off for fleeing an abusive family and husband.
Choire Sicha at The Awl:
The story contains this: “As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined…. For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous.” So… which is it? That sure sounds like an argument—and, you know, a very moving and affecting one!—for something like a permanent or at least extended occupation. Making things a little more complicated? The new issue also has an article by expert-without-portfolio Joe Klein, which goes: “Afghanistan is really a sideshow here. Pakistan is the primary U.S. national-security concern in the region.” So now what am I supposed to think while I’m not going on summer vacation because it makes our children stupider?
Irin Carmon at Jezebel:
Such stories are obscene, not at all uncommon, and need to be told. But there is an elision here between these women’s oppression and what the U.S. military presence can and should do about it, which in turn simplifies the complexities of the debate and turns it into, “Well, do you want to help Aisha or not?”
While Aryn Baker’s story features the voices of many Afghan women who worry that the likely compromise with the Taliban vis a vis a possible U.S. exit will curtail their new freedoms, it doesn’t actually forcefully make the case that American military presence is the only solution to their problems. (That’s probably because Baker is a reporter, not a commentator, and it’s the job of headline writers to grab readers at almost any cost.)
There are, however, conflicting signals about how seriously committed U.S. officials are, in the context of an exist plan, to pushing back at the resurgence of the Taliban as it affects women in the country. One anonymous diplomat tells Baker, “You have to be realistic. We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.” On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told reporters that women’s rights are a “red line” that won’t be crossed: “I don’t think there is such a political solution, one that would be a lasting, sustainable one, that would turn the clock back on women,” she said, after relative quiet on the issue last year.
As David Petraeus put it in his remarks upon assuming command in Afghanistan: “We must demonstrate to the Afghan people, and to the world, that Al Qaeda and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world.” That doesn’t say anything about what happens to young girls who flee from their in-laws. Protecting them was not among the things he exhorted his troops to do. And when he addressed himself to the people of Afghanistan he didn’t mention anything along these lines either:
Finally, to the people of Afghanistan: it is a great honor to be in your country and to lead ISAF. I want to emphasize what a number of our country’s leaders recently affirmed – that our commitment to Afghanistan is an enduring one and that we are committed to a sustained effort to help the people of this country over the long-term. Neither you nor the insurgents nor our partners in the region should doubt that. Certainly the character of our commitment will change over time. Indeed, Afghans and the citizens of ISAF countries look forward to the day when conditions will permit the transition of further tasks to Afghan forces. In the meantime, all of us at ISAF pledge our full commitment to help you protect your nation from militants who allowed Al Qaeda sanctuary when they ruled the country. Moreover, we see it as our solemn duty to protect the innocent people of Afghanistan from all violence, whether intended by the enemy or unintended by those of us pursuing that enemy. And we stand with you as we all work to defeat the enemies of the new Afghanistan and to help create a better future for you and your families.
Defend Afghan allies from being targeted by the Taliban. Check. Avoid accidental killing of Afghans by NATO forces. Check. Women’s rights? Not so much.
And you can see this time and again if you look at statements about US policy in Afghanistan from George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, etc. We are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus, emphasizing that the Taliban is a group of bad people is often a rhetorical point of emphasis. The Taliban’s poor treatment of women often comes up as a sub-point here to illustrate the theme that the Taliban are bad. But actually altering social conditions in southern and eastern Afghanistan isn’t on the list of war aims.
I have to ask: In Time‘s mission to really “illuminate what is actually happening on the ground” has it ever put on its cover close-up images of 1) a badly wounded or dead U.S. soldier 2) an Afghan killed in a NATO missile strike 3) an Afghan official, police officer or military commander accepting a bribe from a Taliban war lord. Alison Kilkenny has her own examples here.
No one makes light of the plight of women and children in Afghanistan under the Taliban–and, contrary to Stengel’s claim, many Americans do know about it. Indeed, liberal women’s groups in the U.S. have raised the issue often and expressed mixed feelings about staying (or even escalating) in Afghanistan because of it. It’s a serious issue. And please see the response to Time by the Feminist Peace Network. Jezebel with another good take here.
But I’d propose here a few alternative, or at least additional, cover images, all showing Americans here at home, that Time might go with an upcoming cover on “What Happens If We LEAVE Afghanistan.” Please supply your own ideas in the Comments section below.
— A student in a high-tech classroom.
— Workers streaming into a newly re-opened factory.
— A poor black or Hispanic woman examined by a doctor in a first-class facility.
— A returning soldier embraced by his wife and two kids.
— Solar panels being erected on a huge office building.
Well, you get the idea. Contribute or take issue below.