Some Democrats Skeptical Of Obama's Afghan Plan

Earlier this week, President Obama discussed his proposed policy for Afghanistan, which involves a surge of 30,000 troops. The plan was criticized both by Democrats and Republicans. Conservative heavy weights like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain have expressed unease with the Presidents proposed deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011. Meanwhile many Democrats are left feeling that the plan is a continuation of the Bush administration's policies. Two liberal voices: Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon.com explain the dissension.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the White House social secretary, a high powered executive and socialite in her own right, finds herself in the spotlight and it's not necessarily a flattering one. We'll talk more about that in just a few minutes.

But first, on Tuesday night, President Obama spelled out his proposed policy for Afghanistan. Absent from the speech, though, was any specific mention of the rights and role of women in that country. The omission was the topic of an exchange at yesterday's White House press briefing. Here's a clip of Jake Tapper from ABC News asking Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about that.

(Soundbite of White House press briefing)

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): I believe in the context of the three pillars that he saw missing, the basic recognition of human rights in Afghanistan is obviously important to what is happening there.

Mr. JAKE TAPPER (Senior White House correspondent, ABC News): But he didn't mention women and girls. And is that�

Mr. GIBBS: Again, I think the umbrella of basic human rights was the same thing.

Mr. TAPPER: So even though he mentioned it in March, and he didn't mention it last night, we're not supposed to read anything into that at all?

Mr. GIBBS: I wouldn't. I mean, again I - I have not looked exactly at the word phrasing of each speech, but the umbrella of basic � recognizing the basic human rights of everybody in Afghanistan would include that, yes.

Mr. TAPPER: Okay, thank you.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons this questions came up, of course, is that improving the status of women in that country has been the stated concern of an array of public figures, from former First Lady Laura Bush to entrepreneurs to American feminist leaders. So we wanted to get some views on how the administration's new approach may affect women there.

So we called Eleanor Smeal. She is the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. Magazine. Joan Walsh is the editor in chief of Salon.com and she joins us by phone. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. ELEANOR SMEAL (President, Feminist Majority Foundation): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Eleanor, I wanted to say that, eight years ago when the U.S. entered the conflict with Afghanistan, as you know, of course, a lot was said about women's rights by the Bush administration. Here's a clip of President Bush speaking at Women's History Month at the White House in March of 2008.

President GEORGE BUSH: In Afghanistan, the Taliban once beat women without reason and executed them without remorse. Today, because we acted, Afghanistan's women serve as teachers and doctors and journalists and judges. More than 80 members of Afghanistan's Parliament are women.

MARTIN: So, from where you sit do you agree with the president's assessment -former President Bush's assessment? Do you believe that the status of women and girls in Afghanistan has improved, in part as a result of American involvement there?

Ms. SMEAL: It has improved. It hasn't improved as much as it should improve and in fact the Bush administration changed its focus, as you well know, to Iraq too fast and just left it, in a way. And so, the Obama administration has been left with a terrible situation, because the situation there is dire. But it would - it is also fair to say that - that much has been done for women except that and - but more frankly, there's been a better pace under the Obama administration.

Since he's come in and since this new administration came in, in January, they for example, spent more money on women's programs. They're spending at a faster pace and doing more. And I think that Hilary Clinton and the State Department certainly understands the problem.

MARTIN: And what do you think then about this proposed strategy going forward? What's your view of it? In light of your particular concern about women, do you think that it offers a possibility of improving status - their status further?

Ms. SMEAL: It does, but I do wish - and I was disappointed that the president didn't specify more about the civilian plank. He said there was going to be a civilian surge, but he hasn't amplified that. And I'm hoping, because I understand the State Department is in charge of that, that they do amplify more what they're going to do. Because for anything to be successful there, there must be civilian development and women must play a major role in it.

They are about 60 percent of the adult population because of the war for so long. So - and they want it. They want education. They are very active in medicine. They were 40 percent of the health care workers. They're very important to the teaching profession, to the economic development of the country, to creating the civil institutions that are necessary for successful development.

MARTIN: Joan Walsh, in your recent article in Salon you wrote that I'm deeply disappointed, saddened even, but I don't feel betrayed. I mean, part of the purpose of this article was to tell other progressives that they shouldn't feel betrayed, as it were. You said that Obama has governed like the centrist he told us and showed us he is.

But given all that and given what I also have to assume is your - that you also have a concern about the status of women there, what do you think Obama should do now? If you are disappointed by what he said he's going to do, what should he be doing instead?

Ms. JOAN WALSH (Editor-in-chief, Salon.com): Well, you know, reluctantly I support a phase out of our involvement there, Michel. I think that, you know, we have done good things for women. If we do anything in that country it would be great to continue to do that on a civilian level. But, you know, there's a very vibrant debate within Afghanistan and within feminist circles, both in American and Afghanistan, over the escalation.

Malalai Joya, the top feminist in Parliament who ran girls schools, clandestine girls schools under the Taliban and is a fierce opponent of the Taliban, nonetheless, says that the U.S. should begin to withdraw because conditions are getting worse as our escalation creates more opposition within the country. The RAWA movement, likewise, wants the U.S. to withdraw. Other groups like Women for Afghan Women think we still have to stay.

So it's as much as, you know Ellie is correct, we've made strides. We should have made more. The Bush neglect really was tragic for women because in fact, it got women out into the public square and got their hopes up and then, you know, as we pulled back and ignored them, left them, you know, exposed to be retaliated against. As tragic as all that is, within Afghanistan women are not of one mind or voice.

MARTIN: But on balance you believe that - even if one considers the status of women, on balance you still believe it is better for the U.S. to withdraw?

Ms. WALSH: I do. I do for many reasons, because I don't believe it is within our reach, our capacity at this point to create the kind of Afghanistan that the three of us would want to live in anytime soon. It will be a long haul and it will be done much more with civilian rebuilding funds, development of civic society and the State Department, rather than the Department of Defense.

MARTIN: And finally, Eleanor Smeal, I'm going to give you the last word on this point. Why should women be at the center of U.S. policy? Joan and among other analysts believes that this is just beyond the scope of this country's capacities at this time. So why do you say that women should continue to be at the forefront of this conversation?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, I think they were the canary in the mine. The treatment of them by the Taliban was some of the worst human rights abuses that we've seen and they are key to the rebuilding of the country. As I said, they are the majority, not overwhelming majority of the adults, but they desperately want it. And overwhelmingly what will happen if we withdrew suddenly? And - they would be left. And I think they will - there would be tremendous human rights violations and - but most importantly, they will flee, too.

I mean, we already know what happened when the Taliban entered in 1996, 1997, you know millions, we estimate between five and seven million fled. They just did it in Swat Valley. It will cause catastrophe. And we have to build up that civilian component of a civil society.

MARTIN: To be continued. It's an important ongoing story and I hope you'll both come back and speak with us again about this. Eleanor Smeal is the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. Magazine. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Joan Walsh is the editor in chief of Salon.com. She joined us by phone from her home office in San Francisco. Ladies, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SMEAL: Thank you.

Ms. WALSH: Thank you.

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