NATO and Afghanistan’s Shia Marriage Law: The Collapse of a Master Narrative

Posted on April 26, 2009 by

“The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights” (Mohammad Asif Mohseni, senior Afghan cleric and legislator, 11 April 2009)

“I hope that we have elevated in the hearts and minds of people in our own country just how important having a robust military is. That includes peacekeeping but it also includes to do the business when called upon, whether it’s been in Afghanistan, or as it has been in past conflicts in Korea or Yugoslavia or in places around the world like Haiti.” (Peter MacKay, Canadian Minister for National Defence, source.)

“Epic Fail” for NATO

One normally does not find the name Hamid Karzai and the word “genius” together in the same sentence (one can check). Yet if the passage of the new Shia marriage law to appease leaders of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority before national elections was intended to castrate NATO’s public relations war, to create a domestic lose-lose situation for NATO governments seeking to ever re-justify their long and growing war in Afghanistan, as perhaps a parting shot by an increasingly unruly henchman of the West facing the possible end of his career, then yes this was genius. In virtually every position taken by Afghan women who have spoken out, whether they be Shia women who support the law (see the video below), those protesting against the law, and those who think the law is partly bad and partly good, the loser of the situation is  NATO. Whichever exit the NATO narrative seeks is marked with the word “FAIL.”

NATO’s “Master Narrative”

NATO has a “master narrative” as a formal and official fact, this is not an academic construction. One of the documents released to Wikileaks, and shared here, comes from the Media Operations Centre (MOC) of the Press and Media Service of NATO headquarters in Brussels. The document is titled, “NATO in Afghanistan: Master Narrative as at 6 October 2008.” The title itself suggests that master narratives, as constructed by NATO, are subject to further revision, due in part to the fact that is not actually a master narrative in a grand sense, so much as it is plainly a set of momentary propaganda talking points oriented toward the domestic mass media (indeed, evidence of the deployment of some of the specifics of this narrative is to be found on this very blog with an American posting from Afghanistan).

In Section III, “Key Political Messages,” item 31 speaks of “Legitimacy” (p. 24):

NATO is in Afghanistan at the express wish of the democratically elected GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and is widely supported by the Afghan population.
NATO/ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is in Afghanistan to support the legitimate Afghan authorities.
As demonstrated in all opinion polls, there is strong support from the Afghan people for NATO/ISAF.

Remember that: democratically elected, widely supported by the population, legitimate, and Afghans love NATO (quote some polls, say, by The Asia Foundation, an arm of the CIA, the National Security Council, and the U.S. State Department).

Then on page 30 of the same document, NATO points out, concerning women, democracy and legitimacy,

“Presidential, Parliamentary and Provincial elections have taken place and women are now sitting in the Afghan Parliament. 28% of the MPs of the Lower House are female. Legitimate and representative government is now in place.”

Failed States Are the Ones that Fight Failed Wars

Yet, suddenly, all of the above is abruptly put into reverse gear by the heads of some of the leading NATO governments. The democracy and self-determination of a liberated people now enjoying sovereignty — according to the NATO narrative — now gives way to another instance where western powers take this line: if it’s Muslim, it’s a problem.

Otherwise, is it now NATO’s goal to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes Afghans to stop being Afghans? That is one question, from one perspective, and the prospect of a war of resocialization that lasts generations is troubling, not least for its lack of realism. Another question, from another perspective as we will see below, is: If this is the kind of democracy that NATO swore by, and in which it actively invested itself and helped to create, should it not take the responsibility for its consequences?

At the recent NATO summit at Strasbourg, France, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asked:

“How can I defend — or how can the British government defend, the Canadian government, the Dutch government — that our boys and girls are dying there in the defence of universal values.” [See “Rape law hurting efforts to sell NATO role in Afghanistan: NATO chief,” CBC News, Saturday, April 4, 2009.]

Similar statements were heard from Canadian Ministers:

“This [marriage law] is extremely alarming and it’s troublesome for a lot of the allies,” Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said….Cannon questioned whether any such Afghan law “was adopted in the legitimate way and manner” of Afghanistan’s national assembly….the [Afghan] ambassador to Canada has been called in for an explanation. [“Rape law hurting efforts to sell NATO role in Afghanistan: NATO chief,” CBC News, Saturday, April 4, 2009.]

Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “That said, let me be very clear on this…there is going to remain enormous pressure on the government of Afghanistan on this question. This goes fundamentally, directly, to the heart of the reasons for allied engagement.” [“Controversial women’s law to be reviewed: Karzai,” CBC News, Saturday, April 4, 2009.]

“If these reports are true, this will create serious problems for Canada,” said International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who fielded questions in the House of Commons. “The onus is on the government of Afghanistan to live up to its responsibilities for human rights, absolutely including rights of women. If there’s any wavering on this point from the government of Afghanistan, this will create serious problems and be a serious disappointment for us” Day said. [“New Afghan law forcing sex draws outrage from Canada,” CBC News, Tuesday, March 31, 2009.]

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed to lead the condemnation of the Shia marriage law:

“I phoned the president immediately about this because anybody who looks at Afghanistan will be worried if we are going to see laws brought in that discriminate against women and put women at risk,” Brown said.

“I made it absolutely clear to the president that we could not tolerate that situation. You cannot have British troops fighting, and in some cases dying, to save a democracy where that democracy is infringing human rights. [“Karzai bows to international calls to scrap Afghan ‘rape’ law — Gordon Brown tells President Hamid Karzai that British soldiers could not die defending regime that oppresses women,” by Jon Boone, The Guardian, Sunday 5 April 2009.]

The statements by NATO politicians hardly improve the situation for NATO, either at home or abroad. They provoke the following questions to say the least:

  • Did the NATO Secretary General remember to inform the Afghan people that the right values for them had been decided by NATO?
  • If the values are universal, then why are so many Muslims oblivious to the fact, or are they not a part of the universe that is behind the universal?
  • When did the war become one of universal values, and how is it that such values can only be defended, through violence, in one select state?
  • Since NATO has decided to operate well beyond the geographic confines of the North Atlantic — or at least it has extended the concept of the Atlantic World to encompass all of Asia now — when did this military pact decide that it would also intervene in marriage issues?
  • Which citizens knowingly and consciously authorized their governments to commit troops to die for “universal values,” when some of these values are in peril at home?
  • Should we also use deadly violence at home against our government if we feel that universal values are not being upheld?
  • From an anthropological standpoint, who decided which values are the universal ones, and what makes them universal?

Last but not least, given that Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, Lawrence Cannon and Stockwell Day are ministers in a minority Canadian government that won no more than 22% of the votes of registered Canadian voters — exactly when did they decide that they could speak for any Afghan constituents, when they hardly speak for any Canadian constituents? Then again, this is a minority that rules with absolutism at home, thanks to a supportive and nominal opposition of secondary conservatives known as the Liberal Party of Canada, under the leadership of former Harvard human rights academic, Michael Ignatieff, who also supported the invasion of Iraq and the use of torture. So much for universal values then.

The truly rich irony, of course, is that the newly elected Conservative government in Canada sought, as part of its first legislative goals, to eliminate equal pay for equal work, added to its long track record of previous slaps in the face to women’s rights in Canada (see here, here, and here). It seems that “women’s rights” only matter for Afghan women, in an imperial war of occupation. Now that’s not universalism, is it?

Humanitarianism as Colonialism

What Jaap de Hoop Scheffer does is to betray the master discourse behind the talking points: the colonial civilizing mission that NATO has undertaken as part of its occupation of Afghanistan, that mission intended as the ideological lubricant that facilitates the reconstruction of Afghanistan as a strategic military base. Talking points can be altered daily, but what is slower to change is the master discourse of NATO which has deployed a series of shifting narratives since the U.S. led it to war in Afghanistan.

First, the war in Afghanistan was about “getting Bin Laden” since the Taliban seemingly refused to surrender him or to expel Al Qaida (the Taliban government asked for evidence of Al Qaida’s involvement in the attacks of 11 September 2001, and none was forthcoming from the U.S. at that time). Second, the war then became one to unseat the Taliban, which had itself never attacked the U.S. Third, having accomplished the second stated goal, the U.S. and its NATO partners then sought to remake and reinvent Afghanistan in a process that some call “nation building.” Fourth, as part of the third goal, the mission was now ostensibly to develop Afghanistan, spread democracy, and defeat the Taliban insurgency.

Now that the various missions have obviously failed, with a resurgent and stronger Taliban, a semi-autonomous Taliban regime governing a large chunk of neighbouring Pakistan, and hatred mounting for NATO forces, the only sustenance NATO could draw, in political terms, was from public opinion on the home front.

What was there to save NATO’s public relations war against citizens of NATO states? Marriage. The marital affairs of Shia Afghans now became a subject for NATO deliberation and intervention.

In the U.S. barely a majority think it was right to invade to Afghanistan. In Canada, only a small minority think so. In most NATO countries in western Europe, the public is strongly opposed to the war in Afghanistan — if NATO thought the imposition of universal values in Afghanistan would win hearts and minds at home for ulterior strategic motives, then this is another epic failure.

No Love for US/NATO

If one tosses aside the motivated play with meanings and numbers of surveys by the disreputable Asia Foundation, and instead turns to the polls commissioned by the BBC, ABC and ARD (Germany) — see here — we get the following picture:

  1. A majority of Afghans in the east of the country oppose the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, as do nearly half of respondents (46%) in the south and (48%) in Kabul.
  2. 72% of respondents in the east of Afghanistan, and 52% in the south, oppose the NATO presence in Afghanistan. In the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar (where Canadian forces operate), and Nangarhar, an overwhelming majority oppose the NATO presence.
  3. Foreign aid organizations are opposed by majorities in in Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, and are opposed by large minorities elsewhere.

What do Afghan Women Say?

If NATO thought it would win the hearts and minds of Afghan women, having rapidly recast an imperial mission as one allegedly out to defend women’s rights, then they won no support from any side of the spectrum of opinions.

Malalai Joya, elected to and expelled from the Afghan parliament, is a vigorous defender of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and nearly paid with her life on several occasions for her opposition to fundamentalists and warlords. Joya does not for a moment mistake the political system in Afghanistan as a democratic one, and she condemns the Shia marriage law, but without any deference to NATO. She spoke in an interview with Derrick O’Keefe of on 20 April 2009:

The nature of the fake democracy ‘donated’ to Afghanistan by the U.S. government, which was trumpeted by mainstream Western media as an achievement, stands exposed before the world.

Obama called the new law “abhorrent,” but I think the U.S. government backing the fundamentalist warlords and imposing them on the Afghan people should be called “abhorrent” first.

I think the new policy of Obama will put our people and the whole region in a more dangerous situation than before. It shows clearly that the U.S. government is not interested in stability and peace in the region, and only wants a permanent military base in the region to threaten China, Iran, Russia and other Asian powers.

Other women, as we saw in the video, support the new law, and oppose Western attempts to dictate what is appropriate in marriage. Even Shia women of the Hazara minority, studying at university in Kabul, who oppose the law tend to oppose Western intervention in the matter even more. Nor do they oppose the law in its entirety:

“This is not a good law. Women should be allowed to do what they want,” said Hamida Hasani, 18, a Hazara architecture student at Kabul University….”But we do not want total freedom. We wanted it to be limited and to be within Islam.”

“They don’t know anything about us and our problems,” she said. “If they faced what we have faced with hunger and war, they’d realize what is most important to fight for here. Before they come here they should . . . experience our difficulties.”

“But westerners want to change Afghanistan for their benefit, not for ours. They have a bad view of our culture. Some of our women imitate their clothes and their ways. Our freedom must come within Islam.” [“Afghan women want West to back off ‘rape law’,” by Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service, 13 April 2009.]

So what has NATO reaped from the new Shia marriage law? NATO has lost the potential to convince voters at home that the war in Afghanistan is really all about human rights and democracy. NATO has failed to win the support of Afghan women, including those opposed to the new law. NATO’s “master narrative” now reads like outdated lies, and it will need to find a new set of talking points having demolished the credibility of its current set. Most importantly, there is now agreement that the war in Afghanistan is about wider geopolitical strategic ambitions, and that part of the war has been fought against the hearts and minds of those at home. As an imperial strategy to pretend to civilize the Afghans by entering into a false civilizational dialogue by force of arms, NATO has produced failures for itself on all fronts, revealing its phony promises, its hypocritical premises, its ultimate resort to violence, thereby turning all of us into targets. All of this, without even the basics of a debate at home, and we let it happen.


It does not seem that I, or anyone else, has been able to find an actual text of the Shia marriage law. Countless newspaper articles, wiki summaries, and statements by various UN and human rights agencies refer to specific provisions, without providing exact quotes from the law. I am especially concerned by what appears to be a recycling of an interpretation that the law legalizes marital rape — I would be very surprised if the law actually said anything like that. So the reader should beware that one of the key documents at the centre of this debate, a necessary primary source, is entirely absent.