British politicians rarely talk about victory in Afghanistan. It is no longer even clear what victory would mean.
Kabul fell in November 2001, within weeks of the US-led invasion. If the sole purpose of occupation was to dismantle al-Qaida training camps, the war was won years ago. If, however, the reason for military intervention was to build a model democratic state and a beacon of good governance in central Asia, victory is a very distant prospect.
Nato's war aims have become ever more modest. As far as the UK government is concerned, the only reason for keeping troops deployed on Afghan soil is to prevent terrorists there plotting attacks on British citizens. Any explicit preference that occupation might leave the country with a government that is honest and respectful of human rights has slipped from the agenda.
Meanwhile, there are constant reminders of what kind of government allied forces ousted in 2001: the recent murder of 10 civilian medical workers; reports last week of a woman flogged and shot dead for alleged adultery; accounts of women fleeing rural areas to refuges in Kabul, having been beaten and tortured in reprisal for the slightest resistance to cruel religious fanaticism.
The Taliban imposed a reign of terror, with women in particular systematically victimised. The total abolition of cultural and political freedom and the virtual enslavement of half a country's population is a rare atrocity, justifying comparison with the most notorious dictatorships of the 20th century. That the perpetrators stand to gain if Nato's eventual withdrawal is premature or mishandled is a moral as well as a strategic consideration. Repressive patriarchy is not exclusive to the Taliban, nor is it simply foisted on Afghan society by a minority religious junta. Many features of Taliban rule that are most distasteful to western political sensibilities are common also in areas controlled by tribal leaders and warlords loyal to President Hamid Karzai.
There is not a clear line where political rights end and fundamentalist dogmas take over. There is not a clear distinction between those Taliban who are driven by ideological Islamism in the al-Qaida mould and those who have been recruited out of ethnic Pashtun loyalty, as mercenaries or to serve some labyrinthine local vendetta.
As James Fergusson describes elsewhere on these pages, aspects of Taliban practice are so rooted in Pashtun tradition as to be immune from western-style reform. But while it would be a mistake to ignore that background, it would be as great an error to value it above other currents in Afghan history, including a seam of cosmopolitan secularism.
Forty years ago, Kabul was, by central Asian standards, a permissive city of bars, cafes, pop music and jeans. It is a dangerous kind of relativism that abhors the notion of western values being "imposed", but would accept as culturally legitimate the imposition of one narrow interpretation of religious law to the exclusion of every other social and political trend.
Simply asserting the fact that some rights are universal and inalienable does not bring the Afghan state any closer to recognising and defending them. The constitution, adopted in January 2004, is profoundly deferential to the country's Muslim traditions, but guarantees certain essential civil rights, including freedom of expression and women's equality.
In practice, however, President Karzai has secured his power base by accommodating different economic, religious and tribal factions, ignoring the constitution when necessary. Last year, he signed a law specifically for the country's minority Shia community, permitting rape within marriage and giving husbands authority to forbid their wives from leaving the home.
It has long been clear that Mr Karzai is not a reliable guarantor of political rights in Afghanistan. But then, he presides over a country in a state of civil war and in partnership with occupying powers which might at any moment cut and run. It is not surprising that he trades power and favours with anyone who can shore up his position, without vetting their credentials on sex equality.
The danger, though, is that, as Nato withdrawal inches closer, the scale of those compromises grows and the tacit adoption of Taliban moral codes spreads.
In the Observer magazine this week, Shahla Farid, a Kabul-based lawyer, speaks of her experience defending women's rights. There is still, she says, "an atmosphere of terror", with the Taliban retaining much cultural, if not legal power.
Her testimony is a warning against the increasing tendency in the west to see the conflict in Afghanistan purely in terms of narrow security objectives.
The UK and US governments are carefully redefining and downgrading their definitions of success in the war to encompass anything that looks like stability after withdrawal. That might well include some explicit agreement with elements within the Taliban. In fact, stability without some accommodation with militant insurgents is impossible.
The clear trajectory is towards a model, familiar from many a cold war puppet regime, in which Mr Karzai is propped up with military and financial aid on the condition that he is loyal in counterterror operations. Political rights are thus quickly forgotten.
But, ultimately, the neglect of civil and economic rights, combined with the economic and cultural repression of women, will condemn Afghanistan to underdevelopment, poverty and deep social dysfunction.
Those conditions, more than religious tradition, are what make the country a breeding ground for terrorist ideology. In other words, the issue of women's equality and political freedom is not peripheral to the security objective of preventing terrorists operating inside Afghanistan. It is absolutely central.
Western governments are increasingly on the hunt for some arrangement that will allow them to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, leave it vaguely stable and not overrun by al-Qaida and to call that victory.
Should British Soldiers be dying for the rights of afghan women? No.
An expert who knows the Pashtuns intimately says we are wasting our time trying to change their society...
The case of Bibi Sanubar, the Afghan widow brutally flogged and shot dead by the Taliban for the crime of being pregnant, caused outrage in the wes. Earlier in the month, Time magazine published a truly shocking picture of Aisha, an 18-year-old girl whose nose had been cut off because she had run away from her inlaws. With so much talk recently of political reconciliation with the Taliban leadership, their attitude towards women is fast becoming as urgent and emotive a topic as it was when they first came to power in the mid-1990s.
However nauseating the treatment of Bibi or Aisha, it would be a mistake to let our stomachs rule our heads. However much westerners would like to see change in Afghan society, this was never the reason our military went to Afghanistan – and nor does it justify our staying there now. The US commander in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, is wary of mission creep and sought to clarify this point in November 2009. "Let us not forget why we are in Afghanistan," he said. "It is to ensure that this country cannot become once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida." Women's rights are important, but they have no direct bearing on the threat from al-Qaida.
This does not mean the west should stand by in silence. On the contrary, it is our duty to go on arguing the case for gender equality and to keep Afghans engaged in that old debate. But we have no right to be shrill and it will do no good to dictate. If social change is to come, it must come from within, which, eventually, it will.
It might help if we understood the Taliban better. The harshness of the punishments they sometimes mete out only seems incomprehensible to the west. The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations. "The Pashtun must breed well if he is to breed fighters," wrote the poet Ghani Khan in 1947. "The potential mother of the man of tomorrow is the greatest treasure of the tribe and is guarded jealously... death to those who dare to risk the health of the tribe. It is treachery and sabotage which you also punish with death." The system, as Ghani Khan acknowledges, is "hard and brutal", but it works. The Pashtuns are, famously, the largest tribal society in the world. Some 42m of them are divided into about 60 tribes and 400 sub-clans and they are intensely proud of their culture which has survived three millenniums of almost constant invasion and occupation.
The maltreatment of women is by no means exclusive to the Taliban, nor even to Pashtuns. It is practised all over Afghanistan, including by the state that Nato troops are currently dying to support. Witness the police chief, General Abdul Jabar, who remarked after Bibi Sanubar was killed: "This was not the way she should have been punished. She should have been arrested and we should have had proof that she'd had an illegal affair. Then she should have come to court and faced justice." As a contributor to arrse.co.uk, the informal Army Rumour Service website, remarked last week: "I'm guessing a guilty verdict by the Afghan courts would be followed by a stoning? What exactly are we fighting this war for?" The emotive observation on Time magazine's ghastly cover – "What happens if we leave Afghanistan" – was spurious, because it is happening anyway, while we are still there.
I am certain, after 14 years of encounters with the Taliban, that they are not beyond redemption. It seems a paradox, but in the 1990s the Taliban leadership did not see themselves as oppressors of women but as their defenders. Westerners forget the historical context in which the Taliban emerged in 1994, although no Afghan ever will. The Taliban's first purpose was to bring law and order to a country that had been devastated by five years of vicious civil war and in those areas that came under their control, they succeeded brilliantly. "The real source of their success," the US assistant secretary of state Robin Raphel told a closed UN session in New York in November 1996, "has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with several social restrictions." To many Afghans, including many Afghan women, oppression was a small price to pay in exchange for an end to the wholesale rape and slaughter of the preceding years. The Taliban appeared the lesser of two evils, and – in a year when 1,250 civilians have so far been killed in the fighting with Nato – to many they still do.
Shukria Barakzai, a Pashtun MP and a leading women's rights campaigner, thinks the west has always misread her country. "I changed my view [of the Taliban] three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own," she said recently. "It's not that the international community doesn't support us. They just don't understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas – but as democrats we have to accept that." Her view is all the more remarkable considering that in 1999, Barakzai was beaten by the Taliban's religious police, the infamous Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, for the "crime" of going to the doctor's unaccompanied by her husband. If even she is now in favour of political compromise with the Taliban, what choice does the west really have but to listen?
The west views gender equality as an absolute human right and so we should. But no country, certainly not Britain, has yet managed unequivocally to establish that right at home; and we tend to forget both how recent our progress towards it is, as well as how hard the struggle has been. Full women's suffrage was not granted in Britain until 1928. With such a track record, is it not presumptuous to insist that a proud, patriarchal society that has survived for 3,000 years should now instantly mirror us? That, in effect, is what well-meaning western experts did when they helped to draw up Afghanistan's 2003 constitution. The stipulation that at least 25% of MPs should be women is plain hypocritical. Even after the 2010 election in Britain – a parliamentary democracy that has had rather longer to mature than Afghanistan's – women MPs account for just 22% of the total.
Women's suffrage in Britain was achieved not by imposition from abroad but through long internal social debate, which is as it should be in so obviously sovereign a matter. Emmeline Pankhurst would not have succeeded had she been a foreigner. Social change will come eventually to Afghanistan, but it must come from within, and at its own pace. Our soldiers shouldn't die for it.