Let’s be honest. The west’s decision to invade Afghanistan was not motivated by a desire to liberate women from the Taliban. But does it follow that “invoking the condition of women to justify occupation is a cynical ploy”, as Ms Gopal claims?
Yes and No. Yes, if it is used to obfuscate the motives for the invasion.
But no, if we are judging the desirability of the war. Unless you’re a pacifist, such a judgment is a cost-benefit calculation, and the improvement in the condition of Afghan women surely counts as a benefit of defeating the Taliban. Afghan women may be collateral, unintended, beneficiaries of the invasion - but collateral benefits must be included in the cost-benefit analysis, just as collateral damage must be.
Of course, quantifying this collateral benefit raises tricky questions - which I fear Ms Gopal and her critics both gloss over. But it surely counts for something. And it might count for something even if the war in unwinnable - insofar as anything that weakens the Taliban is good for Afghan women.
What we have, then, is an old question in moral philosophy: should we judge actions by motives or by consequences? If we are to judge them by motives, it is indeed irrelevant to invoke the condition of Afghan women. If we are to judge them by consequences, it is essential to invoke it.
Herein lies a coincidence. Many of the people who sympathize with Ms Gopal’s position are also hostile to neo-liberalism or globalization, and are in both cases taking the same motive-centric position. In one case, they under-estimate the possibility that hegemonic American imperialists can unintentionally liberate women. In the other case, they under-estimate the fact that capitalists motivated by greed can, inadvertently, lift some people out of poverty.
Which brings me to a curiosity. This mindset is the exact antithesis of Marx’s. Marx condemned capitalism not because its participants had bad motives, but because capitalists were compelled by the logic of the system, and regardless of their own morality, to behave in ways that had unpleasant effects. His position was consequentialist, not motive centric.
Now, I say all this not to take a position upon the merits of the war - that is a matter of accounting on which I have insufficient data . Nor do I do so to take a view on the merits of consequence-centrism vs motive centrism - though as an autistic economist my sympathies lie with the former. I do so merely to try to understand that people are arguing from different premises here.