Rape Actually Misses the Point

by Joshua Foust on 12/29/2008 · 10 comments

So the CIA is—tee hee—using Viagra as a bribe for tribal and village elders in Afghanistan. This makes perfect sense: in a society owned and governed by men, dangling the possibility of making men more manly is a wonderful way to buy off fence-sitters without flooding a community with weapons and unequally distributed money. There is, of course, a feminist angle, since women cannot necessarily give consent to sex in the same way women in the west can. In fact, it is not even a given that the idea of consent is the same, though it is ridiculous to pretend women in Afghanistan wouldn’t like to have a choice in who they have sex with. Cara at Feministe opines:

What I’m concerned about is that regardless of any actual enabling of rape — which would of course make the situation far worse — the CIA seems completely aware of and okay with the prospect of their enabling rape. In fact, they’re the ones who seem to have first jumped to the conclusion, even if they likely wouldn’t use the word “rape” themselves, what with it making their actions seem much too icky.

All of this talk about passing out necessary tools for marital rape and allowing men to regain an authoritative position over their wives also strikes me as particularly ironic seeing as how a major method used to justify this war — other than repeating “9/11″ over and over again — was by promising the “liberation” of Afghan women.

Emphasis hers. This misses the point. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power because of their complicity in the 9/11 attacks. If feminism was a major reason, we would have been talking about this in 1996, and not sending the Taliban millions of dollars hoping for stability and a crack down on the opium trade.

Now, Cara says she has no idea if the Viagra is actually facilitating rape, she is merely connecting “virility” with “forced sex.” The freshly engorged elders absolutely might be marital raping their wives; the touble is, we don’t know—and even while admitting there is no evidence that actually happens, Cara is assuming that a) there is probably increased rape as a result of Viagra handouts, and b) the CIA doesn’t care if it does.

Here’s the thing: using sex as a tool for spycraft is wholly different from the Viagra plan, even if it’s in the same milieu. Spying’s history is rife with male spies undone by skilled seduction; this is not only as old as history, it is not necessarily unethical in a very dangerous game that operates outside a normal social rule set (almost by definition, spying is illegal and in many ways unethical; this does not necessarily make it immoral, though that’s probably a philosophical argument).

The thing is, Cara is getting moralistic and yelling rape when she admits she has no idea if the women in question in fact do consent to having sex with these elders. It’s something Megan and Spencer talked about the other day, and while they focused on the bigger-picture issues (like whether it might be worth to enable some rape while improving the overall conditions such that future rape is reduced), they skirted past what the women themselves might think.

The challenge we face in discussing such a thing is that women in Afghanistan are cloistered. Purdah is not a concept limited to just the Taliban, and when the overwhelming vast majority of westerners—soldiers, scholars, aid workers—in Afghanistan are men, and the women working there reliant on the men to go places and provide security, it is a safe bet that we have no idea what happens behind the compound walls. Married life in Afghanistan is not a Khaled Hosseini novel, even if that seems to inform most people’s conceptions of what it might be. And even though there is absolutely not the same concept of choice in marriage, that doesn’t automatically make it rape.

Aside from the rape charges, Cara’s concerns still miss the very good point Spencer brought up: if this improves things by denying the Taliban safe harbor, it is probably still worth it. It is also likely the CIA thought of this. It is possible to weigh all options, and still come to a conclusion that results in some people getting hurt, even if they are 100% innocent. Much as it must suck for any women who might get raped as a result of CIA-supplied Viagra, if the end result is the removal of the Taliban—which would ultimately improve the lot of women in Afghanistan—it can still be worth it.

Big picture thinking is never easy. And while it’s fun to giggle over Viagra, Cara and Megan are right to bring up this side of it. I disagree that the concern might be a dealbreaker, but we should also not shy away from the very horrific decisions we face in a war. War is always hard, and it always involves deliberately choosing a minor tragedy in the hope of avoiding a larger one. It is one of the reasons war should never be considered lightly. Much as it may suck for the potential female victims, this is a good plan.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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NomNomNom December 30, 2008 at 7:09 pm

“Much as it must suck for any women who might get raped as a result of CIA-supplied Viagra, if the end result is the removal of the Taliban—which would ultimately improve the lot of women in Afghanistan—it can still be worth it.”
That might depend on whether or not you’re the recipient of the rape: after all, in Afghanistan, rape victims can be stoned or hung for adultery. You have posited only rape by a husband: the reality is that rape is not limited to marital rape. The removal of the Taliban will not make Afghanistan a non-Islamic majority nation, either.

“Much as it may suck for the potential female victims, this is a good plan.”
It seems that would depend heavily upon whether one is one of the potential female victims or feels perhaps more empathy for them rather than say, a US backed warlord whose brother is among the chief producers of heroin in the country of Afghanistan (which is the same as saying one of the lead producers of heroin in the world).

And you are wrong to suggest that the possibility of improving the civil rights of women in Afghanistan was not a major selling point of the war in the US media, as it decidedly was. The US state department websites boasts about our diverse accomplishments in improving the lives of Afghan women:

Maybe you will take a look at these articles before talking about how much it is “worth it”.

IMO it is obscene that we deal with a drug profiteering fundamentalist enabler like Karzai for gas and oil pipelines. If the US is to be involved in Afghanistan then we owe it to the people of Afghanistan to work for a better life for them. The Northern Alliance is no better than the Taliban. We should instead enable moderates and progressives like Qanooni.

Joshua Foust December 30, 2008 at 7:12 pm

I agree with you that Karzai ain’t great, the Northern Alliance ain’t that much better than the Taliban (though they actually were objectively better, even if not by as much as we want them to have been), but if you really think this whole thing is about oil and gas pipelines, then I really can’t take you seriously at all.

Helena Cobban December 30, 2008 at 10:33 pm

I fail to see why you assume it is “fun to giggle about Viagra”. Fun for whom? This is such a laddish, exclusionary way to discuss this dreadful– though quite possibly made up– story. C’meon. If you want to have a semi-adult conversation in which the views of women are treated with due respect, you need to stop even hinting that that any “Viagra stories” might be funny. Most especially so in the Afghan context.

Yes, impotence can be a problem for some people who are male. But marital rape is a far, far worse problem for the people who suffer it. Either way, the whole Viagra issue is totally not snigger-worthy… And the reported CIA Viagra program really just indicates how desperate its practitioners seem to be.

NomNomNom January 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

I think it’s about money: from gas, oil, & heroin; and above all else big fat defense contracts. If you think the US, which now proposes to deal with the Taliban, is concerned with eliminating their bread and butter of “terrorism fighting”, then I don’t take you too seriously either. 🙂

Joshua Foust January 1, 2009 at 7:11 pm


I’d be curious to see how you read the reporting of this story—and most of the blogging about it, which is my real topic here—without hearing the authors giggling to themselves. In the U.S., sex is still something people react to immaturely, which doesn’t excuse the reaction, just explains my own. A lot of the people I cite were giggling about the “ha ha win the war with erections” angle to the story.

That’s not controversial to point out… oh, and if you actually read the post—which I’m assuming you did—the point I make here is that this is NOT a laughing matter, and that the very real consequences to the women involved, however potential or assumed, must be considered as well (i.e, “It is one of the reasons war should never be considered lightly”).

And NomNomNom, the U.S. doesn’t get its “bread and butter” from Iraq or Afghanistan—politically the former was a disaster, and the latter is quickly becoming so. Some defense companies might not have incentives to end the war quickly, but elected politicians most certainly do.

Oh, and there is nothing exclusive about the war being about terrorism and some actors in that war wishing to prolong it. There’s still no evidence—NONE—that gas or oil or heroin are major deciding factors in the U.S. and NATO’s decision to invade and occupy the country. If you want to do something more than repeat whatever it is Counterpunch jizzed out this month, please use arguments to make your point.

NomNomNom January 2, 2009 at 12:40 am

By US, I did mean the defense contractors, not the whole of America of course. My post was certainly poorly worded. IMO defense contractors own a goodly chunk of the congress. Scheunemann comes to mind. One only need look at the lists of lobbyists in opensecrets.org., which I’m sure is the tip of the iceberg.
I don’t read Counterpunch. I do read about proposed pipelines, and there is a big race on to see who will supply Europe and India between the US, UK and their Saudi, UAE, etc friends and Russia & Turkmenistan.
Specifically I like Kavkaz Center, Barents Observer, Elephant Bar, Eternal Remont, Kommersant, RP, Redbannernorthernfleet, WSJ, DoD Buzz, Coin Central, Defense Tech, Jihad Watch, Information Dissemination, Small Wars Journal, Centcom, Northcom, International Shipping News, Danger Room, Oil Drum, BX Business Week, & AOJ.
Since you mention Iraq: the US put troops into Georgia under the pretext of finding Al Qaeda in Pankisi Gorge in 2002: it’s my opinion that they went to train Georgians to guard BP’s shiny new pipeline. I think we will see the US carve a chunk off of Turkey and Iraq for a new Kurdistan and route Arab oil through it. I imagine destabilizing the Kurdish dominated part of Iran is likely.
“There’s still no evidence—NONE—that gas or oil or heroin are major deciding factors in the U.S. and NATO’s decision to invade and occupy the country.”
That’s as may be: how exactly do you propose one get the proof? One isn’t exactly at liberty to walk around Afghanistan and look. Not having proof isn’t the same thing as being wrong.
I have no problem admitting I’m speculating. I base my speculation on past history and plausibility; and I think money looks a lot more plausible than a war on terrorism.
It isn’t sensible to go invading other countries in prolonged ground wars to fight terrorists. Jihad is an ideology and theology intrinsic to Islam. Unless we’re going to kill everyone who practices the religion, a ground war can’t succeed because we’ve eventually got to leave.
If the goal was to protect the US from terrorism, we’d start by cutting off the immigration of people from muslim nations into the US. Instead we’re contemplating sharia banking.
BTW, I like the factual parts of your blog: but you sure are an ass.

Joshua Foust January 2, 2009 at 1:46 am

Nom, I can be an ass about some things. Mythical gas pipelines through Afghanistan is one of them. There hasn’t been a *serious* discussion of one since about 1998 or so. Since then, saying Afghanistan is going to transit energy has been in the realm of the Counterpunch scene… along with the conspiracy theories of us somehow dismembering Turkey so we can launch an ethnic enclave attack on Iran.

I don’t have any beef with you personally, but those sorts of arguments are really annoying now that we’re in 2009. The whole *point* of the massive opposition to the Iraq war was that it didn’t make any sense. Even people who think oil is a good reason to invade countries—like the WSJ editorial board, who can make reasoned arguments for it from a resource protection point of view—don’t think oil was or is the reason we are in either country.

There’s just no reason—no document, no statement, no indication of intent from current policies—to think such a thing. And without any reason, conspiracy theories really irk me, that’s all.

NomNomNom January 2, 2009 at 10:38 pm

🙄 I’m not talking about conspiracy theories. I told you, I don’t read those kind of blogs. And you are missing half of my point: IMO Afghanistan would be happy to see itself connected to an Iranian pipeline.
http://www.american.edu/TED/iranpipeline.htm [Nov 2000] Mostly IPI, this one specifically mentions links through Afghanistan to SE Asia
http://www.huliq.com/15899/iran-armenia-gas-pipeline-more-than-meets-the-eye [March 2007] Russia teams with Iran to get a back door through forgotten Armenia
http://bosphoruswatch.blogspot.com/2007/07/turkeys-pipeline-politics-russia-iran.html [July 2007] Turkey makes its own move
http://www1.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/2770237.cms [Feb 2008]
Turkey makes a bolder move: suggests routing Central Asia oil, including from Azerbaidzhan through Turkey to India, bypass the Suez. This route includes Israel. (Of course IPI could do that too easily from UAE to Israel, like the US proposed pipelines) Remember Cheney’s pissy visit to Azerbaidzhan in September, 2008? He did not get the assurances he thought he would get did he? But if the US blocks this, Turkey will not have a choice but to deal more closely with Russia, as Russia has gained leases on Turkmenistan oil: then we will establish Kurdistan, IMO.
http://www.payvand.com/news/08/jun/1158.html [June 2008] Here is a map from the US government. It is from 2008 and still shows proposed routes through Afghanistan.
http://blogs.reuters.com/pakistan/2008/10/03/rethinking-us-opposition-to-iran-pakistan-india-pipeline/ [November 2008] This one contains a link to the following url from the cfr (but if you just click on it here it won’t work, need to go to article to get there)
http://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/PakistanPolicyWorkingGroupReport.pdf This shows IMO the US agenda for Afghanistan: we will keep it stirred up to derail the Iran-India pipeline
http://www.steelguru.com/news/index/2008/11/20/NzIwMDA%3D/Fate_of_IPI_pipeline_hangs_in_fire.html {January 2009] This is from today: Iran is stalling on IPI, wants assurances it won’t be liable for disruptions
http://www.dirjournal.com/business-journal/tripartite-peace-pipeline-between-iran-pakistan-india/ [January 2009]

miwome January 3, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Nom wrote: I think we will see the US carve a chunk off of Turkey and Iraq for a new Kurdistan and route Arab oil through it.

I think this is a pipe dream. For one thing, the Turkish Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds don’t actually necessarily want to be in a state together just because they’re all Kurds. The fact that Turkish Kurdish (say that ten times fast) rebels have been able to shelter across the border in Iraq doesn’t say much about international Kurdish love so much as it does about the willingness of people who live on borders to help out people they may well know from only a couple kilometers away. Insurgency has much more to do with local (and I mean that term in a rigorous sense) support and control than it does with national sentiment.

It would be politically disastrous for the U.S.’s generally strong relationship with Turkey for the U.S. to even hint at such a thing. It would be regionally disastrous across the Arab world and probably in parts of the E.U., which has been gradually moving toward bringing Turkey in for decades, to talk about destabilizing one of the few real democratic success stories in the region in this way. Turkey is a rising power in the area (see: moderating negotiations among other Middle Eastern nations) and I have a hard time seeing how the U.S. could even accomplish this from an implementation point of view, let alone get away with it politically.

Furthermore, the Kurds in northern Iraq have strong disincentives toward breaking off. If a new Kurdistan were created in northern Iraq/southern Turkey, it would be surrounded by a very angry Iraq and Turkey and some very unhappy and wary neighbors in the form of Syria and Iran. Model minority or not, the Kurds can’t think that their special Kurdish superpowers could withstand, say, an invasion in the name of security from Syria or Iran, or a military attempt by Turkey and Iraq, probably backed by other regional powers, to retain their territories. Finally, the Kurds’ actions in the Iraqi government have generally sent the message that they wish to be a part of the future Iraq, not that they wish to wash their hands of it. Yes, we hear about Kurdish controversies, but they agreed to have their oil revenues subject to state regulation and taxation and they agreed to the national oil exploitation and revenue sharing agreement–which was a nice one for them, but not as nice as getting total control over their resources and revenue would have been.

Finally, from the point of view of trying to create a stable Iraq–which will be necessary if the U.S. wants to see improved oil production, as well as improve its reputation and get out of Iraq more cleanly–lopping off Iraqi Kurdistan is insanity. All that would remain would be a resource- and wealth-poor state full of Sunnis and Shi’ites out to get each other with literally no promising sources of wealth creation or self-regulating state creation. It’s madness.

Joshua Foust January 3, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Well, yeah. That’s why I told Nom I don’t really think much of the conspiracy theory about oil and Kurds.

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