The 100th anniversary of American women’s suffrage will be recognized by the most diverse Congress in American history, with a record number of female and non-white representatives serving. And just two weeks ago, the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first black woman and Asian American to join a major presidential ticket. Such shifts in representation amplify the voices of women of color to levels never before heard in this country.
Yet despite this commendable shift, a significant sector remains stubbornly white and male: the foreign policy sphere, especially that devoted to national security. As a result, foreign policy decision-making continues to ignore its deleterious effects upon the lives of those not present, especially women of color.
It is time for women of color, and especially women who either are from or have family origins in regions where militarized U.S. foreign policy has led to disastrous consequences, to assume positions of authority in the foreign policy realm. To achieve more humane and just foreign policies in the Middle East, the national security establishment should seek greater representation of Arab American and Afghan American women in the foreign policy sphere. Their inclusion would shift the establishment’s favored discourse away from orientalist and militarist thinking.
19 years ago, the Bush administration’s mission to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan through military intervention was a result of the aggressive orientalist thinking that marked the beginning of the War on Terror, which would only fuel more orientalist attitudes in America about Muslims and the Middle East. 10 years later the reports and images of mass protests that swept several Middle Eastern and North African countries were heavily consumed by Western audiences and spurred ample analysis from the West to better understand the sudden civic engagement of the young Arab protestors. Orientalist thinking among American spectators of the Arab Spring caused them to perceive Arabs of the Middle East as finally “waking up” in the 21stcentury; to many Americans, Arabs living under oppressive regimes were a submissive population that lacked the agency to demand Western privileges like democracy until 2011.
And of course, the Trump administration’s decision to target Muslims in his infamous 2017 travel ban and his frequent inflammatory rhetoric about Islam are more recent examples. Each of these attitudes and fears have allowed U.S. leadership to further escalate the militarization of its foreign policy towards the Middle East and Afghanistan in recent decades.
This dominant thinking among the national security establishment is not only dangerous for people living in the Middle East but it is also harmful to American security interests. America’s reputation in countries where it has waged war or maintained an active military presence is suffering: in Iraq more than 90% of young people consider the U.S. to be their enemy and in Yemen, where the U.S. currently pursues counterterrorism operations via drones and special forces, it is at 80%. Aggressive policies in the Middle East, either through the presence of U.S. military forces or through covert operations led by the CIA, can also result in “blowback,” or unintended consequences. Collateral damage from drone strikes as part of covert operations can have long-term repercussions for United States security policy, like the radicalization of the surrounding population where the strikes occur and increasing numbers of terrorists.
Lack of ethnic, racial, and gender diversity plagues many of the national security departments and agencies in the U.S. In the Defense Department, racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented at senior leadership levels though they are overrepresented among active and reserve personnel, and women make up only 13.5 percent of senior enlisted members. As of June of this year only 7.3 percent of full-time personnel working in the State Department are Asian, 15.3 percent are African American, 0.6 percent are American Indian, while 71.2 percent are white.
As an Afghan American woman studying international security policy and trying to find her place in the national security sector, I am aware of the differences in how my lived experiences inform my thinking on foreign major policy issues relative to my colleagues and peers. I examine foreign policy issues as an American who has never stepped foot in Asia, who cares deeply about the safety and security of her fellow citizens, and who is a proud first-generation American directly benefiting from the American dream that my parents successfully attained. But I also examine these issues through the lens of my Afghan and Muslim upbringing by my Kabul-born parents: I consider the diversity of peoples in Afghanistan, the most ethnically diverse country in Asia, where language, accents, and norms differ from province to province. I look at Afghanistan not as a country to be conquered or abandoned, but as a country full of people with agency that exists outside of American foreign policy.
The prevailing discourse regarding U.S.-Afghanistan relations in the last two decades has been concerned only with how quickly U.S. leadership should or should not withdraw its troops from the country. Improving mutual understanding between the peoples of the two nations is not considered to be an important aspect of American foreign policy aims, and neither is increasing our aid levels, which have been slashed under Trump. Much of the American justification for invading Afghanistan in 2001 was to “save” the Afghan women and protect the human rights of the Afghan people, but since then American contribution to the country has mostly been in the form of more destruction: in 2019, Afghan security forces and American-led international allies killed more Afghan civilians than the Taliban. It is clear that the promises America made to its Afghan partners 20 years ago were empty ones, especially as the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed in February of this year did not require the Taliban to recognize and uphold the human rights of Afghan civilians before the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces.
As we celebrate the advances that women have made in various sectors of American society today, there is still much work to be done in fields like national security. Including more Arab American and Afghan American women in foreign policy spheres, especially women who understand or have first-hand experience of the level of destruction that militarized American foreign policy can cause would make further military adventurism less likely. Those who have experienced the effects of war on their communities have useful insights for how to move toward more humane policies and embrace the role that diplomacy can play.