We typically think of terrorism as a political act.
But sometimes it’s very personal. It wasn’t a government or a guerrilla insurgency that threw acid on this woman’s face in Pakistan. It was a young man whom she had rejected for marriage. As the United States ponders what to do in Afghanistan — and for that matter, in Pakistan — it is wise to understand both the political and the personal, that the very ignorance and illiteracy and misogyny that create the climate for these acid attacks can and does bleed over into the political realm. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times op-ed columnist who traveled to Pakistan last year to write about acid attacks, put it this way in an essay at the time: “I’ve been investigating such acid attacks, which are commonly used to terrorize and subjugate women and girls in a swath of Asia from Afghanistan through Cambodia (men are almost never attacked with acid). Because women usually don’t matter in this part of the world, their attackers are rarely prosecuted and acid sales are usually not controlled. It’s a kind of terrorism that becomes accepted as part of the background noise in the region. …
“Bangladesh has imposed controls on acid sales to curb such attacks, but otherwise it is fairly easy in Asia to walk into a shop and buy sulfuric or hydrochloric acid suitable for destroying a human face. Acid attacks and wife burnings are common in parts of Asia because the victims are the most voiceless in these societies: They are poor and female. The first step is simply for the world to take note, to give voice to these women.” Since 1994, a Pakistani activist who founded the Progressive Women’s Association to help such women “has documented 7,800 cases of women who were deliberately burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks, just in the Islamabad area. In only 2 percent of those cases was anyone convicted.”
The geopolitical question is already hard enough: Should the United States commit more troops to Afghanistan and for what specific purpose? As American policymakers mull the options, here is a frame of reference that puts the tough choices in even starker relief: Are acid attacks a sign of just how little the United States can do to solve intractable problems there — therefore, we should pull out? Or having declared war on terrorism, must the United States stay out of moral duty, to try to protect women such as these — and the schoolgirls whom the Taliban in Afghanistan sprayed with acid simply for going to class — who have suffered a very personal terrorist attack? We offer links to smart essays that come to differing conclusions.
• In August, Perspective published a New York Times Magazine piece that followed up the story of Afghan sisters Shamsia and Atifa Husseini, who were attacked with acid simply for attending school. If you wish to refresh your memory, you may read the original article.
• Two very smart, informed observers come to opposite conclusions on the proper U.S. course of action in Afghanistan:
1. In his “Think Tank” blog at NewYorker.com, Steve Coll argues why we can’t leave — “What If We Fail In Afghanistan?” Read the essay in full.
2. In an essay entitled “The War We Can’t Win” in Commonweal (also reprinted in the November issue of Harper’s), Andrew J. Bacevich makes the case that we are overstating the importance of Afghanistan to U.S. interests. Bacevich is a professor of International Relations at Boston University and the author, most recently, of The Limits of Power. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he served from 1969 to 1992, inVietnam and the first Persian Gulf War. He was a conservative critic of the Iraq war. Several of his essays have run before in Perspective. Read his essay in full.
• Read the original story about acid attacks by Nicholas Kristof.