THE UNITED STATES is largely to blame for the suffering of Afghan women under the Taliban militia. It was U.S. action that brought the Taliban to power, and the Taliban could be removed if the United States and the United Nations had the will to do so.
Those are the opinions of activists working to help the women. Since the Taliban militia captured Kabul in 1996, girls have been prevented from attending school. Women lost their jobs as doctors, lawyers, teachers and government workers.
Women are under virtual house arrest, prohibited from leaving their homes unless they're accompanied by a male relative. This rule is especially hard on the 300,000 wid ows in the country.
When women do go outside, they must be covered from head to toe with a shroud with only a small piece of mesh over the eyes.
They can be beaten for showing an ankle. They lack health care because male doctors are forbidden from treating women patients.
Two weeks ago, activists lobbied for support of Afghan women at Feminist Expo 2000, an international gathering of women's rights advocates in Baltimore that drew about 6,000 women and men from throughout the world.
Among those at the convention was Zieba Shorish-Shamley, director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan. She criticizes the United States for abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviets ended their occupation in 1989.
"After Russia withdrew, the U.S. lost interest, and that's the time we needed the U.S. the most," Shorish-Shamley said "That's when foreign, neighboring countries (such as Paki stan), each with their own interest, moved in and started supporting different factions."
She's angry that the CIA supported the rebels during Soviet occupation.
"The Taliban -- Pakistan trained it; Saudi Arabia financed it; and the U.S. blessed it," Shorish-Stamley said.
Cash, arms, food and medicine for the rebels were channeled from the United States through the Pakistani intelligence service, said Philip Smith, director of research and analysis for a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Center for Public Policy Analysis.
Smith was staff director for the Congressional Task Force on Af ghanist an from 1988 through 1993.
"We more or less deferred to them (Pakistani intelligence), and that was a big mistake," Smith said. "U.S. policy changed dramatically when bombs went off (at U.S. embassies in 1998) in Dar es Salaam as well as Nairobi. At that point, I think policymakers smelled the coffee. Prior to that, they often looked the other way when fundamentalists were seizing control of Afghanistan."
The United States blamed Osama Bin Laden for the embassy bombings and retaliated by bombing what it said was a chemical factory in the Sudan and three training camps of Bin Laden's in Afghanistan.
"If the Clinton administration is prepared to bomb Afghanistan over Bin Laden, why don't we start pushing the international community (on behalf of Afghan women)?" asked T. Kuman, an executive with Amnesty international.
"Why can't the U.S. and other countries put pressure on the three countries that recognize the Taliban -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?"
The United States has become more interested in Afghanistan because of the oil and gas in former Soviet republics, Shorish-Shamley said.
California-based Unocal joined a consortium with oil companies from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with the idea of building a pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Unocal dropped out in 1998.
Mavis Leno, activist and wife of comedian Jay Leno, wants the United States to pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.
"Make it clear to our governments that for the rest of their lives, every time they look in the rear-view mirror, they'll see us," she said.
Furthermore, governments and businesses should pressure the Taliban the way they pressured South Africa to end racial apartheid, said Deb Ellis, author of the soon-to-be-published book "Women of the Afghan War."
Another advocate, who asks to be identified only as Sajeda, is angry at the U.S. government for getting involved during the Soviet invasion.
"The Afghan people fought the British (gaining its independence in 1919). Afghanistan could have defeated the Russians without the United States."
She also feels betrayed by the United Nations.
"If the U.N. can send peacekeepers to East Timor to pave the way for a democratic election, why can't they do it in Afghanistan? They say, 'We must be invited by the government,' but since there is no government in Afghanistan, that's just an excuse."
Last year, Hassina Sherjan-Samad, founder of Children's Voice, traveled to Kabul, where, escorted by the Taliban, she visited classrooms, filled only with boys.
"The person with me asked one of the boys if there were any differences between men and women. This boy, about 12 or 15, said, 'Women have 9 million brain cells, and men have 15 million brain cells.'
"He was asked, 'How do you know?'
"He said, 'Physics proved it.' This is what they teach."
Scott writes for the Arizona Republic.
Copyright 2000 Contra Costa Times