Time magazine has a very disturbing cover image this week, because the magazine thinks it has a very important point to make about the war in Afghanistan. Editor Richard Stengel decided to make the cover a photograph of an Afghan woman with a gaping hole where her nose used to be, where the Taliban had mutilated her.
The portrait is a grotesque parody of National Geographic's 1983 cover of a wide-eyed young Afghan refugee . Then, the message was that war—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—was exacting a terrible human toll.
Now, Time's message is that the Afghans are not getting enough war. "We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it," Stengel wrote in an editor's note about the picture. Really. Then why did you run it?
I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.
(Not that the reality is important enough for Stengel to publish the full article online. For that, you have to subscribe or "download the Time iPad app .")
But the pretense that putting the woman's picture on the cover is politically neutral is fake naivete, covering over a real and dangerous naivete. The headline on this non-political image is "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan."
It is a gut-wrenching assertion of what's at stake in the Afghan war—except, as a photo caption, it is completely false. A correct and accurate caption would be "What Is Still Happening, Even Though We Are in Afghanistan."
We invaded Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in 2001. This young woman's nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban in 2009.
I don't know what the right thing to do about Afghanistan is. The Taliban are abominable. They are a cancer on human civilization. No one should have to live under their rule. But we have been fighting the cancer for nine years now, and we have not gotten rid of it.
Somehow, nearly a century after the British war poets wrote about the glories of making war to heal the world—then went off to die ugly, pointless deaths in war hospitals or in the mud—Richard Stengel and Time magazine are clinging to that old poetical vision: there is no problem that can't be solved by guns and bombs and the will to fight. If we cared more about the plight of Afghan women, we would beat the Taliban. All we need to do to win in Afghanistan is to try harder.