By far the most thoughtful response I've seen to Time's cover and the accompanying report is by Derrick Crowe of the Rethink Afghanistan project, here. I encourage you to go and read the whole thing. What I've written below is partly (and unashamedly) stolen from Derrick's writing, with some of my own thoughts added in.
In fact, Time's framing of the question is based on a simple, and wrong, understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. In this cartoon-simple view, there are "bad" Afghans, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who horribly oppress and mutilate women, and there are "good" Afghans, presumably the Afghan government that we are spending tens of billions of dollars a month to support, who oppose the oppression of women. In fact, at the highest levels of the U.S.-supported Karzai government, the same brutal warlords responsible for the oppression and killing and disfigurement of women in the days before the Taliban came to power (No, the Taliban did not invent the oppression of women in Afghanistan) now hold power, and are now reinstating the same misogynist laws that were on the books in the days of the Taliban. When the Afghan parliament passed a law sanctioning marital rape and child marriage, it was signed into law by President Karzai, the man we have sacrificed thousands of American and Afghan lives to keep in office. To quote from a message typed by a panicked American soldier at Outpost Keating, an isolated American base camp under heavy insurgent attack, "The enemy is inside the wire." For the women of Afghanistan, there is simply no dividing line - no "wire" - between their oppressors in an insurgency we oppose and their oppressors within a government we support.
In Afghanistan, a woman-hating form of fundamentalist Islam holds great power, and is reflected in many parts of society - in the insurgency, yes, but also in the government. Is military occupation an effective challenge to dangerous and even evil ideas? No. In fact, members of the Afghan women's-rights organization, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan have repeatedly explained that the presence of a foreign occupying army in their country acts to strengthen the most misogynistic elements of their society, first by giving legitimacy to religious fundamentalists who use Islam as a basis for their fight against occupation, and second by creating a climate of constant war, in which violence is the only means by which disputes are settled and power asserted. Adding more Men With Guns to the country does nothing to change a situation where all decisions are now made by Men With Guns.
But if occupation isn't the answer, what is? Orzala Sharif of the Afghan Women's Network had this reply: "I don't believe and I don't expect any outside power to come and liberate me. If I cannot liberate myself, no one from outside can liberate me." The only effective challenge to the dangerous and evil ideas of woman-hating religious fundamentalists must be another idea, the idea of full equality for women, and that idea can only be put forward effectively by Afghan women themselves.
And this is why Time's cover photo is not only dishonest but actually dangerous to Afghan women. As public support for the Afghan war wanes among the U.S. and European public, we can expect the supporters of the occupation to rely more and more heavily on the argument that "We must stay in Afghanistan to protect women's rights." In our globalized world, such a message, even if only intended for American or European audiences, will inevitably make its way to Afghanistan. Once there, it serves to link the cause of women's rights to a hated foreign occupation, to de-legitimize those Afghans who fight for women's rights as collaborators (just as the occupation legitimizes the religious fundamentalists who fight against it) and cements women's rights in the minds of the Afghan public as a "Western" idea. Equal rights for women is not foreign to Afghanistan, but we can make it foreign, if we continue to use the plight of Afghan women in a desperate attempt to prop up public support for our failing occupation.
At the end of the day, the U.S. will leave Afghanistan. Our patience and our funds are not unlimited, and shameless button-pushing of the sort practiced by Time will only have so much effect, for so long. And when we leave, Afghan women will have to face their oppressors without the "help" of the U.S. Army. What situation will we leave them in? Can we see that using Afghan women to justify our war only leaves them to reap the whirlwind when we do finally leave? When U.S. elites decide they've had enough of this war, perhaps when a newer and shinier war beckons, their claimed concern for Afghan women will be discarded as inconvenient - it is, in fact, already being discarded, as the U.S. plans "reconciliation" talks with elements of the insurgency. Derrick Crowe has many good observations about the reconciliation process, I'll only note here his two main points: 1) There is much that the international community and civil society can do to make sure that reconciliation isn't used to steamroller over the rights of Afghan women, and 2) Thus far, the U.S. government has shown little interest in letting women's rights get in the way of its political and military objectives.
For U.S. opinion-makers, the rights of women are always disposable when no longer useful. Last week, the Iraqi website Niqash reported on the practice of Fasliya, in which young women are forcibly married as a means of settling tribal conflicts. The story quotes a young woman named Zainab, forced to marry at age 11 following an armed confrontation between two tribes: "When the family commemorated the anniversary of their son's death, my husband would beat me. Every single day, the whole family looked at me as if I was the one who killed their son."
You won't see Zainab's photo on the cover of Time under the headline "What happens if we leave Iraq", even though the Iraqi Society for Human Rights estimates that more than 800 Iraqi women have suffered her fate just since the beginning of this year. In Iraq, the U.S. is headed for the exits, and has no need for concerns about human rights to gin up public support for staying. When word comes from on high that it's time to leave Afghanistan, won't Time's concern for Afghan women be just as disposable?