Time’s Aisha back in the frame

We didn’t chime in on last week’s controversial Time cover showing eighteen-year-old Afghan girl, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by the Taliban, hooded and staring forward in an image reminiscent of the “Afghan girl” cover for National Geographic’s June 1985 edition. The Time image came with a bold, white cover line: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.”

The graphic cover—which Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel justified in an online column published last Thursday—stirred passions. Most of those responding recognized the effectiveness of the cover as just that, a magazine cover—one that drew a visible reaction from Nancy Pelosi when Christiane Amanpour presented it to her on This Week. But critics argued that the cover was exploitative, misleading, and even propagandistic. Mattew Yglesias called it “emotionally manipulative” and reminded readers that women’s rights were not the reason the U.S. entered the war. The Nation’s Greg Mitchell proposed some alternative images for the cover line, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” including “A returning soldier embraced by his wife and two kids,” and, “Workers streaming into a newly re-opened factory.”

Without wading too far into general debate about the war, I will say this. The cover was surgically effective on two levels. Firstly, the shock and awe of it—the media attention it snatched, the word-of-mouth-and-Web-and-cable it generated. When was the last time you actually stopped your day to have a discussion about Time involving something other than a top ten list? And even then…

Secondly, and more importantly, it drew attention to an oft-forgotten aspect of the war and rightfully made muddier again the already complicated story of withdrawal. The headline and cover, along with the Aryn Baker’s solid story, remind us that, regardless of original mission, it’s not as simple a choice as leaving, staying, or engaging the Taliban in a power-sharing deal. There are tragic complications at every turn, including, potentially for women. And while many have argued the WikiLeaks war logs make a potent case for pulling out, and quickly, Time here makes a case for why we should not be rash. Is it traditional, non-partisan journalism? No. Is it an effective conversation-continuer? Yes.

The story of the story of the cover continued today with a fine piece by Times writer Rod Nordland. He spoke with Aisha at a woman’s refuge in Kabul as she prepared to leave for the U.S., where she would receive reconstructive surgery (and, one can only assume, eventually pose again for a Time cover).

Earlier in the day, as she prepared to leave the women’s shelter at a secret location here that has been her refuge for the past 10 months, the 18-year-old was unaware of the controversy surrounding the publication of that image.

“I don’t know if it will help other women or not,” she said, her hand going instinctively to cover the hole in the middle of her face, as it does whenever strangers look directly at her. “I just want to get my nose back.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.