If there’s a point of agreement between President Donald Trump and those on the left who favor a reduced U.S. military presence in the world, it’s that the war in Afghanistan should have ended long ago. Trump campaigned against U.S. military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan four years ago and tweeted the same years earlier. In his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump noted that “great nations do not fight endless wars.”
No one has wanted peace more, sacrificed more or risked more to bring security to Afghanistan than Afghan women since the end of Taliban rule in 2001.
Now, as Trump’s national security adviser pledges that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will fall to 2,500 by early next year and while talks about talks proceed between the Afghan government and the Taliban to determine the terms of a possible agreement on power-sharing once the United States leaves, that rare American bipartisan agreement might spell disaster for the best allies the U.S. has had in security in Afghanistan until now. And those allies — Afghan women — wonder whether their rights to work and education will be able to survive the withdrawal of U.S. forces without a Taliban cease-fire and commitment to respect the gains women have made since 2001.
No one has wanted peace more, sacrificed more or risked more to bring security to Afghanistan than Afghan women since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. They have risked their own safety to fight for human rights, to work in local charities teaching agriculture and entrepreneurship and to serve in their government. They have broken norms, battled extremism in their own homes, fought for schools, served as journalists and dared to challenge traditions. All the while they have been peaceful and have argued for an end to the war between Taliban and Afghan forces.
Yet this most important voice is the one most often left out of the discussion as a peace deal is mapped out. That means that whatever is resolved between the U.S. and the Taliban, and then the Afghan government and the Taliban — the latter are now talking in Doha, Qatar, about rules that will govern talks about the shape of a future peace agreement — it is far from certain that the gains and autonomy of Afghan women can be maintained.
Before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the treatment of women —stonings, beatings, the closing of all schools for girls, the banning of women from their own streets without chaperones — horrified much of the Western world and was a rallying cry for the need for change in Afghanistan, not just the removal of the Taliban for giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda.
Soon after the U.S.-led coalition arrived, the situation of women improved markedly as they reshaped their own communities for themselves. “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment,” first lady Laura Bush said in a 2001 radio address. “Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Afghan women have been inextricably bound up with the fight for security and stability and against terrorism in the 19 years since. During that time, I’ve seen firsthand how much women have used the windows of stability created by the end of Taliban rule in Kabul and the coalition’s training of Afghan forces to teach children, launch businesses, represent their people as governors and judges, deploy as diplomats and even risk their lives to become police officers and members of their country’s military. More than 3 million girls are in school, and women account for roughly a third of the students enrolled at Kabul University. An estimated one-third of the country’s civil servants are women. The number was around zero in 2001.
Change is challenging in a traditional society in which illiteracy remains rampant and Taliban attacks are the norm, but it is homegrown. I have spent time with girls studying to become doctors and with young women who are saving women’s lives as midwives. Many of the women I met knew that, even though most legal restrictions on their working and participating in public life have been removed, they could still face penalties from family disapproval to targeted killing by the Taliban as a result. They do it anyway.
Yet the constriction of opportunity for girls and women if the Taliban returns to rule is what worries many now. Women are working to be heard in the U.S.-launched talks with the Taliban to reach a peace deal, and it has not been easy.
Four of the 42 Afghans negotiating with the Taliban in Doha to reach a peace agreement are women. On the Taliban side, all of those negotiating are men. The U.S. has reached its own deal with the Taliban aimed at “ending the war and opening the door to intra-Afghan negotiations,” and troop levels are watched closely by many women who see their fate tied to international forces’ remaining in the country. It is the U.S. that is securing Afghan forces, who are in turn fighting the Taliban.
Using the hashtags #newAfghanistan and #herAfghanistan, they have sought to help the world see how much would be lost if their rights are squandered. As the U.S. reduces its presence, women fear that they will be bombed and assassinated into a return to the past.
“There can be no doubt that Afghanistan troops today are stronger and more professional than they were 20 years ago,” Kamila Sidiqi, a successful entrepreneur who served as Afghanistan’s deputy commerce minister, told me over WhatsApp this week. “However, we still need the support of U.S. troops until the peace talks reach a positive and stable conclusion and there is a complete ceasefire between Afghan troops and Taliban.”
Sidiqi is not alone in this fear.
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke frequently of the plight of Afghan women. She said this year at the United Nations: “Women are essential to combating corruption, building economic growth and ensuring the longevity of any agreement that is reached. If women are sidelined, the prospects for sustainable peace are slim.”
As talks continue and discussion of troop levels proceeds, a deal that considers the fate of only half the nation will not serve us all.
A deal with the Taliban that overlooks these gains or sees women’s rights as regrettable but necessary fodder for gains in negotiations would not serve U.S. interests. As talks continue and discussion of troop levels proceeds, a deal that considers the fate of only half the nation would not serve us all.
“Afghan women are now working in leadership roles in different sectors,” Sidiqi said. “We have a greater measure of control over our destiny now. I am hopeful that our efforts of the past decades will not be wasted, and we will continue to have the opportunity to move forward.” For the sake of our collective security, let us hope she is right.