The Jerusalem Post
Afghan women – how they became an afterthought
In March 2010, Hilary Clinton, US secretary of state under then-president Barack Obama, made a solemn vow to female Afghan officials visiting Washington. “We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always,” she said.
No surprise, then, that President Joe Biden’s recent decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September came with a promise to continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls. But the hard reality is that America’s commitment to the country’s women has always rung rather hollow.
In the lead-up to the 2001 US-led invasion and the early days of the conflict, women’s liberation was highlighted by the George W. Bush administration as not just a convenient after-effect, but a key objective of the intervention.
Weeks after US forces arrived in Afghanistan, first lady Laura Bush delivered the president’s weekly radio address and argued that the war on terrorism was “a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” She called on Americans to help “ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.”
Unlike the Iraq War some 18 months later, the Afghan invasion inspired no major street protests. The politicization of women’s rights undoubtedly helped bolster public support for the war.
Images of burqa-clad women adorned the front covers of major magazines as the mainstream media predicted a great liberation after the ousting of the fundamentalist Taliban. Sure enough, the immediate aftermath of the invasion did bring about significant economic and social advancement. Afghan women and girls saw greater educational and employment opportunities, leading to increased political participation.
But these gains were largely restricted to urban women. Women living outside major cities – an estimated 76% of the population – saw little change. US officials wrongly estimated that removing the Taliban would be enough to permanently elevate the status of Afghan women. They failed to understand the deeply patriarchal nature of Afghan society and the entrenched social systems that stem from it.
Washington wanted a quick fix and simply poured large sums of money into the country. The resulting aid programs were often poorly conceived and implemented, with money funneled back to US contractors. Worse still, women were often not consulted on programs that were designed for them.
In 2018, a US aid scheme named Promote, designed to support 75,000 Afghan women, was criticized for its lack of effectiveness and transparency. A US watchdog, established by Congress to provide oversight on reconstruction in Afghanistan, described concerns that “Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion.” Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, also criticized the program, telling a development forum in Washington, “Women don’t need workshops and certificates. They need real, hard skills.”
Several years later, the same watchdog issued another damning report on US stabilization efforts in the country.
“Even under the best circumstances, stabilization takes time,” the report warned. “Without the patience and political will for a planned and prolonged effort, large-scale stabilization missions are likely to fail.”
As the conflict wore on, women’s rights were sacrificed or simply forgotten as top US officials began looking for the exit. Even during Obama’s first term, when secretary Clinton made her vow to Afghan women, the US began to scale back its ambitions and focus on more “achievable” political and military objectives. In a 2009 speech outlining his new Afghan strategy, Obama made no mention of Afghan women.
SUDDENLY, WOMEN’S rights were no longer a priority. In 2011 an anonymous senior US official told The Washington Post, “There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks [women] in our rucksack were taking us down.”
For several years, Afghanistan had the dubious accolade of being named the most dangerous country in the world for women. While health services were vastly improved, major discrepancies remained. In the eastern province of Nuristan, maternal and reproductive healthcare remained shockingly low.
In February 2020, then-president Donald Trump brokered a US-Taliban peace deal that excluded the Afghan government – which has its own problematic record on supporting women in the country – and made no mention of women’s rights.
As part of the deal, the Taliban agreed to stop killing US and coalition forces. In the months that followed, the Taliban largely kept to their promise while ramping up their killing of Afghan civilians, especially women.
Politically, women have largely been excluded from determining their country’s future, despite being at the forefront of efforts to rebuild the country. A 2020 joint report by Oxfam, Cordaid and Inclusive Peace found that nearly 80% of Afghanistan’s peace negotiating contingents exclude women.
The US paid lip service to the inclusion of women at the negotiating table but neglected to use its leverage to pressure the Afghan government to implement
legislation protecting and empowering Afghan women. As a result, the US departure, whether haphazard or orderly, could be horrific for the countless Afghan women promised international support.
Some 21% of Afghan civil servants are women, and women hold more than a quarter (28%) of parliamentary seats, thanks to constitutional guarantees. Yet as leading observers express fears of a Taliban takeover following the US departure, it is these women who will lose the most from the troop withdrawal
There is a tangible sense of betrayal among Afghan women, many of whom are too young to remember life under Taliban rule.
“The US presented themselves as saviors to legitimate the invasion,” says Pashtana Durrani, a Kandahar-based human rights activist and director of a digital literacy program for people in rural areas. “We don’t need saviors. We just demand our rights from the Taliban, the government and the international community. The US claims to be an ally of Afghan women. In the end, they have abandoned us.”
While the Biden administration has promised to continue to provide humanitarian aid and assistance, analysts are skeptical. Heather Barr, interim co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, fears the US withdrawal will coincide with a sharp reduction in the funds needed to provide essential services.
“Removing the soldiers will not in any way reduce the need for aid,” she said. “It will just make it easier for donor countries to turn away and ignore a humanitarian disaster that is already happening due to sharply increased rates of poverty during the pandemic.”
Washington’s willingness to forget the very women it once used to promote its war is symbolic of the wider failure of US policy. The overarching objectives were eradicating the terrorist presence and establishing stability and security in Afghanistan, along with obtaining broader rights and opportunities for women. Twenty years later, as US forces prepare to depart, Washington might have failed on all counts.