The Jerusalem Post

Afghan women – how they became an afterthoug­ht

- • By HANNAH WALLACE The author is a London-based writer and researcher on armed violence and foreign affairs.

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.

 ?? (Carlo Allegri/Reuters) ?? FORMER US secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks about including women in the peace process in Afghanista­n, at UN Headquarte­rs in New York in March 2020.
(Carlo Allegri/Reuters) FORMER US secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks about including women in the peace process in Afghanista­n, at UN Headquarte­rs in New York in March 2020.

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