The South Asia Channel

Forgetting Afghanistan’s women

Less than a month after the horrible attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, in a quest to find Osama bin Laden and punish the Taliban for harboring him. At the time, women’s progress was touted as both a reason for and a powerful and positive product of the U.S. invasion. But ...

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a month after the horrible attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, in a quest to find Osama bin Laden and punish the Taliban for harboring him.

At the time, women’s progress was touted as both a reason for and a powerful and positive product of the U.S. invasion. But while Washington showered attention on the plight of Afghan women going into the war, officials have gone largely silent on the fate of Afghan women as they look to its exit.

In November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush took to the airwaves on behalf of her husband — marking the first time a president’s wife has delivered the entire President’s weekly radio address on her own — to highlight the plight of Afghan women and girls.

"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," Mrs. Bush said.

"Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists…In Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us."

She concluded, "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. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped." The State Department issued an accompanying report on the Taliban’s "War Against Women," which stated that "restricting women’s access to work is an attack on women today."

A month later, the President himself signed the "Afghan Women and Children Relief Act" and pledged that "America and our allies will do our part in the rebuilding Afghanistan. We learned our lessons from the past. We will not leave until the mission is complete."

In signing the bill, which funded health and education programs for Afghan women and children, the President told reporters that, "a central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women, and not only the women of Afghanistan. The terrorists who helped rule Afghanistan are found in dozens of countries around the world, and that is the reason this great nation with our friends and allies will not rest until we bring them all to justice."

President Bush even brought the first Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs, Sima Samar, to his first post-9/11 State of the Union.

"The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school," Bush said. "Today women are free, and are part of Afghanistan’s new government."

Later in his speech, the President said that "We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance."

And the Bush Administration was hardly alone in embracing the cause of Afghanistan’s women in the context of America’s fight for justice. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton also shined her powerful spotlight on the women whose lives changed with the American invasion.

"Thanks to the courage and bravery of America’s military and our allies, hope is being restored to many women and families in much of Afghanistan," Clinton wrote in TIME Magazine.

And then she went further. "There is an immoral link between the way women were treated by the oppressive Taliban in Afghanistan and the hateful actions of the al-Qaeda terrorists," Clinton said. "The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11. Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for that war-torn nation."

Noted Clinton, "We, as liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban in Afghanistan. We cannot simply drop our bombs and depart with our best wishes, lest we find ourselves returning some years down the road to root out another terrorist regime."

Now, a decade later, talk of bringing terrorists to justice has given way to talk of Taliban reconciliation.  No one sees another answer when it comes to ending America’s longest-ever war. And, simultaneously and not surprisingly, nearly all talk of women has faded from hearing.

President Barack Obama offered no mention of women in his 2009 West Point speech on the war in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, in a telling quote to journalist Rajiv Chandrasekran, a senior administration official said, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities…There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."

Privately, State Department officials I speak with say they are doing what they can, but acknowledge that Secretary Clinton’s fight to keep women in the conversation about what comes next in Afghanistan is a lonely one. The upcoming 2012 presidential race looms large for Obama’s policy and political staff. And with Clinton already promising to leave her post at the end of next year, Afghan women are losing their largest advocate within the Obama administration.

Today the question which looms large is, will women’s rights be negotiated away in the quest to reach a graceful exit – or, in fact, any kind of exit, in Afghanistan?  And if successful negotiations with the Taliban are a desirable inevitability for the United States, what are the lines (if any) that the U.S. must not cross if America is to keep Clinton’s pledge to Afghan women that they will not be abandoned once more?

Women received much attention going into the war in Afghanistan. A new generation seized the opportunities created by the international community’s presence to serve as midwives, teachers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs, governors, army officers and civil society leaders. Today they fear a return to a time in which the world sat by while their government stripped them of their rights to work, to be educated, and to leave their homes unaccompanied.

The international community now seems to see Afghan women as unfortunate collateral damage along the path to peace, not valuable contributors who make stability possible. Meanwhile, women are fighting for a voice in the upcoming Bonn conference and a say in their future, including on the team negotiating with the Taliban for the country’s future. Women I talk to say they try not to be despondent, but it is not easy to be hopeful given the facts on the ground and the talk of the future.

"Only Afghans can determine the future government of their country," the State Department said in its 2001 Taliban report. "And Afghan women should have the right to choose their role in that future."

Those words remain true today.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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