Afghan Women’s Problems Don’t End With the Taliban

A new U.S. intelligence assessment suggests women’s rights in Afghanistan face threats even without a Taliban takeover.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
A woman wearing a burqa walks past the site of a shooting in Kabul.
A woman wearing a burqa walks at the site where gunmen shot dead two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court, in Kabul on Jan. 17. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

A newly declassified U.S. intelligence assessment paints a grim picture for the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan after American and international troops withdraw from the country later this year, warning of a deterioration even if the Taliban fail to take power.

The intelligence assessment shows that women’s rights in Afghanistan face threats not only from the Taliban, which are on the offensive and could form part of the next Afghan government or take outright control, but also from broader Afghan politics and public opinion.

“Afghanistan’s progress since the end of Taliban rule toward meeting broadly accepted international standards for the conditions of women has been uneven, reflecting cultural norms and conflict,” U.S. intelligence officials warned in the two-page National Intelligence Council assessment on the matter, declassified last month at the urging of a senior U.S. lawmaker. “Progress probably owes more to external pressure than domestic support, suggesting it would be at risk after coalition withdrawal, even without Taliban efforts to reverse it.”

The assessment offers an unvarnished warning of what may follow U.S. and coalition troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as the Biden administration continues to promise to help the country uphold its progress on women’s rights made over the course of two decades. Even if a power vacuum does not lead to another Taliban takeover—and the militants have taken the offensive, especially across southern Afghanistan in the last two days—civilian leaders could also severely curtail women’s rights, the assessment concluded. According to a 2019 United Nations study cited in the report, only 15 percent of Afghan men believe women should be able to leave the home after marriage, and two-thirds of Afghan men say women have “too many rights.”

The fate of women’s rights in Afghanistan has become a key point of conflict between the Biden administration and its allies on Capitol Hill as it lays the groundwork for a withdrawal of all U.S. troops by Sept. 11—the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that first prompted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who urged the declassification of the intelligence report and entered it into the congressional record, said in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 27 that Congress’s concerns over Afghan women’s rights “really seemed to fall on deaf ears” under the Trump administration.

“I’m disappointed to say that my concerns have still not been sufficiently addressed,” she told Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States special envoy for Afghanistan peace talks, at the hearing. Khalilzad, appointed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, is one of the few senior holdovers under President Joe Biden.

“We owe it to the women and girls to ensure that their hard-fought rights are preserved. Sadly, I believe an arbitrary deadline withdrawal for our forces in Afghanistan risks those efforts,” Shaheen said. “It is not a women’s issue; it is a human rights issue, and it is a security issue for the future of Afghanistan.”

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, told Khalilzad that Afghanistan upholding women’s rights could make or break future U.S. assistance. “I don’t believe under any circumstances that the United States Senate will support assistance for Afghanistan, especially under the World Bank’s program, which provides budget support, if the Taliban has taken a governing role that ends civil society advances and rolls back women’s rights,” he said.

Senior Biden administration officials insist that even as American troops leave, U.S. commitment to Afghanistan remains through increased aid, economic development programs, and assistance to Afghan security forces—and its emphasis on women’s rights.

“Our support for [the girls and women of Afghanistan] will endure, and I can say very clearly and categorically that an Afghanistan that does not respect their rights, that does not sustain the gains we’ve made, will be a pariah,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on April 27.

In addition to U.S. lawmakers such as Shaheen, some members of the Afghan government are also worried. In an April 30 article for Foreign Policy, Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan parliament and one of the women negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, expressed concern about the implications of the hasty U.S. withdrawal for women’s rights in her country.

“Put simply, an unconditional U.S. exit will not provide the time needed for negotiating parties to engage in a meaningful peace process. Rushed dialogue risks sidelining Afghan women and all of the gains we have made over the years,” Koofi wrote.

She called for the U.N., the United States, and the European Union to demand the Afghan government and Taliban designate at least 30 percent of appointed and elected positions in Afghanistan’s future political institutions for women. If they fail to meet that mark, she suggested conditioning international aid to Afghanistan.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem