In an effort to end its longest war, the United States is actively suing for peace in Afghanistan. However, this process has thrown up urgent questions about what any deal it might make could mean for Afghan women.
Consider where things stand. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been talking to the Taliban for the past few months. The latest round of talks started in Doha on February 25. All along, the Afghan government and president Ashraf Ghani, whom the Taliban regard as illegitimate puppets of the US, have been marginalised. No Afghan women are at the negotiating table. In effect, the US seems to be acquiescing to the Taliban's open contempt for existing Afghan institutions, not least the elected government and the constitution, which guarantees women's rights.
Some six weeks ago, a “framework” for a deal between the Americans and the Taliban was announced and Mr Khalilzad separately indicated hopes for an agreement before Afghan voters go to the polls in July.
The discussions appear to have centred on two areas – the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Taliban's commitment that Afghan territory would never again be used by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. The Taliban themselves, in a statement released on March 8, described the current negotiations as limited to "the withdrawal of all occupying forces from Afghanistan and not allowing Afghanistan to harm others."
There has been no mention – both in US or Taliban accounts – of anything to do with the rights of Afghan women. This is extraordinary for three reasons. The Taliban’s treatment of women while in power was appalling; the US has spent much of the past 18 years of the Afghan campaign railing against it and Afghan women may be at risk if the Taliban regain control on their own terms.
It was the Taliban’s five-year rule from 1996 that drastically changed the lives of Afghan women. They were barred from attending school, from working, leaving the house without a male chaperone and from accessing healthcare delivered by men. Along with the mandatory burqa, a ban on female involvement in politics or public speech made Afghan women effectively invisible.
The US worked itself into a state of righteous indignation about the situation of Afghan women in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In November 2001, weeks after US forces began bombing Afghanistan, Laura Bush, who was then first lady, delivered a passionate radio address ostensibly “to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban”. She added that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.
In the years since, this theme has developed and matured. The US military presence in Afghanistan – and later, the juggernaut of aid workers, NGOs and development specialists – has been presented as a sincerely waged battle in defence of vulnerable women and children, a selfless struggle for human rights against the forces of darkness.
But suddenly, none of this seems to matter. President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to bring US troops home and Mr Khalilzad, his point man in Afghanistan, seems determined to achieve that goal at any cost. If that means accepting the Taliban's recent bare-bones assurances with respect to Afghan women, so be it.
In early February, the Taliban used a meeting in Moscow that paralleled the US peace negotiations to stress their commitment to guaranteeing women some rights in areas such as "business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one's husband, security, health, and the right to a good life". But they also denounced the “corruption [of] so-called women's rights activists" who they said were encouraging women to break Afghan customs and furthering “immorality” and “indecency”.
That qualified support for women’s rights raised red flags. Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi, one of only two women invited to the Moscow talks with the Taliban, later said that she had to push hard even to attend face-to-face sessions, and is worried about the freedoms won by Afghan women if the US abandons their cause.
Those freedoms are substantial. More than 3.5 million girls are now enrolled in school and a third of Afghanistan’s 300,000 university students are women. Women also have greater access to healthcare, as I found even back in 2012 when I was in Afghanistan working for the US State Department.
At the time, I met Pashtana, an illiterate mother of seven, who seemed to symbolise the hard-won progress made in the years after the Taliban were ousted. Pashtana’s first child was stillborn, painfully delivered at home. Her last, three years old when I met her, was born in comfort at a clinic, which had monitored the health of both mother and unborn child throughout the pregnancy. Pashtana’s 19-year-old married daughter had access to birth control and healthcare.
She belongs to a generation of Afghan women who have known the right to speak and to be acknowledged. America’s impending exit from Afghanistan puts all of that in peril.