Blinken defends US withdrawal from Afghanistan and pledges more support

Secretary of State presses Taliban on improving treatment of women and girls

'Any normal relationship between the Taliban and other countries will be blocked unless and until the rights of women and girls – among other things – are actually supported,' US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Getty Images
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday defended the US decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan two years ago and vowed to continue to support the Afghan people, including doing more to defend the rights of women and girls living under Taliban rule.

“The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was an incredibly difficult one, but also the right one,” Mr Blinken said.

“We ended America's longest war. For the first time in 20 years, we don't have another generation of young Americans going to fight and die in Afghanistan.”

On August 15, 2021, the administration of President Joe Biden hastily withdrew American troops from Kabul, ending two decades of war but also paving the way for the Taliban to return to ruling the country.

While the Taliban initially promised more moderate rule but they have steadily imposed their extreme interpretation of Islamic law, reversing many hard-won freedoms for women and girls.

Women have been barred from secondary schools and universities as well as many jobs. They are even forbidden from entering public parks or gyms.

In its latest moves last month, the Taliban ordered the closing of all beauty salons and barred a number of women from working in nurseries, cutting off important revenue streams in a country racked by poverty.

The new rules have become a major obstacle to the Taliban gaining any formal recognition by world powers as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

“We continue to work with the Taliban accountable for the mistakes made and not fulfilled, particularly when it comes to the rights of women and girls,” Mr Blinken said.

“We've been very clear with the Taliban and dozens of countries around the world: any normal relationship between the Taliban and other countries will be blocked unless and until the rights of women and girls – among other things – are actually supported.”

Mr Blinken said that between the period of the withdrawal and today, nearly 34,000 Special Immigrant Visas have been issued to Afghan applicants and their family members.

Afghans who were either employed by the US military or American security contractors, or are the dependents of someone who was are eligible for the visas.

A massive backlog in applications, however, has meant that the approval process has been slow. According to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, more than 97,000 Afghans have lawfully arrived in the US since August 2021.

Since the Taliban returned to power, an existing humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated, leading it to become one of the worst in the world.

Mr Blinken said that the US remains the primary donor to the Afghan people, sending $1.9 billion in aid since August 2021.

Most major donors, including international aid agencies, have frozen their projects in the country, worried funds would fall into the Taliban's hands.

“We have some enduring commitments when it comes to Afghanistan – those haven't changed,” Mr Blinken said.

Addressing the issue of the unfolding deal with Iran involving the release of four American prisoners from prison to house arrest, Mr Blinken said the Biden administration's policy towards Tehran has not changed.

Iranian state media reported that the prisoners were released in exchange for the unfreezing of $6 billion in state funds held in South Korea.

“Nothing about our overall approach to Iran has changed,” Mr Blinken said.

“We continue to pursue a strategy for deterrence, pressure and diplomacy, we remain committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.”

The US Secretary of State said the funds held in South Korea are intended for humanitarian purposes and would be subject to strict oversight.

“From day one of our sanctions, there has always been an exemption for the use of funds for humanitarian purposes,” Mr Blinken said.

“Iran will not have direct access to these funds, there will be significant oversight and visibility from the United States.”

Updated: August 15, 2023, 6:23 PM