How did Afghan women become a minor matter? – opinion

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In March 2010, Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State under then-President Barack Obama, made solemn vows to Afghan officials visiting Washington. “We will not let you down, we will always be with you,” she said.

No wonder, then, that President Joe Biden’s recent decision to Withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan September with the promise to continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls. But the harsh reality is that America’s commitment to the country’s women has always sounded pretty hollow.

In the run-up to the US-led invasion in 2001 and in the early days of the conflict, the George W. Bush administration’s liberation of women was highlighted not just as a convenient aftermath, but a key objective of the intervention.

Weeks after the US forces arrived in Afghanistan, First Lady Laura Bush gave the president’s weekly radio address, arguing that the war on terrorism was “a struggle for the rights and dignity of women”. She called on the Americans to help “ensure that dignity and opportunities are secured for all women and children in Afghanistan.”

Unlike the Iraq war around 18 months later, the Afghan invasion did not spark any major street protests. The politicization of women’s rights has undoubtedly helped build public support for the war.

Pictures of burqa-clad women graced the front pages of major magazines as the mainstream media predicted a major liberation following the ousting of the fundamentalist Taliban. Indeed, the immediate aftermath of the invasion brought significant economic and social advancement. Afghan women and girls saw better education and employment opportunities, which led to greater political participation.

But these gains were largely confined to urban women. Women who live outside of major cities – an estimated 76% of the population – have changed little. US officials wrongly estimated that eliminating the Taliban would be enough to permanently improve the status of Afghan women. They failed to understand the deeply patriarchal character of Afghan society and the resulting deadlocked social systems.

Washington wanted a quick fix and just poured large sums of money into the country. The resulting aid programs were often poorly designed and implemented, with funds being returned to US contractors. Worse, women were often not asked about programs designed for them.

In 2018, a US aid program called Promote, which aims to support 75,000 Afghan women, was criticized for its lack of effectiveness and transparency. A US watchdog used by Congress to oversee reconstruction in Afghanistan described concerns that “Afghan women involved in the program may not have tangible benefits when it is completed”. Afghanistan’s First Lady Rula Ghani also criticized the program and told a development forum in Washington: “Women don’t need workshops and certificates. You need real, hard skills. “

A few years later, the same watchdog published another scathing report on US stabilization efforts in the country.

“Even in the best of circumstances, stabilization takes time,” warns the report. “Without the patience and political will for a planned and ongoing effort, large-scale stabilization missions are likely to fail.”

As the conflict continued, women’s rights were sacrificed or simply forgotten as senior US officials looked for a way out. Already during Obama’s first term, when Secretary of State Clinton made her vows to Afghan women, the US began to reduce its ambitions and focus on “more achievable” political and military goals. 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, “We cannot succeed if we maintain every special interest and favorite project. All of these pet rocks [women] in our backpack brought us to the ground. “

Afghanistan had a dubious reputation for several years as the most dangerous country in the world for women. While health services have improved significantly, large discrepancies have persisted. In the eastern province of Nuristan, maternal and reproductive health care remained appallingly low.

In February 2020, then-President Donald Trump brokered a US-Taliban peace deal that ruled out the Afghan government – which has its own troubled record of helping women in the country – and failed to mention women’s rights.

As part of the deal, the Taliban agreed to stop the killing of US and coalition forces. In the months that followed, the Taliban largely kept their promise while stepping up the killing of Afghan civilians, especially women.

Politically, women are largely excluded from shaping the future of their country, even though they are at the forefront of the country’s reconstruction. A joint 2020 report by Oxfam, Cordaid and Inclusive Peace found that nearly 80% of the quotas for peace negotiations in Afghanistan exclude women.

The US paid lip service to the inclusion of women at the negotiating table but failed to use its leverage to pressure the Afghan government to implement laws to protect and empower Afghan women. As a result, the US’s planned or orderly exit could be appalling for the myriad of Afghan women who have been promised international assistance.

Around 21% of Afghan civil servants are women and, thanks to constitutional guarantees, women hold more than a quarter (28%) of the seats in parliament. But as leading observers fear a takeover of the Taliban after the US withdrawal, these women will lose most of the troops

There is a palpable sense of betrayal among Afghan women, many too young to remember life under Taliban rule.

“The US presented itself as a savior to legitimize the invasion,” says Pashtana Durrani, a human rights activist from Kandahar and director of a digital literacy program for people in rural areas. “We don’t need any rescuers. We are simply claiming 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 left us. “

While the Biden government has promised to continue providing 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 mean a drastic cut in funds required to provide essential services.

“The evacuation of the soldiers will in no way reduce the need for assistance,” she said. “It will only make it easier for donor countries to turn their backs and ignore a humanitarian catastrophe that is already occurring due to the sharp rise in poverty rates during the pandemic.”

Washington’s willingness to forget the very women it once fostered its war with is a symbol of the broader failure of US politics. The overarching goals were to eradicate the terrorist presence and create stability and security in Afghanistan, and to achieve broader rights and opportunities for women. Twenty years later, as U.S. forces prepare to take off, Washington may have failed in every way.

The author is a London based author and researcher on armed violence and foreign affairs.

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