Now that the elections are over, President Obama has been sworn in for a second term, and everyone knows what dress the First Lady chose to wear to the inaugural ball, it is time to discuss one of the most important topics in U.S. foreign policy: the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. In particular, policy makers need to be realistic about the effects this event will have on women within the country. Considering Secretary Panetta’s recent decision to allow women to serve in combat roles in the U.S. military, it is appropriate that this issue should be discussed. After all, women in Afghanistan have been serving in a defensive role, in some capacity, since the day they were born.
Under the Taliban regime, women were forced to adhere to strict purdah practices that prevented them from gaining an education, seeking health care from a male physician, or even leaving their home without a male guardian. They constantly lived in fear of honor killings, acid attacks, or even worse if they dared defied the rules of Sharia Law. With the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 by U.S. forces, there has been a slow relaxation of harsh policies regarding women’s rights in Afghanistan. Women have been able to become entrepreneurs, politicians, soldiers, and police officers in an effort to step out of the shadows that they have been forced to hide in for so long. Now that NATO and U.S. forces are planning to leave the country earlier than expected, it is conceivable that women within Afghanistan would be afraid about their future. Will they be forced to return to their homes never again to know the freedom that they have been enjoying over the past 11 years? Will their daughters be required to drop out of school and denied the opportunity to create a better future for themselves?
It is important to note that women played a major role in our counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan. They were great sources of human intelligence because they knew the insurgency groups better than American soldier. They knew the fighters, the hideouts, and the tactics, and they were willing to talk to female Allied soldiers. Female police officers were also integral to our mission because they performed special tasks could not, such as searching the home or frisking other women. Women, such as the deceased Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar, have risked their lives in an effort to improve conditions in Afghanistan, and the U.S. must ensure their efforts were not in vain.
So how can the United States, in particular the Obama Administration, convey to the women of Afghanistan that a physical withdrawal from the country does not mean abandonment? First, and most importantly, policy makers should acknowledge the affect that the withdrawal will have on women and convey that to the American people. Even though the public is war weary, it cannot cast aside the plight of the Afghani women. Second, the U.S. must not allow the Karzai Administration to renege on women’s rights within the country. The mandatory quotas for reserved seats for women in political office must not be overturned. Furthermore, they should encourage the development of a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security in Afghanistan similar to the one developed by the White House in 2011. Third, and finally, NATO forces should continue to train female Afghan security forces even though they are beginning the transition. It is important that these women be prepared to serve when the Afghan National Security Forces assume responsibility and control of security for the country.
The women of Afghanistan are counting on the United States to advocate for the human rights that have been denied to them in the past. We must not let them down. We must demonstrate through our words and our actions that withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean an abandonment of the fight for the civil liberties of the women in the country.