Concerns are mounting from bipartisan US lawmakers and Afghan women’s rights activists that the hard-won gains for women and civil society in Afghanistan could be lost if the United States makes a precipitous withdrawal from the country.
President Joe Biden has suggested it will be difficult to meet the May 1 deadline for US troops to leave the country as dictated in the deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban. However, there are fears that if the US withdraws troops before the conditions on the ground are right – regardless of the date on the calendar – there will be a sharp and possibly catastrophic backslide.
“Today women in Afghanistan have a very special place. They are stronger than ever and they have achieved what has never been achieved before: they cannot be ignored. They will not be ignored,” Fatima Gailani, an Afghan women’s rights activist and one of the four women on the Afghan government’s negotiating team, said at a recent congressional Women, Peace, and Security Caucus virtual discussion.
Fawzia Koofi, one of the other women on the government’s team for talks with the Taliban, recalled that “in 2001, when the Taliban government was thrown out of power, I along with thousands and millions of Afghans could walk in the streets of Kabul freely without the fear of being whipped or beaten up for what I wear.”
“Then the important thing for me was not who is in Afghanistan, which superpower is in Afghanistan, the troops of which country is in my country. The important thing for me was, as a human being, I could walk and breathe free,” said Koofi, a member of Parliament who has survived two assassination attempts – at least one by the Taliban.
“Afghanistan has transformed and we have all invested blood and treasure to bring Afghanistan to where it is,” she said.
Progress ‘could evaporate’
Gailani told those at the virtual discussion that an American troop withdrawal from the country must be “extremely careful.” Koofi’s assessment: “If the US leaves now, it will not result in peace.”
Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, who serves as co-chair of the Women, Peace, and Security Caucus, said when he served in Afghanistan as a Special Forces officer he saw “girls schools machine gunned with the girls in them.”
“I’ve seen acid thrown on their faces,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous gains. We need to protect those gains.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, told CNN that she’s “very concerned” that the gains made by women in Afghanistan will not be protected if the US withdraws.