In the Country of Men

What does the US owe the Afghan women we're leaving behind?

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The United States invaded Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, and earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced that U.S. forces will finally withdraw. This decades-long war has extracted a heavy toll: some 241,000 lives, according to the Cost of War project, a number that “includes at least 71,344 civilians; 2,442 American service members; 78,314 Afghan military and police; and 84,191 opposition fighters.” And lately, the death numbers include several female journalists, gunned down by religious conservatives for simply trying to live, work, and improve their country.

As the U.S. prepares to pull its troops out and restore power to the obscene misogynists of the Taliban, there are two moral necessities that are impossible to fully reconcile. We should not be in Afghanistan. And we also should not leave women to fend for themselves in a nation about to be re-taken by some of the most virulently oppressive men on the planet.

Anyone who tells you that they know how to solve this problem is either stupid or lying.

I’ve found conversations about this issue frustrating because without good answers, we retreat to platitudes and ideological certainties. Women’s rights advocates wring our hands about the dark future we can see coming, while some men on the left accuse feminists and concerned reporters of being pro-war propaganda agents. It’s easier, I suppose, if you can simply put aside any concern about women as mere propaganda, a distraction from whatever else is more important. It’s very difficult when you don’t believe women’s rights are negotiable, and you also believe that the forever wars the U.S. has launched are intolerable and reprehensible, and must end.

The complicated truth is that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban government has been both good and bad for Afghan women. It’s impossible to argue that a violent invasion followed by two decades of bloodshed is good; women lost their lives, their husbands, their children, their basic sense of physical security. It’s also true that Afghan women have gained significant freedoms over the last 20 years; girls are going to school in record numbers; far more women are working for pay and enjoying the attendant freedoms; more are in elected office and participating in the electoral system; and far fewer are dying in childbirth. These gains have disproportionately come in cities, though. According to a really excellent report from the Crisis Group, women in rural areas, who have born more of the brunt of American warfare, are more likely to want an end to the war, even if it means the Taliban resuming power.

There are no perfect solutions; there aren’t even many good solutions. But there are a few ways to potentially lessen the damage done to Afghan women by the U.S. withdrawal. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be doing many of them.

First is simply recognizing that we made big promises to the women of Afghanistan, and to take responsibility for our debt instead of leaving them to manage the coming backlash. Both women and men took tremendous risks to assist the U.S.; many women believed the Americans when we said that we would support their efforts to advocate for women’s rights, to tell their own stories, to work for pay, and to challenge the conservative culture the Taliban imposed. The very least we could do now is offer safe haven to the folks who helped us, and to the women who trusted us and took great personal risks to fight for feminist change. Biden, unfortunately, has been very conservative on refugee policy, not budging significantly from the Trump years. That needs to change in many different directions, but certainly when it comes to women’s rights advocates who we encouraged in Afghanistan. I hope they can stay and fight for their rights in their own country. But if it’s unsafe for them to do so, we have a responsibility to open our doors.

Women should have be a part of the peace process — and yet they were largely left out, which is just unforgivable in the year 2021, after a war that was partially sold on the promise of securing women’s rights. At peace talks in Moscow, there was just one lone woman in the delegation of Afghan politicians and officials; there wasn’t a single woman in the Taliban delegation (not surprising, but a pretty clear indication that the Taliban hasn’t changed nearly as much as they claim they have). Of 42 negotiators representing the Afghan government in talks in Doha, four were female. Half of the population is simply being pushed to the periphery of plan for their country’s future. And that certainly doesn’t bode well for how they’ll be treated when there’s no longer any incentive to even pretend to care about women’s rights. Female Afghan journalists are already living this out, and are grieving for the future of women in their country.

A U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan also doesn’t mean the total removal of U.S. aid from Afghanistan. Much of that aid should be focused on — and some of it perhaps conditioned on — democratic norms (including voting rights for women and protection of minorities), freedom of speech, and, if not perfect gender equality, at least basic rights for women, equal opportunities for political representation and education, and big steps away from the misogynist theocracy previously imposed by the Taliban. There are a whole lot of women in Afghanistan who are working in their communities to make life better for women and girls; they certainly deserve America’s financial backing.

That is the very least they deserve. It’s criminally inadequate. It’s unfair. It’s devastating. And it’s perhaps the least bad of a series of bad options.

But we should be honest about it: The burdens of American militarism, fecklessness, and cynical, fair-weather feminism are been left on the shoulders of Afghan women. If nothing else, we should own that ugly truth.

xx Jill

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Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons