The South Asia Channel

Washington's war for Afghanistan's women

As Sunday's spectacular attack in Kabul showed, the war in Afghanistan may be winding down in Washington, but it is heating up on the ground with spring's arrival.

And in Foggy Bottom and, to a lesser degree, on Capitol Hill, a battle is on for American hearts and minds even as calls for immediate withdrawal grow louder.  The objective: to keep Afghan women from falling off the political agenda while Washington and its NATO allies hunt desperately for a diplomatic solution to America's longest-ever war.  As the NATO summit in Chicago approaches - and women to date still have no formal role - that fight gets more urgent.

"Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all," said Sec. of State Hillary Clinton at a luncheon for the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, an organization started under President George W. Bush to support programs benefiting Afghan women. "We will continue to stand with and work closely with Afghan women. And we will be working closely with the international community as well, because we all need to be vigilant and disciplined in our support and in our refusal to accept the erosion of women's rights and freedoms."

Former First Lady Laura Bush echoed the Secretary's comments.

"The failure to protect women's rights and to ensure their security could undermine the significant gains Afghan women have achieved," said Mrs. Bush.  "No one wants to see Afghanistan's progress reversed or its people returned to the perilous circumstances that marked the Taliban's rule."

Clinton, Bush and their allies face an uphill fight.  Today a record-high 69 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. And the recent alleged killing of unarmed Afghan civilians by an American soldier has cemented public desire to call an end to the war that began just after the attacks of September 11.

President Obama did not once mention Afghan women in his 2009 speech at West Point, and members of his administration have been quoted as likening the country's women to "pet rocks."

It wasn't always this way. In 2001, Washington leaders regularly invoked the plight of women, who had just endured years of Taliban rule that barred them from school and work.  Afghan women became something of a cause célèbre worldwide, and the return of women to public life was seen as among the most positive byproducts of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Then-First Lady Laura Bush spoke out in support of Afghan women during a weekly presidential radio broadcast in 2001, and made high-profile visits to women's projects while visiting the country. 

A decade later, members of Mrs. Bush's team acknowledge the challenge they face convincing the American public that supporting Afghan women on the way out of the country matters.

"It is hard for people to see the endgame and that is what I think contributes to the frustration," says Mrs. Bush's former chief of staff, Anita McBride. "This is not high on the radar screen because it is challenging and the solution seems so far away."

Those working closely with Sec. Clinton acknowledge the battle to keep women front and center is not easy.  But they say they see an increased acknowledgment throughout the State Department and in the president's recent executive order on U.N. Resolution 1325 that women matter when it comes to peace. 

"While clearly there is a strong, strong desire for the end of this (war), the big concern is the state of the women -- what happens to Afghan women and that they not somehow be forgotten," says Ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer. "There is a recognition that for the genuine end of conflict and for the ability to reconcile with whomever it is possible to reconcile with, that the women have to be a part of that."

Those who have spoken out about the need to end the war swiftly say they agree.

"I came away strongly feeling that as we do draw down there that we have to retain a focus on these gains and whatever is necessary diplomatically or through our aid, that we can't neglect women," says Rep. Niki Tsongas of a recent trip to Afghanistan. "You have to publicly continue to raise the issue. That is the very least what we can continue to do, to publicly raise the issue and the importance of just trying to protect and secure those gains."

Tsongas did just that at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing with Gen. John Allen.  

"The question is, as we draw down from Afghanistan over the next several years, what can we do to make sure that we don't lose the hard-fought gains for the rights of Afghan women, 50 percent of the population? And what, if any, leverage will we have as we go through this process and after our withdrawal is complete?" she asked.

But is more than rhetorical support from those who support Afghan women's progress even possible?

"It is difficult, because I think that even for those who care very deeply about the status of Afghan women there is a little bit of schizophrenia, because I think some of us recognize that whatever the future is for Afghan women, the kind of military footprint that we have in Afghanistan can't go on another decade," says Rep. Donna Edwards, who co-chairs the Afghan Women's Task Force in Congress. "I believe that it is possible for us to construct a strategy where we make those kinds of civilian investments that will enable investments where it is possible to support women entrepreneurs, to support women in education, to support women as parliamentarians, I think it is possible to do that and I don't think we have too many more options left."

So what do the women at the center of all the discussion think of all the discussion of their future? Most say they simply want to be part of the conversation about their own country, particularly as they work to elbow their way into the discussions in Chicago next month.   And they want to know what, exactly, leaders of the international community means when they say to women that "we will not abandon you," as Sec. Clinton has repeatedly.

"We women are no more the priority for the world, that is true," says Samira Hamidi of the Afghan Women's Network.  "The international community is in a rush for withdrawal, but at the same time they keep repeating and pushing the theme that we will remain with you."

Hamidi says women want clarity on what, exactly, those assurances mean. Says Hamidi, "in ten years whatever has happened for women is because of the struggle and participation of women.  We are still fighting for our rights, for our inclusion, to be part of decisions and to be decision makers."

What Hamidi and other women leaders say they seek are assurances that any Taliban negotiations will keep in tact the Afghan constitution of the past decade, with its guarantee of equal opportunities, including the right to work and go to school, as well as a set-aside of a quarter of parliamentary seats for women.  More than two million Afghan girls are now in school, with thousands in university, and civil society leaders want them to stay there.  Women also want to be at the table, not outside the room, in any diplomatic discussions that will decide their country's future shape.   That starts with Chicago next month.

Women say they are not asking for favors, but to be part of their own societies.  They can speak up for themselves, and they are, but they could use the backing of big-dollar international donors who will be funding their government's security forces for years to come.  

"The worrying part for me in 2014 is not that the international community is leaving -- troops are leaving, they have to leave this is a reality.  We can't expect them to stay in Afghanistan for years and years, but for me what is important is how powerful our own security forces will be in 2014, how responsive they will be to women's needs.  Those are things that the international community can really make their funding conditional on."

Those who support Afghan women say that if the world wants to see any progress achieved in Afghanistan continue, it will support civil society leaders like Hamidi - between now and 2014, and beyond.

"Increasingly, across the board, people get the fact that this is pragmatic, that you can't get from here to there on the items all of us want to see [in Afghanistan] without women," Verveer says.   "Is it a guarantee? Well, we can't write the future.  None of us knows exactly what is going to happen.  We are dealing with a hypothetical and the best we can all do is to make sure that everything is in place as best as it can be as this continues to go forward."

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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