What will happen to Afghan women when the United States begins withdrawing troops later this year? Will women be thrown under the bus as soldiers head for the exits?
To find out what Afghan women think, my colleague Sarah Smiles Persinger and I authored the report Afghan Women Speak, based on more than 50 interviews in Kabul with policymakers, diplomats, military officers, and most importantly Afghan women, including female parliamentarians, activists, health and NGO workers.
The women we interviewed realize they cannot achieve progress in a militarized environment. They favor a peace process and reconciliation with the Taliban and insurgent groups. But they do not want a peace that is purchased at their expense.
The challenge is how to demilitarize while preserving the gains women have achieved in recent years.
Since 2001, Afghan women and girls have experienced significant improvements in their lives. They have seized opportunities to go to school, earn an income and participate in public life – all denied to them during Taliban years. More than 7 million Afghan children are now in school – 37 per cent of them girls – compared to only 900,000 boys in 2002. Health care has become more widely available, and hundreds of midwives have been trained in a push to lower maternal mortality rates. The Afghan Parliament has a 25 per cent reserve quota for women.
These gains are real but they are in danger because of rising violence and insurgency. Taliban influence has spread, and reactionary former warlords hold sway in parts of the Kabul government. Anger and resentment towards Western military involvement has produced a backlash towards the "women's rights discourse," which is seen as an alien imposition by many Afghans. Women exercising leadership skills are often called anti-Islamic, Western agents, or prostitutes, and subject to death threats and intimidation. Some high-profile women have been assassinated.
Hundreds of schools have been closed, and girl students have been targeted for attack. Health clinics have been closed as health workers are abducted and killed. Insecurity has limited women's participation in the electoral process and public life. Electoral participation rates for women and men have declined since the high point of 2005.
Despite all of this, the majority of women we interviewed support a peace process because they know that women and girls are suffering from war. They can see their rights eroding as violence increases.
Our report offers suggestions for gradually reducing the U.S. military presence while protecting security and preserving political, economic and social opportunity.
Addressing the security situation is paramount. To protect civilians and avoid a security vacuum as U.S. troops leave, we propose the deployment of an interim security force from Muslim countries, to be deployed as Western troops withdraw.
The proposed security force would operate under the auspices of the United Nations, with a mission of providing population-centric protection during an interim period. Taliban leaders have supported the deployment of such a force and have pledged not to attack it.
As U.S.-led forces cease operations and pull back to their bases in advance of withdrawal, the interim security force could be introduced. It would need to be paid and equipped by the United States and its NATO allies. Remaining Western troops could help train the force. The interim security force would operate for a limited period under UN authority with the consent of the Afghan government.
The draw down in foreign troops must be accompanied by long-term, sustained investment in aid projects that support Afghan women and families. Because development funding has been linked to military objectives and aid money has been concentrated in areas with the most fighting, foreign governments will be tempted to reduce aid programs as they begin to withdraw troops. This would be a tragedy for Afghanistan's future, and a slap at women's rights.
CARE and other aid organizations have identified social programs that are effective at improving the lives of women and families, especially in the areas of education and healthcare – such as improving access to secondary education for girls, training female health workers and expanding economic opportunities for women in rural areas.
One of the best ways to prevent a roll back in women's gains is to ensure that women are meaningfully represented in all peace discussions and forums. So far, Afghan women have had to fight hard to have their voices heard in the various discussions and peace jirgas convened in recent years. Western policymakers have significant leverage with the Afghan government that should be used to ensure that women are included in high-level decision-making forums. Secretary of State Clinton has displayed exemplary leadership in advocating for Afghan women's rights. Other U.S. officials should follow her lead.
Many stakeholders in the West have had high expectations about empowering Afghan women, but we have learned over the past decade that deeply rooted gender prejudices and misogyny will not be erased rapidly and certainly not by outside forces. Nonetheless the United States and other donor states have significant leverage, which must be used to improve security, preserve women's political rights, support Afghan women's organizations actively working for change, and sustain programs for public health, education, and economic opportunity that have improved women's lives.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Cortright.
Editor's Note: David Cortright is the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of seventeen books, including most recently "Ending Obama's War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan" (Paradigm Press, 2011). He testifies this week at a hearing on women in Afghanistan before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives.