The prospect of a political solution to the Afghan war has generated much public debate about the fate of Afghan women. Since the overthrow of the Taliban by U.S.-led forces in 2001, the promotion of Afghan women's rights has been a highly politicized appendage of the military intervention. International efforts to assist women have produced mixed results: while Afghan women have achieved improvements in their health, education, and economic and political participation, escalating violence has eroded those gains in many provinces. Women exercising leadership abilities or pursuing opportunities provided by Western donors have been accused of being anti-Islamic and subjected to threats, attack, and assassination. Because of the symbolic and cultural value of women in Islamic society, differing views on women's roles have been a battleground over which competing visions for Afghan society and claims to power have been fought. Women — so often objectified in times of war — have been at the frontlines of the Afghan conflict.
The Afghan Government's policy of reconciling with the Taliban and insurgent groups and the prospect of U.S. and NATO troop withdrawals have heightened fears among some Afghan women that their interests may be abandoned. While the majority of the women interviewed for this study support a negotiated end to the war — pointing to the erosion of many of their gains as the insurgency has intensified since 2005–2006 — they harbor serious concerns that their gains may be sacrificed in a peace deal. Interviewees voiced fears about a return to Taliban-style Sharia law and a loss of their constitutional rights, mobility and access to work and education should insurgent leaders gain political influence. Already women's gains are being eroded in Taliban-held areas. They also worry about a return to civil war if foreign troops are withdrawn precipitously.
In highlighting the concerns and status of Afghan women, this report aims to provide options for Western policymakers to protect women's gains while pursuing political solutions to the conflict. While some commentators have suggested that prolonged military occupation is necessary to safeguard women's gains, this report argues that it will be impossible for girls and women to consolidate their gains in a militarized environment. U.S.-led forces have been unable to provide security or protect Afghan civilians in many areas. As the scale of the military intervention has increased, the insurgency has become stronger and the influence of the Taliban and armed groups has spread. The presence of foreign troops has been identified as a major factor driving the insurgency, along with widespread resentment of a corrupt central government and the abuses of predatory strongmen. The climate of insecurity and impunity has produced new forms of powerlessness for many Afghan women and girls, who have been widowed, displaced, trafficked, and forced into marriage as a direct or indirect result of the conflict.
Many stakeholders in the West have high expectations about empowering Afghan women, but prevailing Afghan gender ideologies and misogyny cannot be changed rapidly or by outside forces. The United States and NATO governments have significant influence, however, which should 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.
This report supports the negotiation of a political solution with insurgent groups and gradual demilitarization to help stabilize the region and reduce armed violence. However, the process should be gradual and linked to parallel diplomatic efforts and alternative security arrangements. Demilitarization should be coupled with the deployment of an interim protection force under the auspices of the United Nations to provide transitional security protection for civilians.
To guard against a roll back in women's gains, the meaningful representation of women in all peace negotiations and post-conflict recovery planning is critical. As recognized in UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889, women have a vital role to play in building and preserving peace. They must be fully represented in deliberations over Afghanistan's future.
International donors must use their leverage with the Afghan government to ensure women's inclusion in high-level peace negotiation and reintegration bodies, making funding for reintegration programs conditional on women's participation.
Because development funding has been linked to military objectives, foreign governments may be tempted to reduce aid programs as they begin to withdraw troops. This would be a disaster for Afghanistan's future and undermine the gains women have achieved. Any political agreement and draw down in foreign troops must be tied to a social compact that provides for long-term, sustainable investment in aid projects that support Afghan women and families.
The prospect of reconciliation is nonetheless fraught with risk. The danger of renewed restrictions on women if insurgent leaders are brought into the political mainstream is very real. The U.S. and NATO governments therefore have a responsibility to grant asylum to women who face continuing threats on their lives for their perceived association with Western interests.
The report reviews the history of women's rights reforms in Afghanistan, assesses donor efforts to empower women since 2001, analyzes the security situation and its impact on women, and details women's concerns about proposed reconciliation efforts. It concludes with recommendations for U.S./NATO policymakers.