In the 18th year of the United States’ war in Afghanistan, many people are having a hard time keeping up with the conflict and painting a well-rounded picture of the quality of life on the ground and the positive outcomes of US intervention. This is primarily due to the morbid and chaotic picture of Afghanistan that mainstream news outlets have embedded into our minds. We are so used to hearing from our media of the failures in Afghanistan. From articles to televised debates, critics are adamant about explaining how there is no victory to be won on the battlefield in Afghanistan. In my own research into the ways US intervention has brought about positive changes in Afghanistan, I have continuously run into articles and coverage that ignored and dismissed the progress made across Afghanistan. Has the war negatively affected the country? Of course, but this does not mean that the negative outcomes outweigh the positive progress that has been made. The presence of US troops on the ground crumbled Taliban strongholds in the country and still maintains a defensive position aimed at protecting, helping and supporting the Afghan government–especially preserving the rights of Afghan women and minorities. With the recent climate of US presence in Afghanistan, many are calling to prioritize withdrawal and bring an end to the war. However, the withdrawal of troops cannot come at the expense of the Afghan people or at the cost of losing all the progress that has been made over the years.
Furthermore, due to US intervention, the international community and activists on the ground, have made historic strides in various sectors of life in Afghanistan. Cultural attitudes have changed about women pursuing their education. In a country where a woman leaving her house without a male chaperone was once frowned upon, Afghan parents are now supporting their daughters in their higher education and career pursuits. For example, as community leader Abdul Qadar Rahimi, head of Herat’s Human Rights Commission, explains, in Herat women make up 50% or more of the student population and families in Herat are more positive about educating women. Overall in Afghanistan, women now make up 25% of the student population within higher education institutions–institutions that they were barred from attending just one decade ago. Since 2001, the number of children enrolled in General Education, grades 1-12, has risen almost nine times. The National Education Plan’s 2017 report shows that the number of schools has increased from 3,400 to 16,400 across the country, signifying the greater emphasis that’s been placed on education for all within the last decade.
Many improvements have also been made in the healthcare sector across the country. Many internationally backed Afghan-led operations like the Afghan Midwives Association are training midwives and providing safe childbirth options to women in rural areas that have a tough time getting to hospitals to give birth. According to the Central Asia Institute, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health states “just a decade ago, 1,600 of every 100,000 births ended with the death of the mother. In 2013, 327 of every 100,000 women died while giving birth.” The number continues to decrease with recent studies as well. To date, the Afghan Midwives Association has trained over 3,500 midwives. On top of that, groups are focusing on accompanying factors such as literacy, road quality and accessibility, and public health awareness in order to tackle the problems threatening safe delivery and endangering the reproductive and maternal health of women.
Although all of this progress exists today, many couldn’t have imagined improvements like the ones made in education and healthcare even a decade ago. Taliban rule posed threats on the quality of life for the Afghan people, especially in the areas of healthcare, education and civil rights. With the Taliban in power, lack of access to healthcare coupled with little to no education on health-related issues led to high rates of maternal mortality and various other medical issues for women and men. Even today, women in remote areas have to overcome many difficulties in order to access healthcare. In contrast, women that live in the province of Herat are more able to give birth in hospitals located in the city. But women in rural districts have to travel through unsafe and dangerous conditions to get to a hospital–many don’t make it through the journey. This was especially true under the Taliban rule, when maternal mortality and reproductive health conditions declined further.
Another reason for these problems largely has to do with the restrictions women were subjected to under the Taliban. There were very few female doctors, and male doctors were severely limited in their ability to treat female patients, as it was forbidden for them to touch women or even lift their burqa. This was a practice enforced by Taliban guards stationed at hospitals who could interfere in a routine medical checkup at any time if they suspected that the doctor had violated the rules of the Taliban. This is just one example of how the Taliban’s repressive ideologies manifested negatively in the lives of women, children and the Afghan people.
Similarly, schools were closed, and extremist Islamic law was enforced through public executions and force under the Taliban. Women were barred from going to school and couldn’t even leave their houses alone or without being fully covered. Their bodies, choices and potential were all matters of discussion that didn’t involve them. The Taliban weaponized “traditional and religious values” as a mechanism to introduce and enact oppressive laws that disproportionately punished and policed women’s bodies and ambition. Women weren’t permitted to run for office or aspire for a career in legal services. They were denied their place in the government and were left out of the country’s decision-making process. Their voices silenced, their rights watered down, and their needs ignored.
Afghan feminists and activists have explained how difficult life was for them living under Taliban rule. Activist Adela Kabiri explains that “the Taliban took four years of my life, when I was very young…I should have had time to study and enjoy my life but they didn’t allow me to even leave our home. I will never get those years back”. Under Taliban power, even the smallest transgressions had devastating consequences for the people of Afghanistan, especially the women. Education activist Susan Behboudzada ran one of the many secret underground schools for girls where her students were sometimes scared to even come to school out of fear of being punished by the Taliban. The Taliban was adamant about making public examples out of women whose choices don’t align with their ideologies and stringent values . She describes how two of her relatives were lashed for forgetting to wear their burqas when they went out shopping. Behboudzada speaks about how “the Taliban lashed them so much that one of them died 20 days later and the other one has been living with mental problems for the last 19 years”. The women who grew up when the Taliban came into power in 1994 are still suffering from the life altering effects of the authoritarian regime.
In recent years, Afghan women have taken to social media and to the streets, vowing that they will not go back to the repressive control of the Taliban. One of the most important movements for women’s rights and peace is led by Afghan women running and working with local Afghan activist networks. Palwasha Khakkar, Senior Program Officer on religion and inclusive societies at the U.S. Institute of Peace, explains that “after 18 years of American-backed governments, Afghan women and the society have changed significantly for the better with the emergence of female entrepreneurs, political leaders, and even nightly news anchors.” Afghan women are entering dangerous Taliban territory to mediate conflict and resolve issues that otherwise could have ended in bloodshed and violence. Women are moving to build their communities from the ground up with every new opportunity. Over the years of American intervention pushing back the Taliban, the country has seen women rise into leadership positions with such determination. Many women have taken their rightful place in government positions: In 2017, the head of the Afghan Women Judges Association announced that there are 300 female judges in Afghanistan. In Herat, women have many more leadership positions than before, and this is the first time in the history of the Herat province that a woman is the head of the Department of Finance. Women are–and have been–fighting for the right to control their own futures, while simultaneously building better communities.
This is why they deserve a seat at the table in the current U.S-Afghan peace talks. In the recent discussion over US presence in Afghanistan, ongoing peace talks between the US and the Taliban have resulted in the slow drafting of a peace deal which is still being debated in ongoing negotiations. These direct talks with the Taliban are led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who is working to safely bring an end to the war in Afghanistan. The Trump administration announced the launch of its new Afghanistan strategy that emphasizes the inclusion of women in peace talks and negotiations following the guidelines of the Women, Peace and Security Act signed in 2017. With much push from different sides supporting women, the bipartisan bill was the first of its kind to pave the way for women to be at peace talks as decision makers and negotiators. It provided a seat at the table that would’ve been unattainable just a couple years ago. It is an opportunity for half the population to be heard.
However, there has been a lot of talk, especially from the White House, on the abrupt withdrawal of troops and pulling America out of Afghanistan without any real mention of the consequences of these actions. The absence of US presence right now wouldn’t simply destroy the progress that has been made in Afghanistan. It would put the lives of innocent people–especially Afghan women and minorities that have been working to build a better Afghanistan–in grave danger. Trump’s recent critique of American troops acting as policemen in the country comes without the administration truly understanding and recognizing the cost that the Afghan people have been paying for this war too. They don’t need another war or more violence. They are hellbent on peace and a home where it is safe for their children to grow up and experience all the curves of life, liberty and happiness.
Afghan women know that there is much more work to be done, and they are afraid that all the progress that they have put their lives at stake for could simply vanish overnight. Many worry that if the United States rashly pulls out of Afghanistan now, the Taliban will not hesitate to revert back to its oppressive practices– and that women will bear the worst of it all. The US must ensure that the provisions of the Women, Peace and Security Act are enforced in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and acknowledge that the current peace-keeping is still critical to allow community-based work to flourish. My recent interview with Gaisu Yari, an activist, previous Feminist Majority Foundation scholar, and recent Afghan government appointee, emphasizes this reality: “Women have made great progress but we haven’t acheived full equality. Women to this day in Afghanistan still suffer across the country. My country needs more foundational and community building initiatives that are sustainable in the long run. The job is not finished.”