Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of”The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield” and, most recently, “The Daughters of Kobani.” Follow her on Twitter @gaylelemmon. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Afghan women are America’s (and the world’s) staunchest allies in creating a stronger, more secure Afghanistan. They are opening businesses, pursuing university study and serving in government. They are part of a new, technologically and socially connected generation of Afghans who have staked their lives on reshaping their nation and building a future that looks different from – and brighter than – the past.
But they now face dreadful danger as the Taliban grow increasingly bold and unencumbered as US and NATO military carry out their withdrawal after nearly two decades on the ground there. Many fear this is the worst-case scenario – but options remain for the US and its allies to support both Afghanistan and its women.
In the past decade and a half, I have had the privilege of meeting and sharing the stories of Afghans struggling to chronicle their nation’s experiences, educate their children and connect their country to the world.
Many of these brave citizens were girls and women who spent their early years as refugees in Pakistan and Iran during Taliban rule of their country in the 1990s. Back home this last decade they faced nearly every obstacle imaginable: night letters warning of attacks if they pursued their work, poisonings if they went to school, killings if they studied at university, assassination if they worked on bringing human-rights awareness to the public, bombings and targeting if they worked as journalists.
Still, even in the face of all these threats, even as their friends were killed for daring to serve their country, they pushed forward.
Now they don’t know what comes next. They are working to figure out their next moves – how to continue to contribute to their nation and support their families and how they might preserve their lives if and when the Taliban return.
“I have a sister who is a public prosecutor in the government and another aunt who is a judge – my other sister in school, so all these women and girls in my family, including one who is a pilot, — are all in tears. They feel like everything is going to come to an end and their lives are at risk,” one activist I have known since 2005 told me by phone (I’m not using her name out of concerns for her safety.) She is not alone. In every text and WhatsApp exchange I have with those in Afghanistan, the discussion always includes something like what one entrepreneur shared with me the other week: “There is no security anywhere and we never know how we are going to live.”
Across 18 years of conflict, and three US presidential administrations, too many international policymakers have never fully stopped seeing Afghan women’s rights and full participation in society as something “nice to have,” instead of as an indispensable “must do.” Now we must see in real-time what happens to women as the Taliban encircle.
The US military withdrawal announced by President Joe Biden in April is continuing. Kandahar Air Field is now in the hands of Afghan forces. Bagram Airfield, which served as America’s largest base in the country, will be controlled by Afghan forces before the month is out.
America’s purpose in Afghanistan was never about an endless US presence, but about how to help those on the front lines fighting against extremism and trying to build a country that is safer, more prosperous and more stable.
If this is to be a reality, here is what must happen as the US enters the next phase of its engagement with Afghanistan. There must be dollars, development aid and diplomacy.
This means full funding from Congress for Afghan security forces so that the Afghan military continues to be able to pay its troops as they seek to fend off the Taliban.
Development aid and diplomatic recognition from the US, NATO AND ALLIED nations must be made contingent upon women’s participation in the country’s economy and women and girls’ access to education. And the US and its partners must remain deeply engaged diplomatically to keep women at the center of the discussion of Afghanistan’s future, as several US senators argued last week.
In 1996, when the Taliban swept Kabul, the thing they wanted most was the nation’s seat at the United Nations, which they never received. Diplomacy involves using America’s partners and allies to create a united front determined to keep the focus on women and girls. The US and international allies must use their leverage and see the women and girls who are battling so hard for their nation’s future as their partners in security.
The next chapter of the story of Afghan women does not have to be a tragedy. Women have gained so much ground for themselves and are mobilizing and meeting and organizing politically. But if tragedy is to help to be averted, the world must engage and the US and NATO allies who have lost treasure and invested development dollars in the nation must deploy the limited levers they have.