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OP-ED: Afghanistan’s brave women: Don’t abandon them now

  • Published at 03:08 am July 10th, 2021

All the incremental progress made since 2002 after the defeat of the Taliban stands to be erased


One of the more intellectually lazy approaches to commenting on current affairs is to take a look at history in a linear fashion, pronounce some version of “this always happens there and has for hundreds of years,” and throw in big words like “geo-political,” “geo-strategic” or “Great Game” for added measure. I have read missives from professors and generals along those lines when it comes to the usual obsession the chattering classes have with the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The world is rarely static, and less so in the information age when the amount of knowledge available to humanity increases substantially every few years, as does access to the same. The ensuing withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan can be easily dismissed as a continuation of sordid history whose contours are well-known. But such a simplification leaves out legitimate concern for that half of the Afghan population that has most to lose should things go south: Afghanistan’s women.

With the defeat of the Taliban in 2002, Afghan women were able to breathe somewhat free again, and an entire generation has now come of age with certain rudimentary freedoms -- at least in the urban areas -- that were simply unthinkable in the dark days before. 

From being footnotes during the Taliban era, today, Afghanistan’s girls and women are almost 40% of its school enrollment, almost a third of its university enrollment, and about a quarter of its new entrepreneurs. While far from what their share of the population would dictate, women in Afghanistan have now broken into the ranks of members of parliament, ministers, judges, prominent journalists, and heads of non-profits. Perhaps more important, victims of domestic violence are occasionally finding some places to turn to for shelter from marauding relatives bent on “honour killing,” a welcome development unheard of during the previous mullah regime.

Unfortunately, all such incremental progress towards civilization stands to be erased as a collateral damage of the “peace at any cost” mindset evident in Washington, London, Brussels, Paris, Doha, and Islamabad. Only fools are gullible enough to believe that the Taliban are serious in their newfound desire to provide equal rights of women. 

If the brief 2015 occupation of the northern city of Kunduz by the Taliban is any indication, the mullahs of misogyny have not changed a bit: Within the space of two days, women’s shelters and girls’ schools were burned down, women journalists and administrators hunted like prey, and the wives of government officials kidnapped, never to be heard from again. Lest you think, “but that was in 2015,” the same pattern is repeating to the proverbial “t,” as more outlying provinces and towns fall to the Taliban as we speak.

That the Afghan government is largely ineffectual and corrupt has not helped allay the fears of its female citizens; nor has the repeated misogyny emanating from the prime minister of Pakistan, ironically an Oxford-educated cricket legend who swapped his stylish suits for shalwar kameez the moment politics so demanded as the price of power. But what about the commitment the international community, especially the coalition, made to the people of Afghanistan in 2001? That commitment, repeated at regular intervals by global leaders of all political persuasions helped some Afghan women take the first steps to live in dignity.

That commitment of not abandoning Afghans needs to be honoured, even as the peace process ratchets to its inevitable finale. The alternative is dangerous: Half the population of the country caged again, millions attempting to break out of that cage and thus becoming a refugee exodus, which would eventually reach the shores of Europe and North America, and an emboldened mullahcracy that can once again be the epicentre of worldwide terror networks of Osama bin Laden vintage. 

Put it another way, the rights of women under any peace accord for Afghanistan constitute a veritable canary in the coalmine scenario for a whole lot of permutations of international affairs in the near future. 

While it is impractical and unwise to demand that the coalition continue to invest blood, sweat, and tears in Afghanistan into the third decade, there are non-military steps that can be taken to ensure some level of protections for Afghanistan’s women. Focused sanctions on a wide swath of Taliban leaders, their enablers, their business supports should be kept in the arsenal for quick deployment as should similar punitive measures against the leadership of the political, business, and military community in Pakistan, a country where the Taliban have often found far more support than they should have over the decades. 

Plans to airlift out the most vulnerable women in the event of a deluge -- the journalists, the professors, the military officers, the judges, the politicians -- should also be kept dusted off. And yes, should all else fail, surgical strikes against the marauding mullahs of the Taliban should never be off the table.

Afghanistan’s women trusted the international community. That trust should mean something. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]