Congressional members and foreign policy experts expressed concerns about the security of women in Afghanistan after the 2014 political transition and American military drawdown at a congressional hearing Thursday afternoon.
Women and girls have access now to far more opportunities than they did before the United States invaded, according to testimony, but the country’s uncertain future threatens those gains.
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"If the Afghan security forces fail, the progress of Afghan women will fail as well. Without security, none of the things you’re talking about will be possible," David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
United States forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001. The current security mandate for American forces ends in December 2014, and military and civilian leaders are negotiating a new bilateral security agreement that will allow some American forces to remain.
However, President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that the United States would cut the number of troops it has on the ground in Afghanistan by half over the next year, bring troop levels down to just over 30,000. The number of forces will continue to shrink over the next year, and the top commanders expect there to be 8,000 to 12,000 forces on the ground in an advisory capacity after 2014.
"The condition of Afghan women is an important barometer of the success of our efforts," Rep. Martha Roby (R., Ala.) said.
"If Afghanistan reverts to Taliban control…these women will suffer, and I believe it will happen virtually overnight," she said.
The number of reported instances of violence against women in Afghanistan rose in 2012, although Sedney said that figure was only the reported instances of violence.
"We are there when this is happening," Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) said. "What’s going to happen when we’re not?"
Afghan women are very anxious about their safety after the Afghan national elections and the U.S. military drawdown next year, multiple witnesses and committee members said. The number of asylum applications by Afghan women has risen, said Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness.
However, Lockhart painted a somewhat brighter picture of the condition of women, arguing that the presence of outside organizations and their programs is helping women in the country.
Lockhart and Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the importance of American rhetoric about its posture toward Afghanistan.
"I think if Afghans hear the language of leaving, it heightens concerns even more than might be warranted," Lockhart said.
Sanok said the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development would have to fill in the void that the military leaves as it withdraws.
Multiple witnesses and committee members said the efforts to improve women’s conditions run into cultural obstacles. For example, the greatest barrier women face in joining the Afghan security forces is the objection of family members, Sedney said.
The witnesses disagreed over the amount of leverage that the United States has over the treatment of women in the country. Sedney argued that the United States has "huge amounts" of leverage through military training and other means, while Sanok contended that the United States is losing leverage and needs to put in place institutions that will protect the interests of women.
Sanok noted the importance of reforming the bureaucratic process for women submitting a complaint of violence or harassment. She said the non-standardized and cumbersome process leads many women to drop their complaints.
"I remain deeply concerned about this," Roby said at the end of the hearing.