Women’s Rights in Afghanistan Uncertain After U.S. Drawdown

Congresswomen, experts worried about their standing after U.S. and NATO troops depart

Afghan women listen to President Hamid Karzai, speak during a press conference in Kabul Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP)

The rights of women in Afghanistan will likely erode when U.S. and NATO troops depart next year, members of Congress and regional experts said at the Heritage Foundation Thursday afternoon.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) and Donna Edwards (D., Md.) said the United States must continue to support women in Afghanistan once the military withdraws.

"The most basic premise of terrorism is the oppression of people," McMorris Rodgers said. "By promoting women, their ability to start a business, go to school, to become an entrepreneur, we are taking away the terrorists’ ability to terrorize."

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in America, women in Afghanistan were denied access to education, prohibited from voting or holding public office, and victims of consistent violence based solely on their sex, said McMorris Rodgers.

"Despite the tremendous success of women in Afghanistan, Afghan women are still scared to death about troops leaving next year because there are still pockets of terrorist organizations all around the country," she said. "Our work is far from over."

President Barack Obama announced in January the United States would cut the number of troops in Afghanistan by half, reducing the troop levels to roughly 30,000. Top military commanders expect there to be between 8,000 and 12,000 forces on the ground in an advisory capacity after 2014.

"As the war winds down Afghan women are questioning their future, as they ought to," Edwards said. "They’re concerned that the vacuum that may be at least partially filled by the Taliban is causing them to leave work and government and, in some instances, abandoning public life all together."

"This should be a concern for all of us. The future of Afghanistan rests in the success or the failure of Afghan women and girls."

A panel of five experts discussed the detrimental implications on national security if the United States abandons Afghanistan.

"The fate of women in Afghanistan will reflect the broader trends in the country and indeed the nature of the Afghan state, whether it will be a stable society able to control terrorism or an unstable society that again becomes a terrorist safe haven," said Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

Additionally, the experts said the United States should pay close attention to the outcome of Afghanistan’s 2014 election.

"This is an opportunity for hopefully a relatively peaceful democratic transition in which women will fully participate," Curtis said.

Clare Lockhart, chief executive officer for the Institute for State Effectiveness, suggested changing the language when referring to the drawdown to give Afghans confidence in America’s commitment to be supportive.

"The more that the people can hear commitment and engagement actually means less of that commitment and engagement will be called upon," she said.

Investing in educating young men as well as girls would help stabilize the country, said Charlotte Ponticelli, the former State Department senior coordinator for International Women’s Issues.

She quoted an article by Wais Ahmad Barmak, "A New Deal for Afghanistan?" that described how few young Taliban insurgents are driven by ideology, instead most are "driven by unemployment."

With two-thirds of the country’s population under the age of 25, demanding education for boys and girls will keep Afghanistan thriving, Ponticelli said.

Many girls are leaving schools out of fear of the Taliban’s return, said Hossai Wardak, an Afghanistan senior visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"The actual work starts now when the international community is leaving, when resources are shrinking, and that we know that the chances of opportunities are actually limiting," Wardak said. "This is the time that actually we need the help and assistance much more than we actually needed it in 2001."

Wardak will return to Afghanistan in August and said despite her country’s instability she is proud of the strides made over the last decade.

"I’m not sure whether I will be alive next year or not going back to Afghanistan," she said. "The past 10 to 11 years were the best years that I’ve had in my life despite all those attacks, despite all those problems. Because I was in my country with my own people and I was able to contribute to the further development of my country."