When the U.S. came under attack on September 11th, it took the fight to the perpetrators and the bloody regime that protected them—Al Qaeda and the Taliban, respectively. In the process, the U.S.-led coalition released the Afghan people from the brutal grip of the Taliban—and for the first time in decades, Afghans were able to exercise their basic human rights. Indeed, no one group of people were more impacted than women by this liberation.
Decades of conflict left Afghan society with systemic gender inequality, discrimination, violence and poverty. Yet, since the 2001 intervention, Afghan women have made phenomenal gains. Girls have gone back to school. Women are working as ministers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers and engineers. Women’s average lifespan has increased by over 20 years. A new generation recognizes women’s rights as human rights. The 2004 Constitution enshrined gender equality—unlike many democracies—and legislation, including the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Anti-Harassment Regulation, created unprecedented overtures toward the unimpeded exercise of women’s rights and participation in Afghan society.
As the U.S. reconsiders its Afghanistan strategy, the discourse has been disproportionately focused on military escalation. While this will certainly support Afghan troops and create space for a political solution, there has been shockingly little mention of the key to durable peace—women.
In states subject to conflict, the equitable presence of women at the negotiation table is essential to address women’s specific needs and assets, as well as to the establishment of a stronger, more stable society. During times of conflict, men and women experience war different. Women are often subject to gender-based violence, sexual assault and rape as instruments of war—as well kidnapping, torture, exploitation, slavery, forced marriage, displacement and starvation. They face the increased likelihood of widowhood, conscription of their children into armed forces and family disruption. These traumas impact every aspect of the social fabric and must be recognized in the creation of accountability and reconciliation mechanisms in peace agreements.
In places like Afghanistan, women’s empowerment must be present at the most nascent stage of peace negotiations in order to establish the critical role women play in building a better future and to shift entrenched cultural attitudes towards gender inclusion, which will institutionalize the elements of a thriving democracy.
Americans have invested tremendously in blood and treasure. Although stability remains elusive, we must be cognizant of the successes. However, with the 2014 troop withdrawal, the uptick in violence and resurgence of the Taliban have caused a dangerous backslide in Afghan women’s ability to exercise their rights and the enforcement of their legal protection and empowerment.
Gains made by Afghan women and girls must be safeguarded and expanded. This can only be achieved with a holistic approach that encompasses military, political, economic, development and diplomatic strategies. The military alone cannot stamp out extremism and usher in a golden age of democracy. In the end, the only path to enduring peace in Afghanistan will be political, and must be led by Afghan women and men. We all must recognize that the empowerment of women needs to be a quintessential component of any strategic formula for continued U.S. engagement aimed at establishing durable peace, security, stability and democracy in Afghanistan.