President Trump has unveiled a new “path forward” in Afghanistan—a shortsighted plan that concluded the United States would no longer be engaged in nation-building, only in fighting terrorism. By essentially promising to disregard Afghanistan’s significant reconstruction needs in the wake of more than 40 years of war, the president is neglecting a critical focus for U.S. policy.
If there is any hope of security or a semblance of peace in Afghanistan, the plan must necessarily include the fate of women.
As the beacon of human rights around the world, America must blaze the trail in conflict countries. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has faltered in its position on human rights, having eliminated the “Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights” position. Secretary Tillerson has removed democracy from the State Department mission statement and plans to close the War Crimes Office, ignoring rape as a war crime that has reached record levels in Afghanistan since 2013.The one percent of the International Affairs Budget allocated to international development is not only part and parcel to diplomacy, but also critical to peace, security and stability. The lack of sufficient peace-keeping troops in Afghanistan has left women there exposed to abuses under the Taliban—forced into hiding or prostitution, or married off to fighters and passed among them, women are left with neither options nor safety, only the horrors that threaten their daily struggles.
The United States cannot discount the plight of women from its foreign policy strategy in Afghanistan. This isn’t about “imposing our way of life”—it’s about recognizing women’s fundamental human rights as an essential requisite for peace and security. From the women of post-war Bosnia working to heal the scars of mass rape to the women of Mogadishu toiling underground to provide food and education throughout on-going conflict, many international aid models and programs have proven that women are essential to stability.
This proof cannot be discounted because it is no longer convenient to the U.S. strategy for fighting terror. If we simply fight terror then withdraw our troops, we leave a power vacuum that allows for a myriad of human rights violations. Our approach must be comprehensive.
I have spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working on development projects in democracy and gender. We in the West perceive women from the region and other Muslim-majority countries to be victims with their hands bound. We fail to see the opportunity in providing these women, who are ready to learn, with the skills for rebuilding and strengthening their countries. The Grameen Foundation micro-lending model demonstrates that by investing in women, women in turn invest in their families and communities. I have met illiterate women making their way across Europe, alone with their children, in the hopes of building a better life. They are ready to learn. I have trained courageous women with little skills to stand up to their village leaders on behalf of children and single mothers. These women are ready to do what is necessary. There is an opportunity to teach them what they couldn’t otherwise have learned in a conflict environment.
By stabilizing vulnerable communities through foreign assistance, we gain another advantage in the war on terror: minimizing the draw of young men to joining terrorist organizations. Women in conflict areas are acutely aware of this fact. We have to trust them and what they know, even instinctively, about what needs to be done to rebuild their countries and how that will bring about progress and peace. When we invest in women, communities heal, children learn and stability is accomplished. If we see women only as victims, we miss a critical opportunity and leave communities vulnerable to human rights abuses.
The Trump Administration must look beyond war strategies for fighting the Taliban and achieving the long-term goal of stabilizing Afghanistan. That opportunity lies in supporting women through foreign aid. By investing in capacity building programs, the United States guarantees a step toward stability in the region, advancing its diplomatic efforts and supporting its national interests, including strengthening national security.
Women cannot be added or dropped from an ever-recalculated formula aimed at short-term victories. Women can no longer be seen as an available advantage that can be factored into the strategy at any time instead of key allies. If the United States is to truly win the war on terror, then victory lies in arming women with the tools to build the country when all weapons have been laid down.