We simply can’t leave the women who worked tirelessly to support democracy and human rights in Afghanistan to face the Taliban alone.
Lately, we’ve been getting calls from our friends in civil society relaying devastating news from Afghanistan. As the American troop withdrawal approaches, the statements “one more colleague has been attacked by the Taliban” and “another has died in a bombing of a women’s shelter” are becoming all too common.
The ‘Forever War’ has exacted an immeasurable toll in blood and treasure from the United States and Afghan civil society which no nation should have to bear. An entire generation of Americans have only known the United States to be engaged in war in Afghanistan for most, if not all, of their lives.
However, war cannot be the perpetual state of being in any successful country. As the American part of the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, we have to ask: Is this the best we can leave behind?
President Biden is well within his constitutional rights as commander-in-chief to withdraw U.S. troops as he sees fit. But the same powers also put him in charge of the timing and the planning for such a withdrawal. As the forceful and brutal advances of the Taliban have shown, our actions in Afghanistan have immediate consequences. While the withdrawal is speeding with military precision way ahead of the September 11 deadline, the administration is woefully behind on the most critical aspect of this operation—the planning for the aftermath.
To date, there seems to be no discernible plan on how to protect vulnerable groups whom we are leaving behind—in many ways, the biggest test yet of our values and our laws. The vulnerable groups in Afghanistan are a plenty, but they most notably include Afghan women and girls, Hazaras, Christians and other religious minorities. If such contingency plans exist in military agreements or in some Pentagon drawers, these highly at-risk groups are painfully unaware of them, as are the American people. No surprise, these Afghan groups feel utterly abandoned.
As military operations are now projected to be concluded by the end of August, binding U.S. law requires our continued engagement in Afghanistan. The Women, Peace and Security Act (P.L. 115-68) requires that we empower women to play an active role in the decision-making and conflict prevention as a matter of U.S. policy, the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Prevention Act (P.L. 115-441) requires appropriate atrocity prevention strategies, and the Global Fragility Act (Title V of Div. J, P.L. 116-94) requires the strategy to combat fragility in Afghanistan.
Under all three laws, the U.S. administration is required to come up with an answer to the question of how to protect the civilian population in Afghanistan. Such a strategy should have three main components:
1. Civilian Protection Plan
First, there is an urgent need for a life-saving robust civilian protection plan—immediate-term action designed to protect those most at risk.
One aspect of such a plan is legislation currently working its way through Congress introduced by Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) which expands the number and expedites the process for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghanistan. While of course not a solution for Afghanistan writ-large, it immediately would protect some 12,000 individuals, if expeditiously passed and implemented. Accompaniment by international observers embedded in vulnerable communities have also proven effective in other conflicts. With the Taliban’s desire to be recognized as legitimate, UN observers and experts could play an important role.
2. Atrocity Prevention
Second, the U.S. needs a strong atrocity prevention strategy regarding Afghanistan. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Early Warning Project’s Statistical Risk Assessment for 2020-2021 shows Afghanistan only second to Pakistan as a country likely to experience new mass killings.
Atrocity prevention strategies require a long-term focus, but they are essential for Afghanistan’s future.
3. U.S. Must Remain Diplomatic Leader in Afghanistan
Third, the United States needs to continue to play a diplomatic leadership role in Afghanistan. The failed Istanbul peace conference, largely undermined by the administration’s sudden withdrawal announcement, cannot be the final diplomatic impression the U.S. wants to leave the Afghan people and the international community with. Other actors with nefarious intentions stand ready to fill any vacuum left by the U.S., and the U.S. cannot abandon the Afghan women who have fought so hard to have a seat at the table. They must be heard as Afghanistan’s future is being determined.
As our troops draw down, the truth is that we cannot guarantee our security at the expense of other people’s insecurity. This is a bitter pill to swallow, no matter how much we try to disengage from our activities in Afghanistan. But as Americans, we must ask ourselves: if we do not uphold our commitment to democracy, human rights, and justice now, who will?
Turning U.S. attention away from Afghanistan has happened before with devastating consequences for everyone involved. The U..S Congress passed the necessary policy planning tools to increase our chances of creating a more secure and peaceful world; it is time to show the world what real leaders look like and honor our commitments to democracy and peace. Now is the time to act.
The U.S. Congress can and should insist on seeing an atrocity prevention strategy that is fully funded, in addition to hearing from civil society as the withdrawal takes place. We simply can’t leave the women who worked tirelessly to support democracy and human rights in Afghanistan to face the Taliban alone.