If the U.S. Doesn’t Learn From the Past, Afghan Women and Girls Will Pay the Price

A scene from Afghanistan’s “Palwasha” TV series, which draws attention to the issue of violence against women. (U.N. Photo / Jawad Jalali)

With the upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, it is important to remember how we got here.

In the 1980s, the U.S. supported the mujahideen (Islamic guerilla fighters) in a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union withdrew and the government subsequently collapsed in 1989, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan, ending humanitarian support and closing its door to Afghan refugees. The mujahideen fought amongst themselves over control of the country. During this civil war, more Afghans were killed, cities were destroyed, and women suffered human rights violations.

The Taliban emerged from this fighting, taking power in Kandahar in 1994, Herat in 1995 and Kabul in 1996. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became a training camp for terrorists from around the world and a prison for women and girls. The country became Al Qaeda’s safe haven and the base for its attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and, ultimately, the 9/11 attacks.

I worry that history is now repeating itself. As I write, the U.S. has largely withdrawn military forces from Afghanistan following negotiations with the Taliban for its exit. In the absence of U.S. and allied forces, the Taliban has taken over territory around Herat and Kandahar and in northern Afghanistan.

Where Taliban has seized control, they have burned down villages, brutally killed civilians, imposed restrictions on women and offered Afghan women as wives to Taliban soldiers, among other atrocities. Girls’ schools have been bombed; journalists, judges, government officials and women’s and human rights leaders have been assassinated. Civilians are being killed because of their ethnicity and religion. In fact, more civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. agreement with the Taliban than at any other time since the conflict began.

Afghans have so much to lose. Since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, women and girls—with leadership of Afghan human rights defenders and women’s rights leaders from the U.S. and the international community—have made substantial gains in all spheres. Women occupy leadership positions as ministers, members of parliament, judges, prosecutors and entrepreneurs. Women are represented in the army, police, media and sports. Eight million children are now in school, including 3 million girls. Maternal and infant mortality decreased, falling by 50 percent. Domestic violence has been criminalized, and women’s rights and representation are enshrined in the Afghan Constitution.

I propose that the protection of human rights and the achievements of the past two decades is a shared responsibility of the United States, the international community and human rights advocates. I call on them to:

  • Condemn the violations of human rights and women’s rights, support accountability and end the culture of impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity;

  • Use U.S. leverage with Pakistan to put pressure on the Taliban to go to the negotiation table with the Afghan government and accept a ceasefire;

  • Increase humanitarian, food, education and health assistances, especially through local Afghan NGOs that are able to deliver services and aid in all circumstances;

  • Provide funding for health programs, especially COVID-19 vaccination and treatment, and reproductive health, including contraception;

  • Provide funding for the education for women and girls at all levels, including scholarships;

  • Provide relief and job opportunities to internally displaced persons, especially women and youth;

  • Provide protection and, in emergency cases, relocation for human rights defenders, including journalists and those in the civil society sector;

  • Support the Afghan National Security Forces, particularly the continued provision of air support after August 31; and

  • Support an inclusive peace process with meaningful gender and ethnic representation.

In addition to the devastation that would be faced by Afghan women and girls and ethnic minorities, the return of the Taliban would cause the U.S. to lose credibility on the global stage, risk a resurgence of threats to the U.S. from terrorists, and accelerate the drug trade that finances the Taliban. Action by the U.S. and the international community in support of the Afghan people, especially women and girls, could well prevent history from repeating itself.


Dr. Sima Samar is a physician and an outspoken advocate for women’s and human rights in Afghanistan. She previously served as Afghanistan’s deputy president and minister of women’s affairs, and she was the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She is a member of the U.N. secretary-general’s high-level advisory boards on mediation and internal displacement.