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Afghanistan: The ones we leave behind

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The eyes and hopes of the world are appropriately fixed right now on tens of thousands of Afghans scrambling to flee their country in the wake of the Taliban takeover. 

Most who are trying to get outplayed essential — in many cases, lifesaving — roles helping the United States and other allies over the last two decades. Or they are government officials, journalists, civil society advocates and others in positions that make them targets of brutal Taliban retribution. Many among them are women.   

If they get out, and I desperately hope they do, they will be the lucky ones. But what about those girls and women left behind?

The number of them who have fled Afghanistan already or will make it through before evacuations cease represent a tiny fraction of a population of nearly 19 million Afghan girls and women.

What then can the U.S. and the rest of the world do to protect those millions of girls and women who will remain in Afghanistan, now subject to the Taliban and its brutal violence?

Let’s first dispense with any fantasy that today’s Taliban will be kinder and gentler to girls and women than they were when the extremist group cruelly controlled the country more than 20 years ago. Taliban leaders know what the world wants to hear from them, but their fighters and commanders will impose a harsh rule at a local level.

Especially when it comes to the treatment of girls and women, we should expect the worst from today’s Taliban. Already, according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, nearly 400,000 Afghans have been forced from their homes since the beginning of 2021, largely due to Taliban-initiated or sanctioned violence across the country. And we know that women and children bear a disproportionate brunt of the hardship that comes with displacement.

While the Taliban may not have changed much over the last 20 years, Afghanistan today is much different than it was when they governed. Far beyond the so-called “Western” feminists, millions of Afghan girls and women were, over the last two decades, going to school, opening businesses, becoming clinic workers and teachers, and taking on roles in provincial and national government. 

But those gains are fragile, especially in a society where widespread gender-based violence remains entrenched and will be exacerbated by Taliban rule. Over the past decade, women lawyers were leaders in expanding legal protections for girls given in marriage as young as nine years old and subject to barbaric treatment. However, men who were convicted of domestic violence in the past decade were among the thousands released by the Taliban with the general prison population. Now those men are returning to hunt down their families. Add to these restrictions on women’s movements — such as not being allowed to leave the house without a male relative, even in a medical emergency, or study past a certain grade level, or work except in specific roles. The result is a category of people who are left helpless and subject to predation.

All will be victims, but few can evacuate. Nor should they have to: this is their country, and they have the right to live there, free from violence and abuse.  

The international community has very little leverage left in Afghanistan and with the Taliban specifically, but we must use what we have to protect the women we leave behind. But how?

First, the issue of political recognition of the Taliban should come only after they make a meaningful commitment to uphold Afghanistan’s human rights obligations and truly act on that commitment, starting with a pledge of non-reprisal against those in civil society and the former government.

Second, humanitarian assistance and access to Afghanistan’s Central Bank reserves should come at the price of allowing safe operation by international assistance agencies and the opening of airports and land borders to unimpeded travel. In a landlocked country, people are hostage to key transportation nodes; Kabul’s airport should become and remain internationalized. 

Third, in exchange for normalization of relations with the Taliban and their possible seat in the United Nations, the UN Security Council and Human Rights Commission, working together, should augment the current UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) with the authority to help Afghans protect their own human rights. Implementing mechanisms could be Special Rapporteurs or a “council” of high-level global human rights experts from the Islamic world, such as ministers of justice and heads of human rights commissions from Malaysia, Morocco, Indonesia and elsewhere. These experts should have an unfettered right to meet with journalists, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and representatives of minority communities that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has noted face a special genocidal threat.

The United States cannot look away from the human rights violations that follow when it withdraws its military forces. We saw it in Vietnam and, tragically, we will almost certainly see it in Afghanistan. What kind of country will the United States be if we duck the responsibility to use the influence and the leverage we do have to advocate forcefully for prisoners of conscience and to press for human rights? It is the very least we can do for the brave men and women we have left behind. 

Annie Pforzheimer is former acting deputy assistant secretary of State for Afghanistan, former deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and a member of the steering committee of Alliance for Support of the Afghan People.

Tags afghan women Afghanistan Afghanistan Taliban Afghanistan troop withdrawal Human rights Human rights abuses humanitarian crisis Taliban USA
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