Kabul attack spurs fears over fate of Afghan women as US exits

Kabul attack spurs fears over fate of Afghan women as US exits
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A horrific attack in Kabul over the weekend is underscoring fears about the fate of Afghan women and girls after U.S. troops withdraw.

Bombings at a high school in western Kabul on Saturday killed at least 85 people, mostly teenage girls leaving school, and injured nearly 150 more.

U.S. lawmakers and other critics had already been sounding the alarm that fragile gains in Afghan women's rights over the past 20 years will disappear as the United States departs and the Taliban either overruns the Afghan government or makes a power-sharing deal that brings its repressive views back into the mainstream.

As violence throughout Afghanistan escalates while the U.S. military withdraws its last remaining troops, those warnings are getting louder.

“Horrific and a grim foreshadowing of the future in Afghanistan. Doesn’t take much to imagine what will happen when the US is gone,” Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Axios CEO says GOP before Trump will not return White House pressed on evacuating Afghan allies as time runs out MORE (R-Ill.) tweeted Monday. “The Taliban regime will restart their war against women, denying them basic human rights, setting the country back in deeply oppressive ways.”

Around 4 p.m. Saturday, a car bomb exploded in front of the Sayed ul Shuhada school as class was being let out and the street teemed with residents preparing for the end of Ramadan. As students rushed out, two more improvised explosive devices detonated.

The attack left books and backpacks, as well as bodies, strewn across the ground, and shook a country already battered after decades of violence.

“Yet again, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – and an entire community – spent the night collapsed in grief,” the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said in a statement demanding a U.N. investigation of the massacre.

“Why were school children killed? Why were their dreams, and the hopes of their parents, turned to dust? For what purpose? To whose benefit? With whose support? These questions must be answered,” the commission added. “Afghans suffer horrific incidents of loss repeatedly, and are left with unanswered questions due to the absence of investigation, and almost no communication with families or the public.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban. The Taliban has denied responsibility.

The bombings took place in a district of Kabul that’s home to many Hazaras, an ethnic minority of mostly Shiite Muslims who are frequently targeted by ISIS.

The attack came amid an uptick in violence throughout Afghanistan, including heavy fighting around the capital of southern Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, that started as U.S. troops began withdrawing at the beginning of the month in line with President BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE’s order to fully leave the country by September.

Noting the school attack, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday that “we all want to see the violence come down.” But he added that attacks have not disrupted the U.S. withdrawal plans.

“There hasn't been activity that has degraded our ability to continue the retrograde at pace,” Kirby told reporters. “We're focused on meeting the president's intentions and his orders, which is to be out by early September.”

Afghanistan may get a respite in the coming days; both the government and the Taliban on Monday declared a three-day ceasefire to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday later this week. But predictions for the long-term outlook remain grim.

In a statement after Saturday’s bombings, State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned the “barbarous attack” and vowed the United States would “continue to support and partner with the people of Afghanistan, who are determined to see to it that the gains of the past two decades aren’t erased.”

But lawmakers from both parties who have been critical of Biden’s decision to withdraw have been worried that erased gains is exactly what will happen to Afghan women and minorities after U.S. troops withdraw.

Bolstering their case is a recently declassified U.S. intelligence assessment that found women’s rights in Afghanistan are at risk after U.S. and coalition troops leave — with or without a Taliban takeover.

The assessment, from the National Intelligence Council, found that women’s gains since the fall of the Taliban have been “uneven,” with resistance persisting in rural areas where most Afghans live. For example, according to the report, just 17 percent of rural girls attend secondary school, compared to 45 percent of girls in urban areas.

“Progress probably owes more to external pressure than domestic support, suggesting it would be at risk after coalition withdrawal, even without Taliban efforts to reverse it,” the report said.

“The Taliban remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women’s rights and would roll back much of the past two decades’ progress if the group regained national power,” it added.

At a recent hearing on the Biden administration’s plans for Afghanistan, several senators in both parties raised concerns about how the United States will support women’s rights after the withdrawal.

“What we do over the next four months is going to impact the lives of women for generations to come. And I believe we have to do everything in our power to support the women of Afghanistan,” Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain MORE (D-N.H.) said at the hearing as she highlighted seven women murdered by the Taliban in “barbarous acts.”

In a tweet Saturday, Shaheen called the school attack “gutting,” pledging to “do everything in my capacity to ensure that safety for the Afghan people is prioritized both ahead of withdrawal and following our departure.”

Lawmakers who are supporting Biden’s withdrawal, meanwhile, hold that the United States can continue supporting women’s rights in Afghanistan through diplomacy without a continued U.S. military presence.

While calling reports of Saturday’s attack “really hard to stomach,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyAntsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch 'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Senate gun background check talks hit wall MORE (D-Conn.) said on MSNBC on Monday that “a lot of the gains that we had made with respect to the rights of women and young girls have been erased because even as the United States has been on the ground there with thousands of forces, we've been losing.”

“We are going to still support the Afghan government and their reform agenda in all sorts of important ways, and there are many who think that the Taliban will actually have a very hard time in advancing into some of these cities today held by the Afghan government,” he continued on “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” “So I think that there is still a lot of work the United States can do in Afghanistan to support the rights of women.”