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US is leaving, but Afghan women to fight on for freedoms

US is leaving, but Afghan women to fight on for freedoms
© Courtesy photo

Naheed Farid gets a threatening letter at least once a week, often purporting to be from ISIS.

She sometimes has to change the routes she takes, rarely posts about meetings on social media and some days keeps her kids out of school, including after a shocking attack on a school in Kabul over the weekend.

But Farid, who has been a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament since 2010, is vowing neither she nor the women of Afghanistan will surrender the rights they have gained in the last 20 years.

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“We have women who are part of [a] robotics team. We have a lady named Shamsia who got the highest number in [the university] entrance exam in the whole country. … We have women who are pilots. We have women who are members of Parliament, who are Cabinet members, who are judges, attorneys,” Farid said in a Zoom interview with The Hill on Tuesday from Kabul.

“If you gain something, you will fight for it. You will not give it up easily. No one can take it from you,” she continued. “So I’m so hopeful that even with this civil war, with this fight, with this level of brutality and bloodshed that is going on in Afghanistan, women of Afghanistan won’t give up.”

Farid is working with an organization called the Afghanistan-U.S. Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council that is lobbying Congress to ensure funding and other support for Afghans continues even after U.S. troops fully withdraw from the country.

The organization sent a document to key U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday outlining 10 recommendations for “Immediate Actions for Peace and Stability in Afghanistan.”

Among the recommendations, the document calls for maintaining at least the current funding level of about $4 billion for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, implementing a plan to allow contractors to continue providing maintenance and logistics for Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and creating a joint task force of U.S. and Afghan lawmakers to provide “real-time” oversight of funding to ensure it doesn’t fall prey to corruption.

The document also calls for making the rights of women and girls a “non-negotiable requirement for international support” for any peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

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“There's been a lot of a lot of very strong statements coming out in support of the people of Afghanistan and the peace process and the ANDSF — and even with the Biden administration saying that they're going to increase humanitarian aid, which we absolutely support — but what we need right now to prevent the situation from getting more out of control and frankly turning into a civil war is action,” said Martin Rahmani, executive director of the Afghanistan-U.S. Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council.

“And these are the actions that we believe, and the Parliament believes, are the most impactful to stabilize the situation and ensure that there can be a sustainable peace deal,” he added.

The push comes as the U.S. military withdraws its last remaining 2,500 or so troops in line with President BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE’s order to be fully out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked America’s longest war.

In conjunction with the U.S. military withdrawal, approximately 7,000 troops from NATO countries, as well as all U.S. contractors, are also leaving.

The full withdrawal has prompted fears from some U.S. lawmakers about whether the Taliban will overrun the Afghan government without U.S. military support.

Among the top concerns from lawmakers who oppose Biden’s withdrawal is whether women’s rights will be protected, with fears that fragile gains from the last 20 years will be erased either through Taliban military successes or because the United States will not have the leverage to insist protections be included in any diplomatic agreement between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

Underscoring those fears was an attack at a high school in western Kabul on Saturday that killed at least 85 people, mostly teenage girls leaving school, and injured nearly 150 more.

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.

“Eid days are coming, and the nature of Eid is that people are happy. I don't see that happiness in the faces of the people because the attack was very brutal,” Farid told The Hill, referring to this week’s Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Last month, a day after Biden announced the withdrawal, Farid met with Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenThe US must help Afghans who have helped us Biden, Putin begin high-stakes summit in Geneva Democrat says he won't introduce resolution to censure Greene MORE in Kabul, telling reporters there she felt “pessimistic” about Afghanistan’s future.

She reiterated that pessimism Tuesday, still shaken by images of Saturday’s attack, including that “so many backpacks have been left behind.”

Farid, who has a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University, said she dreamed as a child of becoming a doctor before the Taliban rose to power, but her “mindset regarding life” changed because of “the level of pressure that I felt and the level of limitation” during life under Taliban rule.

“The situation changed me. I decided to become an advocate. Even right now, I don’t call myself a politician; I call myself an advocate. And I could find an opportunity in Afghanistan’s parliament to raise the issues that have been the concerns of the youth, of women, of the like-minded people who think differently about democracy and freedom,” said Farid, who was Afghanistan’s youngest member of Parliament when she was elected at 27 years old.

In recent weeks, as part of her role chairing Parliament’s Standing Commission for Human Rights, Civil Society and Women’s Affairs, Farid has participated in virtual town halls with U.S. lawmakers. Among the meetings was one with Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCosmetic chemicals need a makeover How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress Pelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals MORE (D-N.H.), who has been among the more vocal Democrats opposing Biden’s withdrawal.

In a statement after the meeting, Shaheen called the women she met with and other women pushing for rights in Afghanistan “so brave.”

“But they shouldn’t have to be,” she continued. “We cannot afford the hard-fought gains for women and minority populations to be lost. In the months ahead, I’ll work with the Biden administration however I can to ensure every effort is made to safeguard the progress made and support our partners on the ground to secure a stable and inclusive transitional government.”

In her interview with The Hill, Farid expressed appreciation for Shaheen’s early opposition to the withdrawal, saying she is “sure” the senator will be “very big help.”

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“She was very supportive of the idea of helping human rights, women's rights and helping [the] Afghan nation towards prosperity,” Farid said of Shaheen.

Farid also said there was a virtual meeting with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Congress must stop the march toward war with China Pelosi floats Democrat-led investigation of Jan. 6 as commission alternative MORE (D-Wash.), who has supported Biden’s withdrawal. One of the topics Smith raised, Farid said, was corruption issues in Afghanistan.

Asked about the conversation between Farid and Smith, Monica Matoush, a committee spokesperson, said that “while our military presence in Afghanistan may be changing, we are not abandoning the Afghan government and will continue to support the Afghan Defense Forces.”

“However, it is important to note that the government of Afghanistan must eventually be able to stand on their own,” Matoush continued in a statement to The Hill. “As we continue to support the Afghan military – and other [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] institutions – their government could enhance its effectiveness by presenting a more unified front to combat corruption, share authority within its class system and promote community involvement.”

Even as Farid expressed frustration and pessimism about her own government, she remained optimistic at continued support for the Afghan people from U.S. lawmakers.

“Authorities like appropriation money for Afghan National Security Forces, sending and funding money for development projects in Afghanistan, deciding about the political leverages that U.S. can put on different layers — these are very, very important. These are the three most important factors that we're asking from [the] U.S. government,” she said. “And I think lawmakers can do a lot of work to help Afghan people to move forward.”