During 5 years of Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan were forbidden to participate in school, work, or civic society and were terrorized with Sharia law punishments for social transgressions. The international community’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 marked a new start for women’s rights. While Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for women, women have gradually gained access to opportunities including education, employment, and political representation.
Today, U.S. and NATO governments are increasingly focused on facilitating troop withdrawal by 2014 through peace negotiations with the Taliban. Many, like Zarin Hamid of the Afghan Women’s Network, fear that “the milestones and gains achieved by women and guaranteed by the new government may be bartered away at the negotiation table.” The reality of this risk is real. In nearby Swat Valley, Pakistan, for example, a now-failed peace agreement left the Taliban in control and resulted in reintroduction of cruel Sharia practices, banishment of women from public life, and destruction of nearly all girls’ schools in the area.
If U.S. and NATO governments do not negotiate with the Taliban before their hurried exit, it is likely that a civil war will follow troop withdrawal. Studies indicate that Afghan women favor negotiations with the Taliban if it means an end to the decades of war they have endured. However, women’s rights must not be exchanged for ceasefire. As half the population and natural forces of stabilization in post-conflict society, women are integral to achieving sustainable peace. Instead of treating women as “pet rocks in our rucksack,” U.S. and NATO governments must develop a forceful approach to the Taliban that integrates women as key players in negotiations and guarantees women’s rights in any settlement.
Afghan women should not fall victim to the domestic pressures facing U.S. and NATO governments for a quick fix to the increasingly unpopular war. To the extent that political settlement with the Taliban is irreconcilable with the protection of women’s rights, U.S. and NATO governments should be prepared to do what it takes to ensure that the Afghan government and security forces are strong enough to stand alone.