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Afghanistan's Women Face a Dangerous and Uncertain Future

As President Obama announced his decision to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by next summer, the Taliban vowed to continue fighting and dismissed as “symbolic” Obama’s withdrawal announcement. “There is no negotiation with the United States or with any other countries and we deny any report about such kind of peace talks," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.  Nevertheless, both Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai view the peace talks as necessary for peace and reconciliation.

No one’s voice should be more important in peace and reconciliation than Afghan women, however. Women suffered disproportionately under the Taliban and delegitimized the Taliban in international circles long before 9/11. 

They also represent perhaps the greatest success of the U.S.-led intervention. Female enrollment in Afghan schools is at a record high, and the demand for education—and specifically female education—is growing. 

I visited a girl’s school in Kabul completely rebuilt by ISAF after the Taliban had razed it to the ground. Though cramped in small trailers, Afghan girls smiled, eager to learn, despite the scorching heat, overcrowding, and swarm of flies around the public bathroom. Their principal, also a woman, told me that the girls are excited about learning, and enjoy coming to school. 

Any peace which compromises the rights of 50 percent of the population will fail.  Even women close to Karzai, are worried. Qahramana  Kakar, a gender adviser in president Karzai’s negotiating team  said last week, “As a woman, I do have concerns with other women in the country, and that …a peace deal with the Taliban might affect human rights or the rights of women which they have right now in the country.”

There is a real danger that premature American withdrawal will embolden the insurgents to renew their fight. While General David Petraeus has cited progress in southern Afghanistan as the result of the surge, Taliban fighters in the region still burn schools and kill female teachers suggesting that their commitment to peace is insincere.

Certainly, some Taliban have joined the Afghan government and some lower or mid-ranking fighters have reintegrated into their community as a result of reconciliation talks. Still, these represent a drop in the bucket compared to the perhaps 30,000 insurgents currently operating in Afghanistan.

Afghans have myriad opinion about politics and world affairs. In my six months in Afghanistan, I saw only one issue on which there was consensus: Afghans are tired of war and want peace.

The question is whether Taliban who embrace an extreme ideology and who form the heart of the insurgency can change, or whether they will use diplomacy to leapfrog into power by military means, as they had done in the past.

Obama has pledged a lasting American commitment to Afghanistan even after full withdrawal.  “Beyond 2014… We want to make sure that we maintain the strong relationship with the Afghan people and the Afghan government,” the president declared.  Afghans, however, realize that even the best intentioned promise will fall flat if withdrawal emboldens the Taliban to expand their fight rather than embrace peace. 

Afghanistan’s future is uncertain. Much can go right, but the substantial progress Afghans have witnessed over the past decade can come crashing down should extremists once again exert their hold. 

Only one thing is certain: if women’s voices are silenced in an effort to compromise with extremists, the future will be bleak.

Anna Borshchevskaya is assistant director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.  She recently returned from Afghanistan where she worked with a military contractor.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter@annaborsh.