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What the NATO Summit could mean for Afghanistan's women

The May 20 – 21 NATO Summit in Chicago is a turning point for future relations between Afghanistan and its major partner and ally, the United States, along with 27 other member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who have been waging daily battles alongside Afghan National Army troops against a dangerous and crafty Taliban insurgency for the past several years. The ongoing conflict has taken a huge toll, not only on Afghan civilians, but on NATO forces and the support of the international community to continue its efforts in a country wracked by seemingly insurmountable problems.

The NATO Summit aims to create a roadmap for the next decade of international support for Afghanistan, beyond current plans to drawdown U.S. and NATO troops by the end of 2014, turning over the lead to Afghan security forces. Presidents Obama and Karzai recently signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement, outlining the basic course of U.S.-Afghan relations going forward that include continued humanitarian development and reconstruction aid, military and police training and capacity-building, and support for the Afghanistan government. A price tag of $4.1 Billion annually for the next 10 years had been mentioned as the ballpark figure to achieve such a level of support.

What has not been expressed as an agenda item at the NATO Summit by the U.S. or its allied partners is the concern for the deteriorating state of human rights in Afghanistan, and more specifically, the status of Afghan women’s rights which have been tossed about as a bargaining chip on the peace negotiation table with the Taliban and their proxies.

The main goal of the NATO Summit is to lay the groundwork for further financial and security commitments from the 27 other member countries to help secure Afghanistan’s future, and reduce the total financial responsibility from America’s shoulders. But, with the current economic crisis rattling Europe and overall donor and military fatigue weighing heavily, it may prove tougher than expected to obtain further commitments from NATO member countries beyond what has already been given.

The once “moral and just” war in Afghanistan has turned very unpopular at home and abroad, with American support falling to 27% according to an Associated Press-GFK poll this month. At the onset of the war against terror in late 2001, Americans and most of the world were unified in their support for U.S.-Coalition efforts in Afghanistan to crush al-Qaeda and defeat the Taliban after the devastating attacks of 9/11. The images of impoverished Afghans and oppressed women and children under the Taliban regime only sharpened the moral imperative that these terrorist groups had to be defeated at all costs, that justice had to be done.

The main goal of the NATO Summit is to lay the groundwork for further U.S. "The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women; indeed, it will not be possible without them."

- Colin Powell, Former Secretary of State

In fact, the two main justifications to wage war in Afghanistan given by former President George Bush were to defeat al-Qaeda and liberate Afghan women. When the United States and NATO entered Afghanistan in 2001, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated: "The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women; indeed, it will not be possible without them."

At the time, the Taliban had an appalling record on women's rights. Today, some strides have been made, with significant investments by the U.S. and its allies to improve the lives of women and girls. However, 11 years later, the results of these efforts are mixed, and challenges facing Afghan women continue to be daunting, if not life threatening.

Today, nearly three million girls go to school, compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Women make up 20 percent of university graduates and they have entered the professional arena. Maternal and infant mortality rates have declined significantly. Afghan women have legal rights enshrined in the 2004 Afghanistan Constitution and make up nearly 27% of the Lower House of Parliament; however, none of these achievements signal true liberation or a change of traditional mindset across the country.

In the face of ongoing challenges for Afghan women, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told female officials in 2010: "We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always…[it is] essential that women's rights and women's opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled in the reconciliation process."

Despite the gains, the United States and Afghan governments have much more work to do to secure rights for women and girls. Violence against women is rampant, and in areas under Taliban control, torture, beatings and stoning are common. The Taliban and other insurgents target threaten and attack women candidates, politicians, journalists and human rights defenders. In 2010, more than 74 schools, including 26 girls' schools, were destroyed or closed due to targeted violence against them.

11 years later, al-Qaeda may have been diminished and dealt a crushing blow with the assassination of Osama bin Laden a year ago; however, the efforts to uphold and protect human rights and all hard won gains made on behalf of Afghan women and people must be among the priorities for Afghanistan’s future.

The U.S. and its allied partners have a moral obligation to insist that Afghan women’s rights and equal participation are upheld by the Afghan government under its constitution, to ensure that women’s rights are not traded away in the transition in 2014. The future of Afghan women is at stake.

Khorshied Samad is a former Fox News television correspondent and Kabul bureau chief, and worked previously for ABC News. She is the wife of the Ambassador of Afghanistan formerly posted to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009). Khorshied continues to work on behalf of Afghan women and children through the Artists for Afghanistan Foundation, www.artists-for-afghanistan.org