Afghan War Commission Should Examine US Role in Women’s Rights

The US “Commission on the War in Afghanistan”, established in December 2021 to review “key strategic, diplomatic and operational decisions” made by the US in Afghanistan, and to develop “lessons learned and recommendations for the way forward”, begins its work. One of the priorities should be to examine the US government’s promises regarding the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. The problem: none of the 14 men and 2 women appointed commissioners is a specialist in women’s rights, and none is Afghan or from the Afghan diaspora.

Given that American leaders have repeatedly cited the plight of Afghan women and girls under the Taliban as justification for the war, this is troubling.

“The women and children of Afghanistan have suffered enough,” then-US President George W. Bush said in December 2001. “This great nation will work hard to bring them hope and help.” The fight against the Taliban, said First Lady Laura Bush, was a “fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

“We will not abandon you. We will always be on your side,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a group of Afghan women in 2010. Clinton promised that year that the rights of Afghan women would not be “sacrificed in pursuit of a deal with the Taliban. Yet dismantling a system developed with US backing to respond to gender-based violence was one of the Taliban’s first acts after coming to power in August 2021.

A year after the fall of Kabul, the dreams that Afghan girls and women were encouraged to dream have been shattered: the Taliban bans girls from attending secondary schools and women from most jobs, making survival in the increasingly difficult daily life. The rights of women and girls to freedom of movement, association and expression have been severely restricted. And contrary to previous promises, the US focus on evacuating Afghans working with US troops has left women – including activists – out in the cold; only 7-10% of Afghan applicants for US special immigrant visas are women.

The Afghanistan War Commission should carefully consider US obligations to Afghan women and ensure it has the expertise to do so. The Executive Director of the Commission has not yet been appointed, which provides an opportunity to seek out someone with expertise in women’s rights. The Commission should also ensure that its staff includes high-level experts on women’s rights, including Afghan women.

It is crucial that the Commission investigates and documents the US government’s failure to deliver on most of its promises to Afghan women and indicates what can still be salvaged to help protect those living under the brutal Taliban regime and assist those who managed to flee abroad.