What did the US War and Exit Do for Afghan Women’s Rights?

After 20 years of international involvement and countless civilian casualties, the Afghan government collapsed to the Taliban in August 2021. While the recent US-Taliban peace negotiations were the subject of much discussion, the Afghan people’s view of their legitimacy was largely ignored. The peace agreement was produced through an exclusionary process that helped return the Taliban to power. Once again, Afghan women and Afghan women’s rights were overlooked in decision-making—creating a pathway for their current oppression under the Taliban’s rule.

“Saving” Afghan Women

US military intervention in Afghanistan was justified by the rhetoric of “saving women.” After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration strategically spotlighted the Taliban’s treatment of women to rally support for military action in Afghanistan. Afghan women –typically depicted in burqas—were rendered a “hyper-visible” symbol. This framing intertwined national security with humanitarian concerns, constructing foreign military intervention as a moral duty to protect Afghan women.

The American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and implement peace negotiations with the Taliban in 2021 had profound consequences for women’s rights.

Many Afghan women repeatedly raised the fear that peace negotiations that excluded women and victims of war crimes would mean an invitation to even darker days than the 1990s.

Unfortunately, these voices were overlooked, a stark contrast to women’s hyper-visible role in the lead-up to the US invasion.

Was the US-Afghanistan War Legal?

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 incited a debate about its legal foundation under Article 51 of the UN charter. Proponents argued the intervention was a rightful act of self-defense. However, some scholars, including Michael Glennon and Mary Ellen O’Connell, argue that the US lacked explicit authorization for the extensive military intervention in Afghanistan. O’Connell has also raised questions about prolonged US air campaigns beyond recognized conflict zones; asking whether such actions accord with the principles of necessity, proportionality, and attribution, integral to the lawful exercise of self-defense.

Beyond the question of legality, we might also consider whether the US’s war on Afghanistan was effective at promoting women’s rights. Twenty years of conflict and the current humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, including banning women from their right to education, and employment, only prove the impossibility of achieving democracy, peace, and gender equality through war. Research has consistently found that extreme violence brings irreversible civilian harm and can increase civilian support for insurgents. In Afghanistan, violent bombing caused widespread suffering and hindered the effectiveness of local women’s rights organizations—exposing women to heightened risks in a disrupted society.

Afghanistan’s war is evidence of the need for deliberate and humane actions in response to the shifting dynamics of global conflicts.

UN Fails to Lead Post-Conflict Resolution, Excludes Afghan Women

The debates on the legality of the US-led intervention raise questions about the UN’s role in the process. The lack of coordination between the UN and invading parties led to discrepancies in post-conflict reconstruction. The UN’s lack of critical engagement in the lead-up to the invasion allowed a war that didn’t consider timeline, risk assessment, and reconstruction or exit plans. Learning from past failed interventions in Kosovo and Somalia, the UN could have insisted on a clear exit plan from the invading parties and facilitated collaborative development. This would have prevented internal conflicts in Afghanistan, as seen in Somalia. It may also have avoided an untimely peace and poorly planned exit strategy. The UN’s failure to place demands on the US and the US’s selective compliance with the UN’s principles on conflict resolution left Afghan women in a disadvantaged situation.

The US’s recent peace and exit process deprived the people of Afghanistan, particularly women, of input in the process.

Afghan women found themselves confronted with a negotiation table that had already been set without them. Although there were a few women present in the negotiation team, their participation didn’t effectively shape the agenda as the US-Taliban peace agreement had already been finalized.

Afghanistan is now facing multiple humanitarian crises, including famine and censorship of progressive advocates. Had women and minorities been actively engaged in the formulation of a strategic peace and exit plan, Afghanistan’s current humanitarian crises might have been prevented. The US was focused on troop withdrawal, security, and political objectives rather than comprehensive women’s rights measures. Negotiations with the Taliban didn’t ensure strong conditionalities and guarantees— including an immediate cease-fire and preservation of women’s rights in Afghanistan’s future. Instead, the US’s agreement leveraged the Taliban by releasing 5,000 of their members from Afghanistan’s prisons. The way the US executed its exit process stymied approaches that would have guaranteed Afghan women’s rights. Despite 20 years of intervention, outside powers failed to meaningfully engage or partner with feminist movements during the peace process.

An Afghan Feminist Approach to Peacebuilding

Over the past two decades, the US, the UN, and the powers involved had various opportunities to support Afghan women’s emerging movements. These powers could have embraced an Afghan feminist turn—diverging from power-sharing struggles and approaching governing ethics as an opportunity to foster lasting change for minoritized communities.

The Kurdistan case exemplifies the transformative power of grassroots efforts, highlighting that minoritized communities can mobilize support for progressive political systems even amid conflict. The women of Kurdistan emerged as icons in the fight against the Islamic State. Their ability to rally support for an anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-patriarchal freedom proposal was a remarkable feat. Afghan women shared similar aspirations and tirelessly championed these ideals for over two decades. Nonetheless, the powers involved often deviated from this path, approaching support for women’s rights as short-term projects.

In the post-2001 context, there was a pressing need to balance pursuing justice for war crimes and fostering reconciliation after a long conflict. However, the presence of warlords in positions of power compromised justice. Local efforts that sought justice for past atrocities were overlooked by international powers. In the presence of a weak Afghan government, the UN’s privileged expertise could have strengthened these efforts by a mixed approach of retribution and reconciliation, including truth commissions and combined war-crime tribunals. Such measures could have provided partial recognition of peoples’ suffering, facilitated transitional justice, and legitimized the Afghan government and international community’s efforts instead of inadvertently breeding antipathy toward it.

An Afghan feminist turn in peacebuilding would have required that women be guaranteed meaningful roles at the negotiating table. Women should have been participants in designing and implementing the peace process. Despite the Taliban’s mistreatment of women protesters, throughout the peace process and after Afghanistan’s fall, Afghan women have resisted. Their demands included equal participation, non-recognition of the Taliban’s illegitimate rule, and the reversal of the bans on women’s rights imposed by the Taliban. Women have demanded direct engagement and conversation with the UN, the International Court of Justice, and others.

Increasingly, Afghan feminists have sought international legal accountability for the Taliban and those responsible for the current crises. Inspired by movements against racial apartheid, some Afghan women collectives have begun exploring the possibility of defining Afghan women’s oppression as gender apartheid under international law. While the positive and negative impacts of this concept require further research, Afghan women’s pursuit of legal and non-militarized possibilities stands in stark contrast to the ineffective military projects by the US.

Policymakers, activists, and academics involved in Afghanistan must move beyond the fantasy of “saving” Afghan women. It’s imperative to engage with Afghan feminist’s perspectives and analysis as change agents. By facilitating regional and international platforms for knowledge exchange and imagining alternative responses with Afghan women, we might begin to address Afghanistan’s current crisis. 

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