One day in November 2009, in Helmand province's capital of Lashkar Gah, a group of Afghan widows and divorcees met with Patricia, who had been commissioned to write a series of success stories for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). All the women were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s but looked to be in their 60s. Until very recently, none of them could work because they possessed no marketable skills, could neither read nor write, and were at risk of being killed if they left their homes. A number of women said that, before the program -- which focused on tailoring and basic literacy -- their children used to weep at night from hunger.
As Patricia prepared to leave, the women fluttered around her like moths, touching her sleeves and speaking all at once. "What are they saying?" Pat asked the young Pashto-speaking interpreter. "They are telling you to go back to your country and to ask your people not to abandon them. The women of Afghanistan don't want you to leave. They will quite literally die if the Taliban return," she said.
In a recent question-and-answer period at one of our universities, Brigham Young, a student asked Gen. David Petraeus whether anyone thought to ask the women of Afghanistan how they felt about U.S. hopes to incorporate "reformed" Taliban into governance structures as the Americans leave.
A Correspondent's Diary from a Journey through North Afghanistan.
By Anna Badkhen
Carefully avoiding the word "women," the general assured the questioning student that only "moderate" Taliban would be eligible for such rehabilitation. Left unaddressed was the definition of "moderate," which clearly depends on where you sit: If you sit in a burqa, there is no such thing as a "moderate" Taliban.
Petraeus might find it easy now to sidestep the question of what will happen to Afghanistan's women once the "moderate" Taliban come back, but it's likely to haunt him for a long time. Without the security of women there is no security -- and until we've done more to protect it, we have a moral and practical obligation to stay in Afghanistan.
In 2001, George W. Bush's administration interpreted the first post-invasion photos of Afghan girls heading to school and of Afghan women unveiling their faces as tangible evidence that conditions were improving in that benighted land. A few months after the invasion, in his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush announced, "The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free and are part of Afghanistan's new government."
The Americans strong-armed a handful of women into the loya jirga that then drafted the Afghan Constitution. They strong-armed a quota for women in the Afghan national legislature -- something that even American women are not treated to. U.S. troops built schools for girls and pushed for women to be included in the local shuras, and USAID ripped a page from Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea and facilitated new training and educational opportunities for women.
But the current administration, despite its female secretary of State and its new Office of Global Women's Issues, appears to be ditching the women of Afghanistan like a blind date gone bad. You have to go back 10 months to find any sustained rhetoric from President Barack Obama about the importance of assuring the security of women in Afghanistan. Since then, and especially since last year's Afghan election, those fine words from a sitting president have all but disappeared. Many of the fine actions are gone, too. Push local shuras into including women in 2002? Yes. Push local shuras into including women in 2010? Forget it.