The deteriorating status of women under Taliban rule is a strategic disaster for Washington.
On Aug. 16, 2021, the day after Kabul fell to the Taliban and the United States began its hasty withdrawal, journalist Zahra Joya woke up in despair.
Joya, then 28, was a woman to be reckoned with. Eight months earlier, using money from her government salary, she founded Rukhshana Media, a newsroom committed to listening to women and telling their stories. By 2021, it had already produced articles that won international acclaim. Now, the Taliban threatened to dismantle all she had built.
Today, 18 months later, her newsroom is a fraction of what it once was, and most of her staff toil in secret. But they persist, often anonymously—shining a sliver of light into the increasingly dark world of the women of Afghanistan.
The United States and other Western governments should take note. The women of Afghanistan, after 20 years of relative freedom, will not be content to slink into the shadows. Their continued protest and fight are an essential lever of power for the United States and all other countries that share a stake in promoting recovery and ultimately peace and security in Afghanistan.
How a nation state empowers or disempowers women is a key predictor of how it will behave among the community of nations. More than two decades of research have affirmed that women are essential to security, and their well-being and empowerment play a determinant role in the prevention of war and assurance of peace. We also know that women have a central role in advancing democratic freedom.
Simply put, it is in the strategic interest of the United States to create and maintain a foreign policy that prioritizes women. To do so, it will first have to understand what it got so terribly wrong in Afghanistan.
Whatever gains women made in Afghanistan during the past two decades have mostly slipped away over the last 18 months. In 2021, women held 27 percent of the seats in Afghanistan’s National Assembly, worked in government positions, and attended university. Afghanistan and the international community financed the training and deployment of thousands of midwives, reducing the maternal death rate from 1,600 women per 100,000 births in 2002 to 638 women per 100,000 births in 2017.
Now, a steady drumbeat of onerous restrictions ensure that women are kept in their homes, unable to access jobs, health care, and education. This year, the Taliban ordered all female health care workers to wear a full hijab, including face coverings. In late December 2022, Taliban leaders issued a decree that bars Afghan women from working for nongovernmental organizations. The lost income from barring women from the workforce could cost Afghanistan as much as 5 percent of its GDP or about $1 billion, according to the United Nations—plunging the country deeper into poverty, exacerbating food insecurity, and threatening stability.
The United States and its allies in the war on terrorism invested billions of dollars to bolster the status of women in Afghanistan, pushing programs to elevate basic health care, include women in governance, and advance educational opportunities. Many of them fell short.
For example, the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs—with support from the internationally funded, U.N.-administered Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan—set a goal of hiring 5,000 female police officers by June 2014, yet it failed to plan for and build restroom and locker room facilities to accommodate them. Afghanistan never reached its goal. That, in turn, created a counterinsurgency security gap. In a gender-segregated society, female police officers are essential for conducting searches of women at checkpoints. Now, some suicide bombers disguise themselves as women to evade searches.
We already know in many cases that the programs created to advance women’s inclusion lacked a key component: the voices of Afghan women on the ground, the only people who truly understand how to navigate the strictures of Afghanistan’s male-controlled society. The United States’ 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act affirms that women’s rights should be at the center of peace and security planning. Yet in the reality of the war-fighting bureaucracy, women are often an afterthought. Indeed, the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, two essential documents that guide the country’s peace and security posture, included few references to gender issues except with regard to gender-based violence.
Engaging in a war and subsequent stability operation without this key intelligence has real consequences. The United States “often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls,” which led U.S. agencies to set unrealistic goals, wrote John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, in his August 2021 report, “Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.” As Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, pointed out at a recent Atlantic Council panel I moderated, had the United States done more to empower women and done it better, Afghanistan might look different today. “When the dust settles and we finally go back and analyze all the things that went wrong [in Afghanistan], one of them will certainly be that we did not fully ensure the meaningful participation of women in Afghanistan,” Verveer said.
These shortcomings deserve close examination, both for reasons of accountability and the potential to learn from these mistakes. From its start, the George W. Bush administration used women’s rights and empowerment as a justification for its war in Afghanistan. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” then-first lady Laura Bush said during the administration’s weekly radio address, delivered on Nov. 17, 2001—a little more than a month after U.S. ground troops began their assault. She focused on the suffering of women and children under the brutal rule of the Taliban. In the Obama administration, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Taliban that women’s rights were nonnegotiable, and she led efforts to advance understanding of the connection between gender and security within government.
Yet 20 years of war and more than $2 trillion later, the Taliban are back in power, and women are once again veiled, shut in their homes, and excluded from civic life. Given the grandeur of past gender goals and scope of the United States’ failure, U.S. taxpayers deserve a reckoning. The U.S. response to the fall of Kabul raises stark questions about whether women’s rights are valued, especially in the midst of a crisis. As the Taliban took over Kabul, officials scrambled—caught off guard—and turned to civil society to help evacuate and get visas for women leaders, who faced imminent danger.
If the United States wants to maintain peace, stabilize rogue nations, and ensure that its next military endeavor succeeds, it must examine how its policies and practices to support and empower women went so dreadfully wrong in Afghanistan. We need to know what went well so we can replicate it—and what failed so we can fix it.
The bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission is tasked by Congress with conducting a review of U.S. military, intelligence, foreign assistance, and diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan. The 16 commissioners include only two women, a composition that hardly lives up to the United States’ own Women, Peace, and Security Act, which affirms the importance of women having a full seat at the policymaking table. If this commission is tasked with examining 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan and gleaning the lessons learned with regard to women’s rights, then it is seemingly off to a poor start.
Afghanistan—the failures endured and the inroads achieved—provides some of the most important potential policymaking lessons in recent history related to applying a gender lens to foreign policy, lessons that stand to be lost if not given their full due by this commission. Gender issues are such a pervasive contributor to the United States’ failures in the country that one could argue they deserve to stand at the center of this effort, if not as a stand-alone commission.
We don’t know—and may never know—whether a different approach to women’s rights and empowerment in Afghanistan would have changed the outcome, but we need to ask the questions. The findings should inform U.S. security strategy going forward.
Until we have better answers, we must do what we can to keep what little the United States built for the women in Afghanistan from crumbling further and to support Afghan women leaders, both inside and outside the country, who have established inroads to support others—even if the effort takes decades. The Taliban are erasing women from public life in Afghanistan, wrote Richard Bennett, U.N. special rapporteur on Afghanistan, in a recent report. Women said they feel targeted and unsafe, but “they continue to resist violations of their human rights,” he wrote. “We know that what has happened to us is not right. Some of us could have left the country, but we did not. We decided to stay and fight for women’s place in Afghan society,” the women told Bennett.
Afghan women don’t have the option to walk away from the consequences of the failed promises that now govern their daily lives. The U.S. government shouldn’t either. The United States cannot hide in the shadow of its failures and hope to dodge its responsibilities. The situation is dire, and the world is watching.
The arc of history is long. If the United States give up on supporting women in a forceful way, then it will pay for it down the line. Not investing in the well-being of women is a factor in military failure. If the United States and its allies want any chance at maintaining stability and security in the region, then they must support women leaders at every level, both in and outside of Afghanistan, to promote immediate and long-term work as well as spur other countries to do the same. Most importantly, they must listen to the women of Afghanistan. That’s why we at the Fuller Project continue to support Afghanistan’s female journalists by publishing their stories and amplifying their voices—women like Joya.
Joya’s life in Afghanistan mirrors the triumphs and struggles of the women and girls of Afghanistan. She began her life under Taliban rule, dressing as a boy to attend her elementary school. In 2001, after the United States chased the Taliban from the country, Joya shed her disguise, finished her education, and embarked on her journalism career. She was often the only woman in the newsroom. The absence of women’s voices motivated her to create Rukhshana Media, named for a young woman stoned to death by the Taliban.
Joya belongs to a generation of women who experienced an Afghan society free of the Taliban. She is accustomed to freedom, and she feels its absence acutely. She feels, she said, like she has traveled back in time.
These days, Joya works in exile after Taliban threats against female journalists forced her to flee Kabul. She edits stories from her remaining colleagues in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took power in August 2021, 2,490 women worked as journalists. By December 2021, that number had dwindled to 410, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“It’s very painful and sad,” Joya told actress Angelina Jolie in an interview for Time magazine’s Women of the Year. “Honestly, we don’t do simple journalism these days; we are trying to write for our freedom.”
She is ready to do her part to pull Afghanistan back. She wants to hire more journalists, tell more stories, and maintain the freedom of expression she sees as her birthright.
That is democracy building worthy of investment.
Xanthe Scharff is the CEO and co-founder of The Fuller Project, the global newsroom dedicated to groundbreaking journalism that catalyzes positive change for women.