On February 29 in Doha, Qatar, the U.S. signed a peace agreement with the Taliban. Each side gets what it wants most. The US gets to bring home the 12,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan, as well as a promise from the Taliban to never again allow Afghanistan to serve as a base for terrorist attacks on America. The Taliban gets an end to the American occupation, which means they will be free to do as they wish unless the weak and unpopular Afghan government can stop them. That’s very bad news for Afghan women.
We’ve seen this movie before. In the 1920’s King Amanullah Khan tried to modernize Afghanistan—creating schools for girls, ending strict dress codes for women, and abolishing child marriage. Anti-reformers revolted in 1924 in what is called the Khost Rebellion. It was suppressed but only after 14,000 people died. The king was forced to abdicate in 1929 by a mullah, who closed all the schools within nine months and called girls studying overseas back home.
A half-century later, reformers tried again. The 1964 constitution provided equal rights for women. But legislators from rural constituencies refused to go along, resulting in gridlock. Later, the Soviet-backed PDPA government tried to reform laws around marriage and women. It led to a revolt in 1978. Modernization efforts ended when the Soviets left in 1992 and the Taliban (new brand, same anti-reformers) came to power. By 1996, it had installed its version of sharia law, a particularly strict and brutal interpretation that ended education and employment opportunities for women and imposed restrictions on dress and movement and harsh punishments that included flogging and stoning.
Afghanistan has now been occupied for thirty of the last forty years by either the Soviets or the Americans. Especially in the cities, two generations have grown up with women’s rights. There are women doctors, teachers, judges, and entrepreneurs. Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch says there are more women in Afghan’s parliament than in the U.S. Congress. There are hundreds of advocates for women’s rights. They have no interest in going back to the middle ages. And many Afghan men agree with them. They don’t want to return to the days when Taliban thugs stopped men on the street to measure their beards and flogged those suspected of trimming them. And while once Afghanistan could count on its remoteness to keep its populace ignorant of what was happening outside and the international community in the dark about what was happening inside, it’s much harder to simply wall off the world now. The last time the Taliban was in power, there was no Facebook or Twitter.
So maybe this time the changes will stick. Belquis Ahmadi of the US Institute of Peace says, “What gives me hope is there’s a change in the mindset of traditional Afghans. In Khost, a group of elders have decided to make education compulsory. They see what’s happening in other countries. In Sar-e-pul, a group of men have contributed land for a girl’s school. Organic change has a higher chance of sticking than change imposed from outside.” The U.S. does have some leverage. Andrew Wilder of USIP says, “The Taliban wants the U.S. troops to leave, but they want the dollars to stay.” Mike Pompeo has also cited foreign aid when asked how the U.S. would protect the rights of Afghan women going forward.
But the sad truth is women’s rights are far down the agenda for the U.S. They’re not even mentioned in the Doha accord despite pressure from international rights groups and the press (including this magazine.) Repressing women is seen as a “right” by the Taliban and its predecessors, one they’re willing to fight for. Their worldview may be medieval, but their weaponry is modern.
It’s likely the Taliban will move swiftly to take advantage of the coming power vacuum. That’s what happened in Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in January, 1973. Fighting resumed almost immediately, and Saigon fell two years later. It’s what happened in Iraq. U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011, but had to go back in again in 2014 to combat the threat of ISIL. There’s no reason to believe the Taliban won’t jump on this opportunity. NBC News, which is following this story closely, says it has “persuasive” information from U.S. intelligence officials that the Taliban have no intention of living up to the agreement. The New York Times reports the secret agreements intended to force the Taliban to do what they promised are too vague to prevent chaos.
This is not to criticize President Trump or Secretary Pompeo. This war is the longest in our history. To our credit, the U.S. has tried longer than any other occupier to build a modern state. The President came in with a promise to bring our troops home, and we’re doing that (if you believe the Taliban will and can live up to its promises.) But there’s always a price to be paid for peace. And in Afghanistan, it seems like women are always the ones who pay it.
Sam Hill is, among other things, a Newsweek contributor and best-selling author. His most recent Newsweek story is Black China: Africa’s First Superpower is Coming Sooner Than You Think
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.