On a sunny Washington afternoon this week, a group of Afghan women crowded around a wooden conference table in a bare room on the State Department’s ground floor. They were there to talk about the high stakes of the troop drawdown from their country, scheduled to begin in July.
“The fear is that with withdrawal, all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan,” said Samira Hamidi, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, a nationwide umbrella organization of women’s groups. “People are afraid, and they don’t want history to be repeated,” she said, referring to the power vacuum left in 1989 following the Soviets’ pullout from Afghanistan.
Hamidi and the other women are in Washington to speak with senior White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials, along with members of Congress, about the imminent scaling back of the international presence in Afghanistan. The trip is hosted by the Institute for Inclusive Security, a nonprofit that focuses on ensuring women’s presence in peace talks around the world.
When President Obama outlined his plan for a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2009—after a months-long deliberation process with frequent media leaks—he also announced a July 2011 troop-drawdown start date. Ever since, Afghan women have been speaking out about the risk that the international community’s exit could end the progress they have made in the last 10 years, a decade in which women have won seats in parliament, girls have returned to school, and civil society has started to find its footing.
Last May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to female Afghan officials that “we will not abandon you, we will stand with you always,” but many women worry that Clinton is a lone line of defense in need of reinforcement. Now facing the war’s increasing unpopularity in the United States, the pressure of July’s approach, and increasing calls for an American pullout in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, Afghan women are growing louder about the need to protect their rights in any peace process to come.
Among the goals of the Afghans visiting the American capital is to ensure that women play a significant role in the Bonn Conference scheduled for later this year. On the table at Bonn: the security handover from international forces to the Afghan government and more details from donor governments about just what their commitment to the country will look like after 2014. Also up for discussion is the reconciliation process with the Taliban that is now much-discussed in theory and little understood in practice, a fact that State Department officials acknowledge.
In meetings, U.S. officials told the women that the peace process is in only in its very earliest stages and that the time was right for Afghan women to play a role in determining its shape.
And it is precisely the shape of the peace process and who plays a role in its creation that women are focused on. At a White House meeting with Vice President Biden’s national-security adviser, Tony Blinken, and the National Security Council’s Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the Afghan women said they understand that the U.S. will not be in Afghanistan forever. That is why they want to make sure that their rights to go to work and school are not trampled during the transition to Afghan leadership—and in the U.S. “engagement” they have been reassured will continue after 2014.
“They [in Washington] want to withdraw. We also want a sovereign country, but first we have to stand on our own two feet,” said Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, who was elected to the Afghan parliament last year.
The parliamentarian said that if women in Afghanistan are at the peace table from the start, it will be harder for men on all sides to negotiate away their rights.
“Everyone should think that the process of reconciliation and reintegration is part of their lives, everyone should be involved,” Zahra Naderi said. “It is important that women are there and that they can raise their voice.”
Women also worry about the role of the region’s powers, including neighboring Pakistan. Included in their list of recommendations was the need to “address the issue of Pakistan’s support for the Afghan insurgency and ongoing interference in Afghanistan’s affairs.”
U.S. officials noted that they are asking Pakistan to support reconciliation and to believe that a stable, peaceful Afghanistan is more in Pakistan’s interest than anything else.
America’s new ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, is credited with helping to ease the diplomatic path for the Iraq War’s turnaround and the eventual U.S. drawdown there. The task between now and 2014 for the United States is to hand over security and political leadership to Afghan forces and the Afghan government while avoiding political collapse and the civil war that the women visiting Washington say they fear most.
“The international community will repeat a mistake by leaving Afghanistan without proper strategy and support,” said Hamidi. “There are strong people like Hillary Clinton making strong remarks, but it is important to see how seriously our government will take these remarks after the transition.”