America's Afghan Women Problem

Activists worry the U.S. military's alleged cover-up of the killing of three Afghan women could bolster the Taliban's attempts to roll back women's rights.

AP & Getty Images

Days after United States-led NATO forces admitted to accidentally killing three Afghan women during a February raid on a home in southeastern Paktia province, Afghan women leaders reacted with disappointment and disbelief, struggling to learn the facts behind the story and grappling with what it means for the future of the international effort in their country.

After weeks of denials, a NATO Special Operations report revealed that two of the dead women were pregnant and the third had six children; they were killed while attending a celebration of the homeowner’s grandson’s birth. Bullets were dug out of the bodies post-mortem, possibly in an attempt to conceal the cause of death.

Events in Paktia make it harder for women leaders to defend the presence of international soldiers on their soil. But many argue that an immediate troop withdrawal would lead to even more deadly consequences for women.

News of the killings comes at an awkward time, amid growing discord between White House officials and President Hamid Karzai’s Kabul government. In recent weeks both the military counterinsurgency campaign and talk of a potential peace deal with the Taliban have escalated. An Afghan government-hosted peace jirga, or assembly, aimed at reaching out to insurgents is slated for May, while questions mount over whether Karzai is or isn’t invited to Washington next month.

The news of the killings “is very damaging at this time, when everyone is putting their efforts not just into war but into a process where peace could be achieved in a different way,” said Palwasha Hassan, whose widely praised nomination to head the ministry of women’s affairs was recently rejected by the Afghan parliament, along with a slate of other Karzai nominees.

“And peace has a different definition for women—it is not just a cease fire, it is the rights that women are enjoying now, the right of girls to go to school,” Hassan continued. “These are important things that women are concerned about—there is a struggle here.”

At this fragile time, news of foreign troops raiding homes and covering up the killing of women plays right into the hands of the Taliban, according to some human-rights leaders. “Insurgents use this as a powerful tool to say, ‘Here is how they behave with women and children,’” said Orzala Ashraf, a community activist. “If civilian casualties continue in this manner, there is a major concern that the war against insurgents will turn into a war of local communities against foreign troops.”

This dynamic—should it lead to a further loss of support for the war and a withdrawal of the international community from Afghanistan—could set back Afghan women’s push for education, jobs, and political rights, work that has been funded by foreign donors.

“These kinds of incidents give more ammunition to those who say, ‘Women, your fellow women are dying and being killed and still you are defending the international community.’ So of course this is not a good sign,” Hassan said.

Humanitarian leaders say the incident in Paktia and other civilian deaths complicate their efforts to provide public services to the Afghan population. “It is the fear… that makes our work hard,” said Suraya Sadeed of Help the Afghan Children, an education-focused humanitarian group that has been working in Afghanistan since 1993. “Local people lose their interest in participating in our education programs, lose their hope.”

Yet while events in Paktia make it harder for women leaders to defend the presence of international soldiers on their soil, many argue that an immediate troop withdrawal would lead to even more deadly consequences for women.

“I don’t want to describe myself as a war activist, but you have to accept the difference between bad and worse,” said Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan civil society advocate now studying in the United Kingdom.

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Frogh says she disagrees with those like Afghan politician Malalai Joya, who have publicly called for the immediate withdrawal of all international troops from Afghanistan, in part on feminist grounds. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Joya said the women’s rights situation in Afghanistan is now “as catastrophic as it was under the domination of Taliban.”

Frogh responded, “Withdrawal is not a solution for us because we are very much surrounded by an insurgency that will take us back to the situation we were in with the Taliban.” While they ruled the country, the Taliban closed the country’s girls schools and barred women from offices and work; only female doctors could treat women, who were forced to fend for themselves when seeking even the most basic medical care. Now, basic women’s rights are guaranteed under Afghan law.

What is needed, Frogh said, is a stronger and more equal relationship between Afghan forces and the international troops fighting in their country. Activists say cooperation has improved since the June 2009 arrival of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commands U.S. and NATO forces and has won praise for his willingness to listen to the concerns of Afghans. But the Paktia situation reminds optimists of the work that remains to be done.

“That partnership is very much a hierarchy,” said Frogh. “The international forces don’t listen to those who are from the Afghan National Police or Army, and this adds to the misery, it adds to the whole frustration and anger of people who think the civilians are being targeted by the military and NATO.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics as a producer at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting small and medium-sized businesses in post-conflict economies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. She is working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication by HarperCollins about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business supported her family and community during the Taliban years.