Osama bin Laden, Al-Zarqawi, Mullah Omar: we know these names because they were on a kill list, a targeted roster the United States uses to pursue and kill people who are a threat to our national security.
But have you heard of Najia Sediqi, Hanifa Safi, or Malalai Kakar? They were on a list we don't talk about, the one that violent extremists use to target people who are a threat to their security.
Sediqi, Safi and Kakar have three things in common: they were women, they were Afghan public officials and they refused to participate in a political project that does not recognize the human rights of everyone. Instead, they held prominent public positions in the new Afghan government as ministers and police.
Their deaths were not random. Since 2006, at least 10 female public officials have been assassinated by armed extremist groups in Afghanistan. If you think that is a small number compared to the number of deaths since 9/11, think about this: In 2012 the Washington Post reported that the kill list put together by the United States targeted fewer than 10 people associated with al-Qaida in Pakistan. The "Yemen kill list" is purported to have only 10 to 15 names. The fact that there are only 10 female public officials who have been targeted by extremists does not diminish the significance of their deaths.
No Tracking, No Prosecutions
How many women are targeted and killed like this? It's hard to know. According to local Afghan organizations such as Afghanistan Rights Monitor, the Afghan government does not keep track of these deaths, nor has it pursued prosecution of any of these murders.
The truth is that women who occupy public positions are much more vulnerable than their male counterparts. Male public officials often receive discretionary security arrangements, provided by NATO/ISAF or other security actors, such as armored vehicles and intelligence alerts. The Afghanistan National Directorate of Security has stopped several assassination attempts on male officials, according to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor.
But female officials either do not receive or cannot access the same types of security arrangements, making them easy targets.
For example, Sediqi, the acting head of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, was shot dead as she was getting into a rickshaw one morning on her way to work. She was killed less than six months after her predecessor was assassinated, yet this senior minister did not have an armored car to take her from home to work.
Obvious fixes include, at the very least, tracking the targeted killing of all public officials and providing equal access to security measures to both men and women.
Talking to the women of Afghanistan is another solution. Since 2001, Afghan women have increasingly demanded significant improvements in their access to public services and treatment. However, women's human rights have long been considered a "soft" issue unrelated to "hard" security concerns by Washington.
A Hard Security Issue
Yet, it is clear with the increasing frequency and consistency of attacks on women who occupy public spaces that women's rights are a hard physical security issue.
Organizations such as the Afghan Women's Network back this up. In 2012, they interviewed 300 female leaders across eight provinces in Afghanistan to document the impending departure of international forces' impact on women's security to move freely and access public spaces, for employment or education for example. Two of the key recommendations to NATO made by the Afghan Women's Network are to provide the Afghan National Security Forces with long-term support, training and military equipment and comprehensive training on women's rights in consultation with women's civil society organizations.
We haven't been paying attention to these women and this is a strategic mistake. We have to face the facts: obliterating the right to free speech and freedom from fear by killing off the frontline of human rights is a primary military objective of violent extremist groups. Women who work as journalists, human rights defenders, police, teachers and doctors are targeted exactly because they are on the frontline of this fight.
In the world of pen vs. gun, we would all benefit from putting the Arab proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" to good use. If women's rights are a security threat to violent extremists, then women's rights must be the asset we protect.