By July, President Obama plans to decide how many troops to pull out of Afghanistan in the first initial US withdrawal. While a host of factors are in play, a big one comes from Afghan women.
Many of them fear that a possible US rush to the exits or a peace deal made in desperation could result in the return of Taliban rule and their medieval treatment of women and girls.
Even today, Afghanistan is ranked as the “most dangerous country” for women, according to a recent poll of 213 gender experts by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Congo, Pakistan, India, and Somalia were close behind.)
The fears of Afghan women about US intentions have not been calmed despite a recent statement from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to a group of Afghan women that “we will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.”
They still worry that the United States will stick to its main goal of simply preventing Afghanistan from being used as a launch point for another 9/11-style attack. And after the killing of Osama bin Laden, that goal seems much closer.
So how could ensuring the rights of Afghan women fit that sole American interest?
Like many leaders, Mr. Obama must balance competing values and interests. He has said, however, that what frequently appears as a trade-off in politics is only a “false choice.” Is there now a false choice between the rights of Afghan women and how the US leaves their country?
To many in Congress, the US should leave Afghanistan sooner than Obama's target date of the end of 2014. Indeed, this week a group of Democratic women in the Senate, including Barbara Boxer of California, signed a letter that states: “We will never be able to secure and police every town and village in Afghanistan. Nor will we be able to build Afghanistan from the ground up into a Western-style democracy.”
Obama's strategy, however, relies on building up Afghan forces enough to control the country while hitting the Taliban so hard that many of their moderate mid-level leaders negotiate for peace.
Mrs. Clinton recently specified the required outcomes of such talks: Any Taliban member must renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and abide by the Afghanistan Constitution.
And she added, “They must respect women's rights.”
A negotiated settlement does seem like the only way for the US to leave Afghanistan after nearly a decade of fighting. But it is President Hamid Karzai who is in charge of any secret talks with the Taliban. And many Afghan women worry that he will concede too much on rights or leave the issue to the future. He may welcome Taliban into his government who avow peace but who still abhor the thought of girls going to school, or women walking the streets without male relatives by their side or a cover over their faces.
Obama's decision on this initial troop withdrawal – which could range from 1,500 to 15,000 – will send many signals to Mr. Karzai, the Taliban, and Afghan women. One may be that he feels domestic political pressure to leave Afghanistan sooner than planned. Or he may be willing to accept a weak compromise with the Taliban.
The White House, however, says it will only let conditions on the ground in Afghanistan dictate the level and pace of withdrawal. If that's the case, then Obama seems determined to weaken the Taliban so much that any compromise on women's rights in peace talks won't be possible.
He will have been right about not making a “false choice.” He can help both help support women's right and keep the US safe from another attack